by Rhodri C. Williams
Okay, that was the first completely bogus headline I have ever run in TN. But I bet it got your attention. You were probably skeptical, and rightly so, about connecting the phrases ‘dissident arrests’ and ‘mass evictions’ with adjectives like, well, ‘Swedish’. Unthinkable, right? However, if ‘Eurovision’ seemed similarly ill-placed in such unseemly company, that’s where things get interesting.
In fact, it was only last year that Europe’s annual fiesta of pop-culture self-congratulation was hosted by Azerbaijan, a dynastically ruled pseudo-democracy where strategic location, deep oil reserves and self-interested support for the ‘global war on terror’ have bought the regime a near complete pass on human rights observance. Sound like Gaddafi’s Libya in late 2010? Well, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong there.
A key difference, one might argue, was that Gaddafi’s Libya was not eligible to join prestigious European regional organizations like the Council of Europe, which are meant to ensure mutual respect for human rights standards among their members. However, the performance of the Aliyev regime in Baku appears to indicate that Mr. Gaddafi’s problem was largely geographical.
In fact, last year’s Eurovision contest went boldly forward where no autocracy had gone before, bulldozing a shrill chorus of human rights criticism with Wagnerian pyrotechnics even as entire neighborhoods were razed to improve the view from an arena built with purloined money, protesters were roughed up by police and dumped at the edge of town, and political prisoners continued to rot in jail, unenlightened by Azerbaijan’s spectacular entrance into Europe’s vacuous pop culture scene.
All the while, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) which administers Eurovision wrung its hands over the risk of ‘politicizing’ a contest it had unconditionally allowed to be held in a dictatorship, while the Council of Europe, which had earlier allowed Azerbaijan in on a conditional basis, preferred to simply sit on its hands instead. Perhaps the only silver lining was the fact that Sweden won, returning the contest this year to a country that is not only geographically European but also genuinely democratic and respectful of its citizens’ rights.
So, what has come of it all? Much to their credit, the Swedes have not forgotten whose shoes they are filling. The Swedish human rights watchdog Civil Rights Defenders has taken the trouble to review Azerbaijan’s human rights record in the year since their Eurovision triumph and the results are hardly reassuring (from their report, page 11):
Azerbaijan’s human rights record has been on a continual decline since the 2012 eurovision song contest. Systematic attacks, threats, and legal actions against human rights defenders continue unabated. Reaping the windfalls provided by increased oil and gas production, the President has deepened its [sic] authoritarian grip on power and has governed the country with escalated repression against political opponents, critics and independent journalists.
And what of the Council of Europe and its important role in providing peer review for states like Azerbaijan that underperform their human rights obligations? Here, the latest reports by the European Stability Initiative (ESI) give few grounds for optimism. Having noted the successes of the Aliyev regime in purchasing the loyalties of key members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) through a campaign of ‘caviar diplomacy’ prior to last year’s Eurovision contest, the ESI now adds a sad footnote.
To wit – as we all dutifully nod off to the endless rounds of voting in the Grand Final on May 18, spare a thought for PACE rapporteur Christoph Straesser, whose resolution on political prisoners in Azerbaijan was voted down on spurious grounds by his colleagues almost exactly four months previously. Consider the fact that a much blander alternative draft was proposed and adopted in a deeply split vote, removing any pressure from the regime to undertake serious reforms. And ponder the fate of activists like Emin Milli, slung into jail two weeks after the PACE vote for participating in a peaceful protest.
With any luck at all, Azerbaijan will somehow steer itself into a process of peaceful change and democratization. However, if it manages to do so, it will be despite the European institutions meant to foster such reforms, rather than to their credit. And, on the other hand, if Azerbaijan’s current miseries explode into violent protests and repression, Europe’s institutions may have only themselves to blame. Hardly a happy ending either way in terms of the application of Europe’s much-vaunted soft power (although one that is certainly mitigated by successes such as the recent negotiations on Kosovo).
In the last analysis, it is still perfectly appropriate to revel in the distilled goofiness that is Eurovision. But its a lot easier to do so when it takes place in a country where an ordinary comedian can publicly give the big fat bird to the draft script for the contest and not risk his career or his liberty as a result.