Superficial Song Contest Baku Opts for a Party over Politics

Azerbaijan's pledges to respect human rights ahead of the Eurovision Song Contest turned out to be largely superficial, despite widespread international criticism. But organizers also failed to ensure that their democratic values were upheld, avoiding conflict for the sake of a good party.


By Stefan Niggemeier

The big traveling circus known as the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) will now be moving along to its next destination, which will be Sweden, following the landslide victory Saturday night of that country's performer Loreen, with her dance hit "Euphoria." The pan-European pop music competition will be taking with it the attention that the event still gets for reasons that are hard to explain. But in this case it will also leave two questions behind: Did it change Azerbaijan, the country in which it took place? And did it change the world's view of this country?

In his play "Torquato Tasso," Goethe wrote that: "One feels the intent and is untuned." But Goethe was never in Baku, the Azeri capital city that hosted the ESB. Here, the line should go: "One felt the intent but was nevertheless impressed."

There is little in Azerbaijan or Baku that one could philosophize about more than the nature and efficacy of façades. Even the road connecting the airport to downtown Baku is flanked by an endless stretch of ornamental walls. But they can't always hide what's behind them -- the stench betrays the oil fields.

The city is no natural beauty. The area that tourists and those visiting for the ESC were allowed to glimpse before the show on Saturday had been spruced up -- and it showed. In fact, the parks, streets and buildings looked like they had just been taken out of their wrappings. Baku had gotten a facelift.

Visitors who looked into it could have even traced where houses once stood -- houses that were demolished for the beautification effort and whose inhabitants were dislodged with often brutal methods. Instead, visitors saw freshly planted open spaces, the ample access roads and parking places, and the spectacular modern architecture. These concrete images were much more powerful than any knowledge.

Buying An Image

Façades don't lose their effect merely become one recognizes them as such. Nevertheless, the authorities were very reluctant to be seen while these façades were being erected. Sometimes it was even too much to stand in front of the three massive, flame-shaped towers for photographs.

Meanwhile, ESC organizers had gotten the state to guarantee the freedoms of expression and assembly to at least the event's participants. Of course, officials weren't able to say when and in which form such things could take place, but they did say it was of course important to give some thought to these questions. But government pledges to respect these freedoms during Eurovision, the Grand Prix of pop music, were apparently nothing more than façades, as well.

On paper, Azerbaijan is a state that leaves little to be desired in formal terms. The country is a member of the Council of Europe, the human rights organization whose 47 member states have committed themselves to respecting the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights -- even if it often disregards the obligations that come along with being a member. The country has laws and courts -- even if they often don't provide for justice. They are façades.

And Azerbaijan has money. When an authoritarian regime wants to make itself look attractive, it's extremely helpful if it can afford to buy attractiveness. Of course, the state could have invested its oil wealth in more important things than making its downtown area look opulent. And, theoretically, most of the guests who came to the city for the ESC would have been likely to support such efforts, as well. But practically speaking, if a city wants to dazzle, it certainly helps to look dazzling.

Enjoying the Party

Azerbaijan wanted to look good -- though not always in the way that a Western observer would expect. Contrary to the hopes of many, the regime didn't react to the sudden attention from across the world with demonstrative (or even just feigned) openness and ease.

Although plans had called for "Sing for Democracy," a large music festival organized by regime critics, to be held in an outdoor public setting, it was only allowed to take place in a bar. Demonstrations were summarily broken up, and journalists continue to be jailed and subjected to questionable trials. For the government, it was evidently more about making a tough impression to the domestic audience rather than an indulgent one to those abroad. It showed the Azeris, both friends and foes, that it would by no means allow itself to be swayed by international pressure.

The government apparently didn't want to allow peaceful protests, but neither did it want to generate unsightly images of their violent breakup. Observers had the feeling that this prompted the security forces to act somewhat less roughly than usual.

The government benefitted from the fact that many of its opponents were tired of constantly having to look behind the beautiful backdrops. It also found allies among the participants, fans and media representatives who just wanted to enjoy the usual crazy Eurovision party no matter what was happening in the country.

A journalist from the left-leaning German daily Die Tageszeitung, of all newspapers, called the German government's commissioner for human rights a "killjoy," denigrated critics as "human rightists" and made fun of Loreen, the Swedish winner of the contest, for making the atypical move of showing solidarity with oppressed civil rights activists.

Ignoring European Values

In any case, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the organizer of this year's traveling circus, was keen to maintain the façade of an apolitical event. In public, it presented itself as an ally of the government and one united in the desire to stage an event that went smoothly in all respects.

"We aren't happy about what has happened here," said Annika Nyberg Frankenhaeuser, the EBU's media director, regarding the suppression of several peaceful demonstrations in Baku ahead of the competition. But she added that the EBU had yet to address the issue with Azeri officials and that she also couldn't say when or in what form that could or would happen.

EBU general director Ingrid Deltenre, on the other hand, said that officials had been asked to provide a statement regarding some journalists who were reportedly arrested.

There's little to indicate that the EBU took care to make sure that its values were also upheld behind the colorful backdrops of what is presumably the world's largest non-sporting television event. These are the values that Europe either does or should stand for, such as freedom of the press, opinion and assembly. But the ESC revealed just how inhibited Europeans can be about defending and living these same values.

Ban on Politicization

Every now and then, even western Europeans have dismissed a solid commitment to such values as a holier-than-thou attempt at proselytizing, relativizing universal human rights as a luxury phenomenon.

It was disconcerting to see just how quickly the achievements and faults of a state could be relativized, for example, when Deltenre, the EBU head, compared the legally suspect forced evictions in Azerbaijan with the relocations taking place in London in the run-up to the 2012 Summer Olympics.

For its own part, Azerbaijan wanted to show that it is a part of Europe. The fact that it hosted the ESC suggests this proximity. And the endlessly repeated ban on the event's "politicization" also allowed the mere request to respect human rights to be erased from the agenda. The fact that the Azeri government had already politicized the ESC long ago was regularly swept under the table.

Almost everything in Azerbaijan is remarkable. In fact, some of it is also remarkably positive, especially for a country bordering Iran, where many ethnic Azeris live under a completely different regime.

But the authoritarian regime is not only less evil than dictatorships; it's also more cunning. In the run-up to the ESC, it had individual activists drafted into the military, or arrested those who were suddenly found carrying drugs. Both of the prominent organizers of "Sing for Democracy" festival say they were expelled from the university in a form of repression that is just minor enough to not provoke any outcry despite having major repercussions on their lives. Indeed, the fact that Azerbaijan feels only slightly authoritarian might be the country's best trick with façades yet.

The ESC has brought Baku a massive amount of attention. There have been many colorful, beautiful and beautified images, but also a good deal of criticism. It's anybody's guess whether the ESC will really change the country and, if so, how. Domestic critics fear that the regime with strike back with force after a honeymoon period of one or two months. But that is also not a foregone conclusion.

Perhaps it will turn out that the song contest was simply a colorful new façade with nothing behind it.

When asked whether the competition might bring a bit more democracy to Azerbaijan, one person who knows the country well says: "A country that wants to democratize doesn't need the Eurovision Song Contest for that."


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