From Baku without love

As Azerbaijan gears up for the Eurovision Song Contest, organisers and fans alike seem keen to sweep the country’s human rights record under the carpet.

The stage is set for this week’s Eurovision Song Contest in Azerbaijan. (Photo: EBU)
The stage is set for this week’s Eurovision Song Contest in Azerbaijan. (Photo: EBU)

Organising mega entertainment events like this year's Eurovision Song Contest in Baku, Azerbaijan, may put authoritarian regimes under the international spotlight... but it could also give those regimes the oxygen of international recognition and the publicity they crave.

Only last month, opposition groups and rights organisations in Bahrain denounced the Formula One Grand Prix as a public relations stunt that has sought to mask the monarchy's repression of non-violent protests.

But despite international protests, the race organisers went ahead, as protesters and world opinion were ignored, even after riot police killed a protester. 

Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone shrugged off the clashes, saying: "You know what they say, there's no such thing as bad publicity."

The insensitivity of the international sports community to human rights consideration is nothing new. FIFA President Seb Blatter had famously suggested that gay fans attending games at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, where homosexuality is illegal, "refrain from any sexual activities".

A shadow has also been cast over the forthcoming European cup in Poland and the Ukraine, following the arrest of Ukranian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel strongly hinted through a spokesperson that she might decide not to attend any of the games played by the German national team at the upcoming European Football Championship, which Ukraine is co-hosting.

Merkel had also refused to attend the China Olympics opening in 2008.

Yet this raises the question of where to draw the lines. For if western definitions of human rights are made into a criteria for official participation in global events, wouldn't more than half the world be excluded? 

One way out of this quandary is to participate while putting more pressure for changes.

Perversely, the organisation of international events in countries with a negative human rights record does sometimes help in putting them under increasing scrutiny.  But does this scrutiny change anything? Not much, judging by China's human rights record during the 2008 elections.

According to Human Rights Watch, the run-up to the Beijing Olympics has been marred by a well-documented surge in violations of the rights of free expression and association, as well as media freedom.

Back to Azerbaijan, where winning the right to host the Eurovision was seen as an important victory for the regime in its bid to boost national pride. With the support of Mehridan Aliyeva, the wife of President Ilham Aliyev, the country took a professional approach to the event, producing songs which appeal to European audiences.

The image the regime wants to project is that of a "modern, secular country that is proud of its roots," Mikhail Jabbarov, a former member of the government and current adviser to the pro-government television station Ictimai, declared.

Civil rights activists are not calling for a boycott of the event partly to avoid triggering a negative response from the population, which is looking forward to the spectacle. Their Sing for Democracy campaign seeks to draw the attention of the outside world to the human rights abuses.

But the organisers of the Eurovision have largely ignored the elephant in the room. Jørgen Franck, Eurovision's television director, says, "we stand for change for the better and for democratic rights. That's what we fight for in Europe. But we don't actively participate in the process, that we leave to others".

The European Broadcasting Unit has received guarantees from the Azerbaijani government that it will allow unrestricted reporting - for Eurovision guests. But that could simply provide an illusion of freedom for western audiences as Azeris are intimidated by the fear of reprisals after the curtains fall.

The breaking up of anti-government protests in Azarbaijan in the wake of the Eurovision Song festival has put the spotlight on Baku's authoritarian style of government, and the opposition has used this occasion to bring their country under scrutiny.

"The glitz and glamour of the Eurovision are only weeks away, but the international media attention the contest will bring seems to be no deterrent for Baku's police, who continue to use brute force to put down peaceful protests," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia Programme Director.

This shows that holding events in rogue states does increase international scrutiny, but rarely has this translated into changes on the ground. On the other hand, since the Berlin Olympics in 1936, the norm has been that during these international events, dictators have exploited international events to bask in their grandiose visions.

Human rights in Azerbaijan

The Paris-based organization Reporters Without Borders ranks Azerbaijan in 162nd place out of the 179 countries on its Press Freedom Index. Activists, bloggers and independent journalists are subject to repression. 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.

Azeri authorities have swept away whole regions of Baku to make way for parks, roads, luxury apartments and a shopping centre ahead of the song contest.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented the evictions of dozens of families in the neighbourhood where a giant glass-encased 'Crystal Hall' is being build to host Eurovision.

"The Azerbaijani government is not just demolishing homes, it's destroying peoples' lives," said Jane Buchanan, senior Europe and Central Asia researcher at the rights group, adding the demolitions cast a shadow over the song contest.