Euroviction: Azerbaijan demolishes homes for a song (contest)

by Rhodri C. Williams

Hat-tip to TN guest-author Anneke Smit for pointing out Azerbaijan’s most recent contributions to the busy field of forced evictions. (And apologies to ToL for partially appropriating their pun. I only realized later – proof, one hopes, that great minds do think alike…)

In many respects, recent rounds of ‘urban renewal’ in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku have followed an all too familiar forced evictions playbook. For instance, according to a February report by Human Rights Watch, the authorities in the oil-flush country have violated their own laws and constitution as well as their international obligations through a well-known litany of omissions including failure to provide notice of evictions, no meaningful consultation or recourse, no protection of residents’ health or safety and inadequate compensation and resettlement assistance.

Moreover, in a manner befitting one of the remaining outposts of the former Soviet Union that has made few concessions to even managed democracy (and may not need to as long as the petrodollars keep flowing), the Azerbaijani authorities also appear to have carried off the evictions with a certain panache. For instance, Zulfali Ismayilov, the senior municipal official in charge, described displaced residents as “greedy” in a press conference covered by ToL, and then went on to make one of those off-the-cuff statements that speak more loudly than volumes of best-practice guidelines and workshop conclusions:

Ismayilov would not answer any additional questions from a reporter. But when a member of one of the last families in the building said she would immolate herself if police came to forcibly remove her, Ismayilov offered to help her do so.

Such an offer can only with some difficulty be reconciled with the embrace of human rights values professed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan. In fact, the gap between the MFA’s windy declaration of Azerbaijan’s official aspirations and Mr. Ismayilov’s terse expression of its actual governance approach is precisely what makes these evictions shocking. In a country with current membership in the Council of Europe and long-term aspirations to European integration, forced evictions are clearly counterproductive as well as wrong.

However, the irony of Baku’s most recent demolitions is that they have been undertaken for the express purpose of beautifying the site of next May’s Eurovision song contest, an annual event dedicated to promoting “the cultural union of Europe”. In explaining the historical paths along which Azerbaijan has converged with Europe and its annual glam pop extravaganza, the official Eurovision website highlights both Azerbaijan’s own painful experience of conflict-based internal displacement and its aspirations to democratic rule of law:

In spite of the sad results of Armenia’s aggression against Azerbaijan (Armenia occupied the territory of Nagorny Karabakh and 7 neighboring districts. One million out of total population of eight million are refugees), our country mobilized its potential and had great successes in building democracy. Azerbaijan manages to successfully overcome the difficulties and continues making important and firm steps towards the establishment of a democratic and lawful country with civil society.

While it is true that Azerbaijan has struggled to cope with the effects of conflict and internal displacement, the current imbroglio over the Eurovision contest demonstrates a failure to learn from these experiences. As reported recently by the Brookings Institution, for instance, the fact that the Azerbaijani authorities initially allocated private homes to internally displaced persons on an ad hoc basis and then failed to build alternative housing that would allow the quick return of the occupied properties to their owners led to findings of violations by the European Court of Human Rights. In a country virtually sloshing with oil revenues, such an eventuality was not only unfortunate but also unnecessary.

Similarly, the current botched and abusive nature of the evictions of residents of the nascent Eurovision zone appears to result almost entirely from poor planning and disdain for legal niceties. On one hand, Human Rights Watch notes (Section II) that respect for the procedural requirements for resettlement under Azerbaijani law was nearly impossible in light of the narrow window between the country’s victory in last May’s contest and its hosting of the 2012 contest in two months. However, this would seem to be a rationale for at least minimizing the scope of resettlement necessary, e.g. by refraining from demolishing a nine-story building housing 72 families simply because it “blocks the view from the Crystal Hall.” Moreover, while Azerbaijan may not have had time, it certainly has money, suggesting that any deficit behind the failure to pay adequate compensation to victims (HRW, Section V) may have been of a democratic rather than a fiscal nature.

It is undoubtedly difficult to keep politics out of Europe’s premier kitsch culture event. In the case of Azerbaijan, this is most clearly indicated by the tersely worded notifications on both Azerbaijan and Armenia’s official Eurovision sites that the latter has sent its regrets and will not be attending. While the failure of the authorities in these neighboring countries to resolve their territorial conflict is unfortunate, it reflects poorly on them and not the Eurovision contest itself. However, the new evictions in Baku raise the question of whether the Eurovision contest risks damaging its own standing. When pressed by HRW (Section VII), the European Broadcasting Union disowned the evictions on the grounds that the ‘improvements’ behind them were planned long before Azerbaijan won the right to host Eurovision:

[Joergen Franck, director of television for the EBU] reiterated the EBU’s position that there is no connection between the expropriations and the Eurovision Song Contest, and said the people in the area would have been evicted even if the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest were to be held elsewhere. “The EBU does not believe its brand has been tainted by government actions or by articles in the press,” he told Human Rights Watch. Franck said that although the EBU is seeking explanations from the Azerbaijani government about development plans in the area, the EBU would not be seeking assurances from the government about addressing eviction-related abuses. Doing so, he said, would interfere with the non-political character of the Eurovision Song Contest. Franck also said that organizations could take advantage of the “bright spotlight” the Eurovision contest was throwing on Azerbaijan in order to highlight human rights violations, and that this was “a good thing.”

While HRW dispensed with these arguments by noting that the current rationale and the timing of the evictions is clearly linked to Baku’s impending boy band invasion, there may be a deeper question involved. Eurovision celebrates European culture in the spirit of unity through respect for diversity. As a result, the winning formula typically involves spicing up a generically catchy piece of synth-pop with some pan pipes or dancers in rustic smocks or terrifying Nordic monster outfits in order to reinforce the idea that Europe is not a bureaucratic steamroller of the things that distinguish member states in inoffensive and enjoyable ways. However, if there is any type of culture that truly distinguishes ‘Europe’ as a post-World War II project and a sum that is greater than its parts, it may well be the culture of respect for democracy and human rights. Be prepared for a clash of cultures in Baku.


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9 responses to “Euroviction: Azerbaijan demolishes homes for a song (contest)

  1. Great piece, Rhodri. The Eurovision will face more situations like this in the future, as more and more winners come from Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. Not only are the evictions happening at an alarming rate, most of the NGOs working on these issues have been muzzled and activists been de facto deported. Maybe we should send one of those terrifying Nordic monster outfits you mentioned to the President of Azerbaijan (as a gift, of course!)

  2. Or a donkey outfit?

    http://blog.amnestyusa.org/iar/azerbaijan-both-donkey-bloggers-are-free/

    Thanks to Shane for tipping me off to a segment on Eurovision in Baku on a Swedish cultural documentary show, Kobra. Non suecophones will have a bit of difficulty following, but a tour of the well-advanced demolitions and hardly completed new construction starts at around 16:40 on the clip:

    Kobra’s is guided by a reporter from Obyektiv TV, an independent net-media outlet with an impressive selection of stories in English:

    http://www.obyektiv.tv/index.php?lang=en

    Obyektiv TV has been one of the organizers of an attempt to create an alternative Eurovision song contest which would, ironically enough, be meant to sing for democracy and human rights (can anyone remind me what the establishment Eurovision guys are singing for?):

    http://www.singfordemocracy.org/

    If I were at the EBU right now, I would be giving a bit of thought to how to get myself on the right side of history. Hosting Eurovision is a huge PR gift, apparently delivered for the time being without strings.

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