A happy ending for Eurovision?

by Rhodri C. Williams

I promise that this will be my last ever word on the Eurovision song contest. There are any number of good reasons for me to move on, not least the fact that Eurovision seems to move me to rant, which is honestly not my strongest genre. However, the best possible reason was handed to me on a plate by fresh-faced Emmelie de Forrest, who took all the honors and moved them conveniently from one peaceful Nordic democracy to another one a forty minute commute away.

And there were moments, as Azerbaijan nudged within a few ‘dix points’ of Emmelie’s comely heels, where I saw an alternative, dystopic future – a future in which I would once again be compelled to wander the darkened streets of the blogosphere, bitterly denouncing the capricious demolitions of homes in Baku, casting aspersions upon the political naifs of the European Broadcasting Union, and railing against the hypocrisy of ostensible guardians of democracy such as the Council of Europe, long since tamed by a steady diet of inflated per diems and caviar. Thank you, Emmelie, for sparing us all that.

But before I bow out of the debate about Eurovision and human rights fully, a few observations. First, despite the welcome contrast between Azerbaijan’s structural aversion to human rights (universality notwithstanding, how is one honestly to go about applying them in a dynastic autocracy fueled by oil patronage?) and Sweden’s imperfect but earnest efforts, the human rights did emerge once again as a background issue in this year’s contest.

Perhaps most obviously, although the Nordic teacher’s pets tried to avoid politics per se, they still got human rights squarely into everyone’s personal space with two big fat prime-time gay marriages, first in Finnish finalist Krista Siegfried’s performance, and second in a bravura half-time act that invoked numerous other contemporary Swedish stereotypes, from enlightened young Swedish men flouncing about with baby carriages to a brief passage of Kodo drumming with the recycling bins. It was all quite lighthearted and breezy, but apparently had TV officials in some of the more homophobically challenged corners of our common European home scrambling to lay up commercials.

Meanwhile, to the credit of Swedish journalists and organizations such as Civil Rights Defenders, the politics of apoliticality were subject to repeated explorations. The issue first came up when a local politician in Malmö called for a boycott of the Israeli contestant, and continued when acts from Belarus and Hungary – as well as Azerbaijan’s own contribution – cleared the bar to the finals. All of which resulted in Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt facing a barrage of unusually pointy questions when he swanned in to attend the festivities.

To his credit, Mr. Bildt was well-prepared and made a vigorous case for engagement. In his morning interview (here, in Swedish, starting at 1h38), he repeatedly made the point that regimes do not participate in Eurovision, but rather people, and that boycotting people because of their ugly regimes was less effective than bringing people together in order to encourage change to regimes. He also noted the extent to which Eurovision participation represents a symbolic homecoming to the European family for territories with difficult pasts including Kosovo, where he was apparently recently told that Eurovision eligibility would mean more than UN membership.

Bildt equivocated on Azerbaijan, conceding that the effect of hosting last year’s contest had been “a bit backwards and forward” but asserting that the “long term development was forward”, particularly in light of the country’s great challenges “as a secular Shia Muslim country squeezed between Iran and Russia.” Later, dressed in a rather extraordinary blazer, Mr. Bildt was a bit more explicit (see here, in Swedish again, starting at 0h37). To cite him in full:

Azerbaijan is not particularly democratic, to say the least. But Eurovision meant a lot, because it is a Muslim country that is under a lot of pressure from fundamentalist forces – and here you had people performing in all kinds of outfits and lots of happiness. It meant a lot in terms of strengthening the country’s secular flank.

Fair enough? Well, in abstract yes, but in the concrete context of a region stretching from Morocco to Iran that remains convulsed by the Arab Spring, this type of statement takes on unfortunate undertones. It is a version of an argument put forward by regimes ranging from the secular elite that resisted the democratic rise of the current moderate Islamist government in Turkey, to Mubarak and Gaddafi before their populations took less polite issue, to Bashir Al-Assad now. We may not be democratic, they say, but we are more liberal than those guys. Après moile déluge.

