A Dictator's Dream: Azerbaijan Seeks to Burnish Image Ahead of Eurovision

By Ralf Neukirch

Azerbaijan will play host to this year's Eurovision Song Contest. In the run-up to Europe's largest television event, the authoritarian regime has launched a campaign to improve its image. German PR experts, lobbyists and politicians across the spectrum are playing a role in those efforts.

Photo Gallery: Baku's Image Problem Photos
REUTERS

So what is Bettina Wulff, the wife of German President Christian Wulff, doing at a party hosted by an authoritarian regime in the Caucasus? She tours an exhibition and delivers a welcome address. Pictures from the event show her smiling next to Mehridan Aliyeva, the wife of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.

In the fall, Aliyev hosted a celebration at Berlin's German Historical Museum to fete the 20th anniversary of Azerbaijan's independence. The former Soviet republic has a reputation for not being a stickler for human rights. "I wouldn't have gone (to the event)," says Markus Löning, the German government's human rights commissioner.

The Office of the President has responded to such criticism by saying that Mrs. Wulff agreed to attend the party because it was a cultural event. After all, there were carpets on display. But the event was about something more than just carpets. The regime in Baku, Azerbaijan's capital, is intent on improving its image in the West -- and it is spending a lot of money to do so. Likewise, there are German politicians willing to help it orchestrate these efforts.

People around the globe will turn their eyes to the country on May 26 when Azerbaijan hosts the Eurovision Song Contest, the world's largest non-sporting television event, which brings singers from around Europe and farther afield together to compete for the title. Azerbaijan could definitely use an image makeover before they arrive.

Amnesty International accuses the regime of muting its critics. In its ranking of press freedom in 178 countries, the Paris-based organization Reporters Without Borders puts the country in 152nd place. In an internal report, Germany's Foreign Ministry says the human rights situation in the country remains problematic.

The image campaign is being orchestrated by PR professionals in Germany and other European countries and financed by the government in Baku as well as influential oligarchs. For its success, the campaign is banking on money and the tactlessness of German politicians. "Azerbaijan's behavior here borders on brazenness," argues Marina Schuster, a member of Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, with the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP). "This kind of lobbying work goes far beyond what is acceptable."

The German Lobbyists

Hans-Erich Bilges is sitting in his office with his legs crossed and his tie loosened. He can quickly transition between being kindhearted in a grandfatherly way and unpleasantly caustic. When he speaks about President Aliyev, Bilges is kind. But when the conversation turns to Aliyev's critics, he is harsh.

Bilges is a key figure in Azerbaijan's efforts to promote itself in Germany. Previously, he served as a high-ranking member of the editorial team at Germany's mass-circulation daily Bild. These days, however, he heads the Berlin-based Consultum Communications public relations agency. In this capacity, Bilges has also advised Belarus and Kazakhstan, which are ranked even lower than Azerbaijan when it comes to press freedom. That impressed the Azerbaijanis. Bilges says his job is to help Azerbaijan in the process of pursuing a more Western course. Part of this process is hosting events like the one in Berlin, which Bilges says he played a minor role in by helping make sure things "went as they should."

Still, it was probably more than that. Among the luminaries attending the Berlin gala were former Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher (1982-1992) and former Economics Minister Michael Glos (2005-2009). Although that caliber of guest was unusual for this kind of event, things start to make more sense when one peers behind the scenes. Genscher is the honorary chairman of the advisory board of Consultum Communications, and Glos holds a seat on its board. In this way, Bilges cooperates with politicians who go to celebrations hosted by his clients. While there is nothing illegal about this, it does leave an unpleasant aftertaste. Indeed, it leads one to wonder why well-respected politicians would be needlessly helping an authoritarian regime gain more respectability.

For his part, Bilges finds the situation in Azerbaijan better than the critics paint it. Michael-Andreas Butz, the person responsible for everyday business related to Azerbaijan at Consultum Communications, explains why. "Strictly speaking, there are also political prisoners in Germany," says Butz, who also served as the spokesman for the Berlin Senate, the official name for the capital city's government, for many years. "Of course, in a certain way, Horst Mahler is also a political prisoner," he adds, referring to the former far-left terrorist turned far-right activist who is serving a prison sentence after being convicted on charges of denying the Holocaust and incitement.

Paid Trips to Baku

Bilges' activities are only part of Azerbaijan's lobbying efforts. The country likes to invite foreigners to Baku for conferences that have a "pseudo-academic character," according to Viola von Cramon-Taubadel, a member of the Bundestag with the opposition Green Party. As a critic of the regime, Cramon has stopped receiving its invitations.

On the other hand, a group of German politicians traveled to Baku in September to attend an independence celebration. The group included Glos, Karl-Georg Wellmann, a parliamentarian with Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and Stefan Liebich, a parliamentarian with the left-wing Left Party. The trip included business-class plane seats, lodging in a luxury hotel, a gala dinner and a speech delivered by President Aliyev. Liebich and Glos have acknowledged that the trip was paid for by the Azerbaijani side. But at least Liebich touched bases with Löning, the human rights commissioner, before the trip, asking which discussions it would be useful to have outside the official program.

Wellmann, on the other hand, has declined to respond to questions about the trip -- or, better yet, trips. In 2010, he had already traveled to Baku to attend a conference entitled "Media in Democratic Society."

United States diplomatic cables obtained by the whistleblower platform Wikileaks attest to the mafia-like tendencies of Aliyev's regime. In October, British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore wrote in a contribution to the New York Times on the "lives of tyrants" that Aliyev had achieved the "dictator's dream" by creating a new hereditary monarchy. Allowing this man's followers to pay for airplane trips and expensive hotels is a matter of sensitivity and tact.

Friends in Monitoring Positions

Azerbaijan also has friends in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the Strasbourg-based international body tasked with promoting such things as human rights, democratic development and the rule of law. Among them was Eduard Lintner, a former member of the Bundestag with the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU's Bavarian sister party. Between 2002 and 2005, Lintner was chairman of the Parliamentary Assembly's Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights and a member of the so-called Committee on Honoring Obligations and Commitments by Member States. As such, he was responsible for the Council of Europe's reports on the human rights situation in Azerbaijan.

Leaders in Baku were pleased with how Lintner took care of his task. Shortly before leaving the Council, Lintner became the executive director of a Berlin-based Society for the Promotion of German-Azerbaijani Relations, which is essentially a lobbying group funded by Azerbaijan. Lintner says that one of his reasons for stepping down from the human rights committee was the fact that there was a group within the Council of Europe that wanted to rigorously denounce alleged human rights violations. Unlike them, he says he would have preferred to "usher (Azerbaijan) along in a supportive way." It was a stance that has apparently paid off.

Leaks in Parliament

Of course, not everyone is so malleable. This year, Christoph Strässer, a Bundestag member with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), is supposed to write a report for the Council of Europe on the situation faced by political prisoners in Azerbaijan. For months, the regime in Baku refused to grant him a visa. In early November, the Bundestag's Committee on Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid responded by drafting a resolution demanding that the government in Baku grant Strässer free access to its detention centers. Interestingly enough, Strässer claims that Azerbaijan's ambassador to Germany already had a draft copy of the resolution before it was even decided upon. Indeed, whether it was for money or out of love for Azerbaijan, it would appear that someone from inside parliament leaked the document to the Azerbaijanis.

In response, the Azerbaijani ambassador wrote letters to all of the heads of the parliamentary groups in hopes of blocking the resolution. But it didn't do any good.

One of the people who helped the ambassador compose the letter was none other than Bilges. Although he was angered by the resolution, he hasn't allowed it to discourage him. On his desk, he has the letter that Jürgen Trittin, the parliamentary floor leader of the Green Party, had written in a response to the ambassador's letter. "Trittin will get a sharp response back," Bilges says. If one wants to improve the image of an authoritarian nation, one can't be squeamish.

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1.
stefan300 01/10/2012
---Quote (Originally by sysop)--- Azerbaijan will play host to this year's Eurovision Song Contest. In the run-up to Europe's largest television event, the authoritarian regime has launched a campaign to improve its image. German PR experts, lobbyists and politicians across the spectrum are playing a role in those efforts. http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,806769,00.html ---End Quote--- The masquerade is aimed to present the real appearance under the fake mask The New Year has brought new surprises from our foes, to say the least. Case in point, the introduction and misrepresentation of Azerbaijan in the first days of 2012 in the article by Ralf Neukirch, “A Dictator’s Dream. Azerbaijan Seeks to Burnish Image Ahead of Eurovision”. First thing that came to my mind when I saw the article title was whether the author understands the meaning of the word dictator. Turns out he did, hence the heading obviously written in gonzo-journalism style to attract readers` attention. I used to think serious and reputable publications usually refrained from utilizing these methods. I was also assured that it was impossible to publish biased articles in popular European newspapers. Little did I know. My beliefs were first disproved by the French media, and now Spiegel. So, the objective of the German journalist seems to be quite simple: the reader gets interested by the article title about ‘the next dictator’ and proceeds to read the article. However, in text of the article the author uses the term ‘authoritative’, and this once again proves the fact of presence of gonzo journalism methods used by Spiegel, which shows the signs of tabloid press. However, we’ll leave that on Mr.Neukirch’s conscience. I was most intrigued by the author’s ability to operate the facts, so to speak, or better yet, juggle with the terms “human rights”. If we take author’s word for it, the situation with human rights in Azerbaijan is unbearable and that the country is governed by a blood-thirsty and cruel regime, which subsequently yields a question: how in the world does the opposition press manage to work in Azerbaijan? Or how do the opposition parties even exist in the country? I follow a number of major opposition publications on daily basis and they convey a whole lot of criticism of the government, leading government officials. If Mr. Neukirch is unaware, I must inform him that all of the above does not constitute a dictatorship. On the other hand, I could assume that the article of Ralf Neukirch is not custom-made creation, and the author himself has not obtained full information about Azerbaijan and probably believes several individual sources he had read about Azerbaijan. Then another question derives: amid talking about human rights in Azerbaijan, why does the author dismiss the fact that upon occupation of 20 percent of Azerbaijani territory with full ethnic cleansing of the Azerbaijani population resulting in one million Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia and occupied Karabakh, is the violation of basic human rights in the first place? Or should their rights be ignored? The answer is quite simple, the people that ordered the article, chose to exclude these facts. It’s not too hard to guess who the clients are. The map displayed in the Spiegel article, where Nagorno-Karabakh is marked as a separate state, is a sufficient to come to conclusion.
2. trust
nur_s_handal@hotmail.com 01/14/2012
Eurovision Song Contest might be fun, but the people of Azerbaijan will be singing the blues once they find out the truth about their government. Aliyev is on the fence, but Azerbaijan Minister of Finance Samir Sharifov can't be trusted. Interesting how you write about Azerbaijan improving its image in the west. With Sharifov helping the CIA and American government, I'm sure the image is glossy and shiny.
3. Eurovision in Germany
poliman 01/16/2012
Just like murdering of Turks did not tarnished the Eurovision contest in Germany, Azerbeijan will just do fine. No worries.
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