by Rhodri C. Williams
“Europe stop voting now!” shouted the well-scrubbed hosts of the Baku 2012 Eurovision finals last night after a dizzying round of 26 acts featuring babushkas, boats, bread ovens and backflips. And with that, the first truly free and fair exercise of democracy on Azerbaijani soil was completed. Too bad it was not a real election, but the results for Azerbaijan’s politics remain somewhat unpredictable.
The worst case scenario will be a return to repression as usual, but with the additional alibi of having ascended to the ranks of Eurovision-hosting countries. The rest of Europe, in other words, is free to resume voting periodically in meaningful elections, while Baku will continue to exercise its own discretion in the matter. On the other hand, the fact that the honors fell in this case to Sweden’s Loreen may help to ensure that the contest does not simply move on, allowing a free hand to the Azerbaijani authorities to crack down in its wake.
The Swedes are one of the few countries in ‘old Europe’ to still take the contest seriously; this is their fifth win, placing them second behind Ireland in overall trophies. When we opened the window at midnight yesterday, the air veritably shook with lusty Viking voices “going up-up-up-up-up”. The Swedes also have a sense of fair play and a streak of impatience with countries that fail to live up to Nordic standards of democracy and rule of law, particularly where they are forced to cohabit the same European institutional spaces with them. Local reactions to the skeletons in Baku’s human rights closet were late in coming but strong. Last Thursday, for instance, the foreign policy spokesman of one of Sweden’s ruling coalition parties called for EU sanctions against Azerbaijan of a similar nature to those applied against other post-Soviet failed democracies like Belarus.
However, the latter piece raised at least two Swedish negative points on this issue. First the author explicitly noted that cooperation between an affiliate of Swedish telecoms giant Telia-Sonera and the regime in Baku is likely to make it easier for the latter to track down dissidents. Second, and implicitly, the relatively low level authorship of the piece emphasized the near-silence on this topic from the actual Foreign Minister, the ordinarily loquacious Carl Bildt, who could only be troubled to give recent mention to Eurovision 2012 as something of a distraction from regional security issues in his prolific blog (though he had expressed hopes the contest would improve the country’s human rights record a year ago – while at the same time praising Telia-Sonera’s investments there).
Nevertheless, on Friday night, the Swedish public television’s evening news was refreshingly well-informed about the human rights situation in Azerbaijan – and even 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 (see minute 43 and onward of the broadcast). The Swedish reporter also took the time to visit a squalid home for IDPs from Nagorno-Karabakh (she swoons visibly while pronouncing “27 families to a single toilet”) just minutes away from the ‘crystal hall’ built for the contest, as she notes, by the President’s own shell company. She also reports on disappointment in Baku over the passive approach of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and risks to activists (who have been ostentatiously filmed by the police) once the contest is over.
The segment ends with the former Swedish ambassador to Azerbaijan, Hans Gunnar Aden, who gives a candid take on the caviar diplomacy recently described by the European Stability Initiative (ESI), stating that the country is sliding toward dictatorship while demonstrating a marked ability to “deceive – or bribe” Western observers such as those in the Council of Europe. In other words, awareness of Azerbaijan’s appalling human rights record and its successful campaign of obscuring these abuses in order to retain membership in prestigious European institutions has sunk in here in Sweden. Of perhaps the most practical use to Azerbaijan’s dangerously exposed democracy activists is the fact that the new Queen of Eurovision, Loreen, took the trouble to meet them personally and will no doubt remain interested in their fate. As reported by the BBC last week:
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.
The return of Eurovision to a country that consciously seeks to live up to European standards on human rights and democracy rather than to undermine them will make for a refreshing change. However, last night’s jamboree in Baku has both helped to legitimize an undemocratic European regime and to tarnish the reputations of both the Council of Europe and the European Broadcasting Union. Having won the battle for Eurovision last night, Sweden must now consider how it can contribute to winning the war for the assertion of core European values in countries that aspire to European membership.