This view also attributes a unity of purpose to  right-thinking secular liberals and  the regime itself which cannot possibly exist in a context in which the latter is intent on slinging all the former into jail. Meanwhile, if Azerbaijan is anything like Mubarak’s Egypt was, said liberals are sharing their cells with Islamists of all stripes, in a net loss for any hope of legitimate and representative democratic reform. Indeed, in the worst case, as documented by Human Rights Watch in pre-2011 Libya, the rhetoric of fighting fundamentalist ‘terrorists’ becomes an alibi for garden variety repression. After all, ‘political prisoner’ is such an ugly word.

Meanwhile, a brief tour of the internet raises the inference that the above argument may also be something of a consolation prize, in the wake of disappointed hopes that the exposure afforded by the leadup to last year’s Eurovision contest in itself would have forced more liberalization on the intransigent regime in Baku. Here is Bildt quoted in a more hopeful 2011 interview with an Azerbaijani online magazine:

One important message from the Azeri side was their continued commitment to internal reform and integration with the EU. We also talked about the need for Azerbaijan to step up its efforts in the fields of human rights, democracy and good governance.

I reminded the Azeri Government of the importance of the upcoming ” Eurovision” Song Contest in this respect. In the coming year the European audience, and especially the younger generation, will pay much more attention to Azerbaijan, and the clear expectation will be that Azerbaijan lives up to the high European standards in respecting the fundamental rights of its citizens.

Its a fine sentiment, but even a quick perusal of Human Rights Watch’s Azerbaijan page reveals how thoroughly whatever expectations Europe’s younger generation might have had have been dashed. And as I argued last week, its hard to imagine how one really could have expected anything different from the Baku regime, which has little more to gain from true liberalization than the Damascus one at the end of the day.

Sadly, the only legitimately disappointed expectations out there would be any placed on institutions such as the Council of Europe and the OSCE that were created precisely to ensure that respect for human rights in Europe should never have to depend on song contests.

6 responses to “A happy ending for Eurovision?

  1. A little reminder on a particularly piquant recent episode in the annals of European engagement with Azerbaijan (and Hungary, for that matter):


    Azerbaijan tests EU credibility
    04.09.12 @ 08:01

    BRUSSELS – Eight days after the EU pledged €19.5 million to reform Azerbaijan’s justice and migration systems, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has signed a decree pardoning Ramil Safarov, sentenced in 2006 by the court of an EU member state for the murder of an Armenian officer on EU soil.

    The brutal murder, committed by lieutenant Safarov of the Azerbaijani army, took place in 2004, in Budapest. While attending the Nato Partnership for Peace programme in Budapest’s military academy, Safarov entered the bedroom of 25 year-old Armenian officer Gurgen Margaryan, also attending the programme, and slaughtered him with an axe.

    The Hungarian court hearing the case convicted Safarov “to life imprisonment on charges of premeditated murder with extreme cruelty.” However, on 31 August 2012, Hungary handed Safarov over to Azerbaijan, where he was given a hero’s welcome and an immediate pardon by the Azerbaijani leader.

    A number of serious questions about this case remain unanswered. Given the ongoing conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, why would Hungary extradite a convicted murderer to Azerbaijan when there was little doubt that he would be pardoned?

    If a person can commit a serious crime in an EU member state and then be pardoned and treated as a national hero in a third country, does this not set a worrying precedent?

    Although the extradition took place on a bilateral basis between Hungary and Azerbaijan, it has wider implications for the liberal democratic justice model that the EU upholds at home and promotes in its neighbourhood and beyond.


