by Rhodri C. Williams
As much as I am a big believer in maintaining a healthy firewall between work and life, the human rights branch can sorely test one’s ability to compartmentalize. As a result, I face a dilemma next Saturday. On one hand, my kids are now old enough to genuinely share in my (not unlimited) fascination with the annual sanitized bacchanalia that is Eurovision. So my private-me would love to break out the popcorn, pile onto the couch with the family and squirm through this year’s crop of ethno-retro-monstro-disco with an untroubled conscience.
Inconveniently, however, my public-me has long since foreclosed this option. Unlike earlier contests, this year’s final in Azerbaijan is tainted not only by the unapologetic disdain for human rights and democracy displayed by its hosts, but also by the self-defeating failure of the European institutions responsible for safeguarding these values to attach even the frailest of strings to the massive PR coup of holding the contest. Free but unwilling to lob criticism from the safety of Brussels, Strasbourg (home to the Council of Europe or CoE, to which Azerbaijan has made binding human rights commitments) and Geneva (in the case of the European Broadcasting Union or EBU, which sponsors the event), these organizations have displayed nothing like the courage of ordinary Azerbaijani activists and journalists who face blackmail, police beatings and hard time for expressing dissent.
In an age in which European leaders are all too willing to disown previously indispensable autocracies in the Middle East, how to explain this blindness to their own backyard? Will presumptive president-for-life Ilham Alijev become for the Council of Europe and the EBU what Saif al-Islam Ghaddafi ended up being for the LSE? And what legitimate claim will the rhetoric of ‘European values’ have on the loyalties of ordinary Azerbaijanis when and if the substance of those values actually prevail? These questions have been raised in a very pointed and concrete manner during recent weeks by a number of international and local organizations.
Beginning with the international advocates, my former Bosnia colleagues at the European Stability Initiative (ESI) today released a blockbuster report on the systematic campaign of ‘caviar diplomacy’ designed to win and retain “the stamp of legitimacy conferred by Council of Europe membership”. The ESI alleges that by offering annual gifts of caviar and flash trips to Baku, the Aliyev regime secured the loyalty of key members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (composed of national parliamentarians from CoE member states), as well as the organization’s secretariat. In return, Baku received “ever more anodyne, even complimentary” reports on its blatantly rigged elections and deteriorating human rights record.
In the words of ESI, the Aliyev regime succeeded in only five years in neutering Europe’s oldest human rights organization: