Azerbaijan's Eurovision: Activists Hope Contest Will Improve Human Rights

By Stefan Niggemeier

While the Azerbaijani government hopes to burnish its image by hosting the Eurovision Song Contest in May, civil rights activists are struggling to draw more attention to the country's human rights violations. Standing uncomfortably in the middle are the organizers of this supposedly "apolitical" event.

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The best view of the arena that will host the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) is from the 9th floor of an apartment building at 5 Agil Guliyev Street. On the left is downtown Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, with the renovated old-city walls and glittering new skyscrapers. Next to it is the sweeping horizon of the Caspian Sea. National Flag Square, where a giant Azerbaijani flag flies atop a 162-meter (531-foot) flagpole, is directly in front of the building. The new arena, Baku Crystal Hall, is being built at the end of a peninsula on the other side of the square.

Still, there is no one to enjoy the view. It's a stormy day in Baku, nicknamed the "City of the Winds." All the windows have been removed from the walls on the building's 9th floor, and debris is lying everywhere. Small snowdrifts have formed in the corners. Families lived there until recently, but now the entire floor is deserted. A crane is standing next to the building, ready to be put to work. The roof will probably be torn off soon, and then it will rain into the apartments of the people living on the lower floors.

When residents walk up the stairs these days, they encounter smirking young people armed with saws and drills. After they leave, residents discover that something has changed. It might be a missing water pipe, a bare power cable hanging in a hallway or a demolished wall. Some residents suddenly find that their gas has been turned off. The residents say the young people work for the city.

Indeed, it's gotten dangerous to live in this building -- but the dangers are intentional. The government wants the remaining residents to move out. In May, Baku expects thousands of visitors to attend the ESC, the world's largest non-sporting television even, which brings singers from around Europe and farther afield together to compete for the title. By then, a large thoroughfare and an elegant waterfront boulevard will lead to Crystal Hall.

A Symbol of Official Mistreatment

As the last building standing in this location, 5 Agil Guliyev Street has become a symbol. It embodies the ruthlessness with which the city, spurred on by an oil boom, is transforming itself into a grand metropolis modeled after cities in the West or, closer yet, Dubai. It also symbolizes the arbitrariness of a corrupt country in which rights often only exist on paper, as well as the ambivalent role that an event like the Grand Prix of pop music plays when it takes place under these conditions.

The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the organizer of the song contest, says that it isn't responsible for what happens to the apartment building. EBU officials insist that they didn't ask anyone to build new venues or to raze old buildings. In fact, they say, they have only now approved Crystal Hall, on a site that was previously wasteland, as the venue for the event. Besides, they add, the city has shown them that the redevelopment plans that require tearing down existing structures were made before Azerbaijan won the contest last May, thereby securing the right to host this year's contest.

Sietse Bakker, a 27-year-old Dutch entrepreneur and author of a motivational book, is the spokesman for the European organizers. Though he speaks with practiced composure and distances himself from the controversy, he also ends up sounding like somewhat of a spokesman for the Azerbaijani government when he says that the people being forced to relocate are being fairly compensated.

But not everyone shares this view. Granted, those who still live in the building say they aren't fighting to be able to stay there. But, says Zadir Gulamirov, a retired army captain, "We just want the compensation the law entitles us to." His wife, Kadiya, then adds, "For the money they're offering, we can't find an apartment we can live in."

The residents have copied documents that they say testify to their rights. They explain how the size of their apartments were incorrectly calculated. With anger and sometimes tears in their eyes, they describe their petitions, letters and complaints -- and the refusal of law-enforcement and court officials to do anything at all.

Of course, forced evictions under dubious circumstances are not a phenomenon that has only arrived in Baku with the ESC. But the event has further intensified the time pressure and the mistreatment of residents, says Rachel Denber, the deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "The EBU should be public about concerns about abuses relating to the evictions and get assurances from the Azerbaijani authorities that they will halt all further expropriations, evictions and demolitions in the vicinity until they can be carried out in a fair and transparent manner and are consistent with Azerbaijani national law and Azerbaijan's international commitments."

Jörg Grabosch, the head of Brainpool, the German company that will produce the giant television show for the Azerbaijanis, has nothing but praise for the speed at which the arena is being built. "The loss of the buildings isn't a tragedy," he says, suggesting that the gray apartment towers didn't look pretty anyway.

Eroding Freedoms

Winning the right to host the event was important to Azerbaijan. With the support of Mehridan Aliyeva, the wife of President Ilham Aliyev, the country took a professional approach to producing songs that would appeal to European audiences. For the authoritarian regime -- which opposition members describe as a "mafia" -- it is a coup that makes an impression on the Azerbaijani people and boosts national pride in a country that only regained its independence 20 years ago, after seven decades as a Soviet republic.

In describing the image Azerbaijan wants to project to the world, Mikhail Jabbarov, a former member of the government and current adviser to the pro-government television station Ictimai, which will broadcast this year's song contest, calls it "a modern, secular country that is proud of its roots."

Of course, whether this assessment holds true depends in large part on whether one defines modernity as not only involving Western-style urban development and consumption, but also the rights of free expression and free assembly.

The Paris-based organization Reporters Without Borders ranks Azerbaijan in 162nd place out of the 179 countries on its Press Freedom Index. Activists and independent journalists are subject to repression. Broadcasters, such as the BBC and Radio Liberty, were forced to give up their radio frequencies three years ago. Likewise, the government responded harshly to protests in the spring of 2011. In fact, according to Human Rights Watch, despite the country's efforts to burnish its international image, the human rights situation has deteriorated over the last year.

Suppression of Activist and Journalists

Leyla Yunus is an institution in the country. She has been fighting for civil rights in Azerbaijan since the days of the Soviet Union. "Things are getting worse and worse," she says matter-of-factly. "There is no respect for the law and no respect for morality." Yunus is a petite, determined woman, but her eyes seem moist and glassy. She has been fighting depression, she says, since the authorities tore down her office last year. She wasn't there when it happened, but everything was destroyed -- especially the fighting spirit of her and others. "After that," she says, "many people said: 'What can we expect from her if she can't even protect her own offices?'"

Local civil rights activists say the government derives its power by employing intimidation and fear tactics. This is one of the reasons why Emin Huseynov, of the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS), is reluctant to view the recent releases of a number of jailed journalists as an indication that the government is taking their rights more seriously.

Huseynov says many journalists have learned their lesson and are now practicing self-censorship. "There is an opposition newspaper that is allowed to call the president a dictator," he says. "But that doesn't pose a threat to the government. It would be dangerous, however, if journalists started investigating his family's fraudulent business dealings."

For the government, Huseynov adds, the ESC is an "expensive toy it's using to improve its image." However, civil rights activists are not calling for a boycott. Instead, they are trying a strategy that embraces the event -- in part to avoid triggering a negative response from the population, which is looking forward to the spectacle. Their "Sing for Democracy" campaign aims to take advantage of the international attention surrounding the event so as to draw the attention of the outside world to the abysmal realities behind the attractive façade.

A Supposed Smear Campaign

In January, Markus Löning, the German government's human rights commissioner, wrote letters to the participants in the German pre-selection show and to the jury headed by prominent entertainer Stefan Raab, asking them to publicly campaign for human rights in Azerbaijan. "If Stefan Raab did this, it would make an impact and reach completely different people," Löning says. "There is now a political window of opportunity that we have to take advantage of."

Thomas Schreiber, the entertainment coordinator for the German public broadcaster ARD and, as such, something akin to Germany's manager for ESC-related events, takes a more dismissive view of Löning's activities. "The human rights commissioner is trying to use the ESC to draw attention to himself," he says.

Still, Löning has at least managed to capture the attention of the pro-government press in Azerbaijan. A few weeks back, the Azeraijani newspaper SES called him a "drunk," characterized him as a puppet of the country's archenemy, Armenia, and accused him of having an affair with Leyla Yunus.

The next day, the ESC's Azerbaijani and international organizers gave a memorable press conference at the Baku Business Center. When some journalists openly asked questions about the rights of gays, lesbians and political prisoners, some local journalists reacted with outrage and hurled accusations at those asking the questions. One woman even asked the EBU representatives what they intended to do about what she called "black PR," the smear campaign that organizations like the BBC are allegedly waging against Azerbaijan.

Standing at the podium, Jon Ola Sand, the Norwegian ESC Executive Supervisor, noted almost patronizingly: "Every comment and every question is welcome here because that's the role of the free press."

A Difficult Balancing Act

Indeed, the EBU is trying to perform a balancing act. It stresses that the song contest is an "apolitical" event, and it categorically refuses to openly criticize the regime. In a press release, it refers to its "values" and how it fundamentally stands up for freedom of expression, while at the same time noting that the song contest -- formerly known as the Eurovision Grand Prix -- was also held in Spain in 1969 under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

The logic is simple: Organizers believe the ESC is a positive event that has a positive impact. "We're the good ones," Sand says, and he seems incredulous when confronted with the charge that, in a country like Azerbaijan, the ESC could not only be part of the solution, but also part of the problem.

ARD entertainment coordinator Schreiber also believes in the event's positive impact. He invokes the famous words of "change through rapprochement" that West German politician Egon Bahr used in the 1970s to describe the new openness toward the East German regime at the time. "Of course Azerbaijan doesn't just want to stage a good show, but also to improve the country's image," Schreiber says. "But the attention of journalists can't be controlled. They won't just report on the ESC, but also on matters involving criticism."

In fact, the EBU has received guarantees from the Azerbaijani government that it will allow unrestricted reporting -- for Eurovision guests. But what ordinary Azerbaijanis will get from having such freedoms in events surrounding the ESC is a different matter. Schreiber believes that once people are exposed to freedoms such as open press conferences, they won't be quite as willing to relinquish them once the event is over.

Still, civil rights activist Huseynov can also imagine that the government could become "quite furious" about the criticism and "seek revenge" after the ESC leaves Baku. Though he fears that the government will not change, he hopes that society will learn to fight despotism more effectively.

Whatever happens, during the ESC, there will probably be a flowerbed where the building at 5 Agil Guliyev Street now stands. Later on, perhaps another hotel could be built at the site. The views would be fantastic.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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