  2. One also wonders if there may be a bit of tension between the World Bank’s ongoing property registration efforts on one hand:


    …and the government’s ongoing and “sweeping program of illegal evictions” on the other:


  3. Refreshingly, an illustrative example of Baku apologism from the far side of the Atlantic. George Friedman, the founder of Stratfor, tries to wake up the dozy Baku desk officer at State with a hot blast of geopolitical realism in the organization’s latest weekly:


    Mr. Friedman sees a small beleaguered secular country with huge energy reserves squeezed between – and doggedly resistant to – two of America’s foremost geopolitical rivals, Russia and Iran. He also sees a direct means of undercutting Russia’s strategy of forcing Europe into dependence on its fuel. And, finally, he spies an outmoded but effective Armenia lobby and a chorus of squeamish idealists on Uncle Sam’s other shoulder, blinding him to his own best interests.

    And in defence of the Aliyev dynasty (not, interestingly, mentioned by name once in the piece) against its detractors? Item 1 is hospitality, joie de vivre with a serious purpose, and presumably some jolly company from the PACE seated at either elbow:

    “Since I continue to regard Azerbaijan as critical both in the struggle emerging in the Caucasus and to the United States, I continue to visit and continue to enjoy dinners that never end and rounds of toasts that test my liver. But I never forget one thing: Hitler risked everything to get to Baku and its oil. He failed to reach it, and the history of our time turns on that fact.”

    Item 2 is “judge not ye who do not come from a tough neighbourhood”, which might be fair enough if Baku had not signed up to the Council of Europe’s ten-step plan for democratic respectability and then systematically subverted it:

    “I am not in a position to have seen repression or corruption. This is a country that was a former Soviet republic and that went through a chaotic privatization program that resulted in inequities like those in other former Soviet countries. It is also a country where family and clan are critical, so there is what Westerners would call cronyism. … At any rate, a country doesn’t go from being a Soviet republic to having an economy without corruption in a little more than 20 years. Nor does it become a full-fledged liberal democracy in that time frame, particularly when it is surrounded by hostile powers on three sides …”

    And Item 3 mirrors Carl Bildt’s point above. If you think the Aliyevs are bad, look at the other guys:

    “Whatever criticism might be made of the regime, it is difficult to imagine that the alternative would be either more liberal or transparent. An Iranian-sponsored alternative would look like Iran. A Russian-sponsored alternative would look like Russia. The idea that the United States should not pursue its strategic interests in a situation where the current regime is morally superior to a Russian- or Iranian-backed alternative is perverse. It is part of the immaturity of a global power trying to find its bearings.”

    Hospitable, wounded by America’s fickle attentions, doing what they have to do in a tough neighbourhood and no plan B. Strategic position and desirable natural resources, to boot. While I acknowledge the dilemma, its far too early yet to rule out a happy outcome in at least some of the Arab Spring countries, and based on our experience there, there may yet be something to be said for getting on the right side of Azerbaijan’s population so that you retain some moral standing in the event that they eventually get a say. That is part of the narrative on how we won the Cold War, at least in Eastern Europe. And I believe it is also is a fundamentally realist perspective.

  4. Oh boy, I feel another post on Azerbaijan coming on here. Apropos of the above ‘realist’ defence of the Baku regime, here is a fitting indirect response from Giorgi Gogia at HRW, who comments on Mr. Aliyev’s trip to Brussels to seek greater energy links with the EU, noting the ongoing decline of human rights observance back in Azerbaijan:

    “Policymakers in Brussels are quick to point to Azerbaijan’s growing geostrategic importance to the EU in light of its proximity to Iran, its vast hydrocarbon reserves, and the border it shares with Russia’s turbulent north Caucasus. However, this importance is predicated on Azerbaijan playing a stabilising role in the region. The government’s human-rights practices, however, not only run counter to the benchmarks set out for it by the EU as part of the European neighbourhood policy and association-agreement negotiations, but they also appear likely to destabilise the country as they further polarise society and drive dissent underground.”


  5. On Sweden being lighthearted and breezy, I forgot to link to this fairly endearing little piece of evidence of the existence of Nordic irony:

  6. Pingback: One Europe? | TerraNullius

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