Few signs of Spring in Baku (and less in Strasbourg) in the leadup to a tainted Eurovision final

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:

When Azerbaijan was admitted to the Council of Europe, despite well documented democratic failings, it was with the idea that Council of Europe membership would gradually transform Azerbaijan. Sadly, the reverse has occurred. The outcome is a tragedy for the citizens of Azerbaijan, particularly those brave pro-democracy activists who languish in jail as political prisoners. But it is also a tragedy for Europe, whose values have been trampled. …. And it is certainly a tragedy for the Council of Europe itself, which urgently needs to recover the values its founders entrusted it with if it is to justify its continued existence.

This latest report by ESI builds on a highly informative webpage that proceeds from a bleak pair of questions, namely ‘is Azerbaijan still a democracy?’ and ‘does anyone care?’. In addition to an overview of the country’s recent history and politics, the site includes bios of the extraordinarily courageous dissidents there, compilations of the numerous Council of Europe and other reports on Baku’s human rights record, and media reports on both the troubled run-up to this year’s Eurovision contest and Azerbaijan’s assiduous lobbying counteroffensive.

Meanwhile, the big human rights organizations have also tried to use Eurovision as a means of drawing attention to the well-documented and continuing abuses by the Aliyev regime. Human Rights Watch’s Azerbaijan page includes a link to a short film interviewing regime critics on their recent persecution, as well as a press release documenting the violent dispersal of peaceful protesters on Monday this week, many of whom were beaten, forced onto buses and dumped at the edge of Baku.

Amnesty also features a new PR and a short clip highlighting the contrast between recent abuses and the public image Azerbaijan is seeking to present. In closing, the Amnesty release poses the question that should probably be of most concern to all of us in light of the regime’s willingness to engage in blatant use of force to quash peaceful protests on the very eve of the contest:

[Amnesty] is also concerned that local activists who have sought to use Eurovision to highlight rights abuses will be targeted after the event.

State-owned newspapers have already started a smear campaign against leaders of the Sing for Democracy campaign, labelling them as agents of neighbouring Armenia, with whom Azerbaijan has had a territorial dispute for the last 20 years.

“We hope the international journalists we have spoken to in recent weeks will not forget us after Eurovision,” said Rasul Jafarov, one of the Sing for Democracy campaign organizers. “That could be very dangerous for us.”

Which leads us to the local organizations with the most at stake. Those skeptical of the dangers to local activists need only spend some time reviewing the English language documentation on independent ‘Objective TV‘ or the above-mentioned Sing for Democracy’s website. The latter provide (in their ‘news’ section) a translation of the official smear campaign against Eurovision critics that at one stroke reveals both its utterly contradictory and its creepily threatening nature:

There is a certain number of persons in our country that is unhappy with the achievements of our state: they even hold a hostile position by trying to cast a shadow on this success, and mobilize all their forces to smear it. This group is uncomfortable with the economic development of our state, the fact that our state has become an important player on the world scene, and the fact that Azerbaijan has become a center of dialogue for the world’s tolerant and cultural civilizations …

Azerbaijan’s victory in the 2011 Eurovision song contest and organization of next year’s contest in Baku has made this traitorous portion of the population more active. Eurovision, which should make everyone happy, has for some reason became a target of people who don’t share national values and who have chosen blackmailing and slandering as their profession. Some made-up NGOs with no traces of national pride and who claim to be ‘an organization’, want to realize a new ‘project’…..

There is no word other than ‘valuelessness’ to describe the passionate implementation of this work in Azerbaijan by the slave-traitorous helpers of those pro-Armenian and anti-Azerbaijani circles…

Does that sound like Europe calling to you? I suppose the answer might depend on whether one was referring to the Europe that devoured itself before the the Council of Europe (and later the EU) was born or the Europe which rose from the ashes afterwards. Sadly, the credibility of this legacy of renewal is now at risk in Baku.

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6 responses to “Few signs of Spring in Baku (and less in Strasbourg) in the leadup to a tainted Eurovision final

  1. A few updates as the big day approaches.

    First, in an editorial in the Swedish broadsheet Dagens Nyheter, the foreign policy spokesperson of one of the coalition of parties now governing Sweden called for EU sanctions against Azerbaijan of a similar nature to those applied against other post-Soviet failed democracies like Belarus. He also notes the concern discussed above that the day after Eurovision will bring a crackdown on the dissidents who used the occasion to speak out – and that this effort will be aided by the regime’s current fruitful collaboration with Swedish telecoms company Telia-Sonera’s affiliate in Azerbaijan (in Swedish; moderately comprehensible in English with Google translate):

    http://www.dn.se/debatt/dags-for-riktade-sanktioner-mot-regimen-i-azerbajdzjan

    Meanwhile, Vladimer Papava queries in Open Democracy as to whether the West’s commitment to promoting democracy in Georgia is any less suspect than it appears to be in Azerbaijan:

    http://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/vladimer-papava/democracy-goal-or-merely-commitment-for-west

    On a lighter note, the Telegraph reports on how Iran has withdrawn its ambassador to Baku based on improbable allegations that the Aliyev regime intends to use Eurovision as an opportunity to stage a ‘gay parade’:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/9283554/Iran-recalls-Azerbaijan-ambassador-over-Eurovision-gay-parade.html

    And finally, Opinio Juris provides another reminder of how flimsy the contest’s non-political aspirations can be by re-linking to Chris Borgen’s 2009 post on the Moscow finals and the controversy over an ostensibly provocative and indisputably inane lyric in the Georgian submission:

    http://opiniojuris.org/2009/03/12/the-eurovision-contest-just-keeps-getting-better/

  2. The Swedish public television’s evening news was refreshingly well-informed about the human rights situation in Azerbaijan in their coverage last night – and they stumbled onto a demo where grim-faced plain-clothed heavies didn’t let the rolling cameras crimp their style as they hustled protesters into waiting minivans for having demanded democracy and freedom of expression. See minute 43 and onward:

    http://svtplay.se/t/102534/aktuellt

    The Swedish reporter also took the time to visit a squalid home for IDPs from Nagorno-Karabach (she swoons visibly while pronouncing “27 families to a single toilet”) just minutes away from the ‘crystal palace’ built by the President’s own shell company. She also notes disappointment in Baku over the passive approach of the EBU and the risk to activists (who have been ostentatiously filmed by the police) once the contest is over.

    Finally, former Swedish ambassador to Azerbaijan, Hans Gunnar Aden, gives a candid take on caviar diplomacy, stating that the country is sliding toward dictatorship while demonstrating a marked ability to “deceive – or bribe” Western observers.

    By contrast, BBC’s Steve Rosenberg indulges in 19 paragraphs of gushing about purple taxis and groovy grannies before getting down to the human rights issues but then does a fairly good job laying them out:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18204154

    Interestingly, BBC picks up another Swedish angle on the story: “The Swedish singer Loreen, one of the favourites to win this year’s Eurovision, has already had a meeting with local human rights activists, much to the annoyance of the Azeri authorities.”

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