By Ulviyya Asadzade and Khadija Ismayilova
Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, will host the Eurovision 2012 song contest in just a few months. Given that the wildly popular TV event provides the Azerbaijani government a showcase for the energy-rich South Caucasus nation, efforts to spruce up the city are already in full swing. But an initiative designed to tackle Baku’s stray dog problem is sparking complaints from animal rights activists.
It’s the method used to address the issue that has dog-lovers upset. Officials are simply sending animal-control officers out into the streets with rifles and they are shooting strays. Activists contend that the policy violates international agreements covering basic animal rights.
Azer Garayev, a representative of the Azerbaijan Society for the Protection of Animals, claims that animal-control officers are indiscriminately shooting any suspected stray dog that they encounter –without determining beforehand whether the animals pose a threat to public health and safety — and then authorities are improperly disposing of the carcasses. “The government does not have a shelter for stray dogs and cats. They burn the dead bodies of animals,” he said. He went on to allege that such treatment violates the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals, an agreement that Azerbaijan signed in 2003. The Convention calls on authorities to handle animal-control related issues “in a way which does not cause avoidable pain, suffering or distress.”
Sanan Niftaliyev, the head of the Baku municipal government department responsible for animal-control issues, confirmed that a campaign was underway to contain the stray dog population in advance of the Eurovision contest in May. Disputing animal rights activists’ assertions, Niftaliyev contended that all the animals on Baku’s streets were being tested by veterinarians, and only the sick ones were being shot. He acknowledged that officials were keeping statistics on the number of stray dogs that have been culled, but he declined to share the figures with a EurasiaNet.org correspondent.
Video footage of animal-control officers in action have made it on to YouTube, helping whip up outrage among dog lovers. Natavan Aliyeva, 31, watched one such clip and said she couldn’t stop crying. “It was devastating!” she said. “Animals should not be treated that way.”
More than 7,000 animal lovers have signed a petition that calls on officials to change the current policy. “Please help us be heard!! We speak up for animals because they cannot speak for themselves,” states, the petition, which, judging by the number of signatures gathered, is one of the most widely supported civic initiatives in recent memory in Baku.
Officials have taken note of the outcry, but it appears unlikely that it will prompt a change in tactics. “We are aware of that petition. But the signers should understand us that we have to care about the safety of expected [Eurovision contest] guests too,” said Niftaliyev, the city official.
Animal rights activists aren’t the only ones upset with aspects of the Eurovision competition preparations. According to one local non-governmental organization, the Public Association for Assistance to Free Economy, officials have evicted more than 200 families from their dwellings to make way for Eurovision-related infrastructure improvements. Twenty of the displaced families have filed a lawsuit against the city government, alleging that their property rights were violated. Zohrab Ismayil, the Public Association’s chair, contends that the payouts given to displaced families amounted to less than half the fair market value for the properties taken by the government.
Ali Hasanov, a top aide to President Ilham Aliyev, denied that the evictions were tied specifically to the Eurovision contest. Instead, he said that the displacements were connected with a long-planned urban renewal initiative.
Meanwhile, transparency advocates are seeking more information on state expenditures relating to hosting the Eurovision contest. At present, details on specific Eurovision plans, and their costs, are lacking, fostering concern that some state funds are being improperly diverted, NGO activists say. In its 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index, the watchdog group Transparency International ranked Azerbaijan 143rd out of the 183 countries surveyed.
Khadija Ismayilova is a freelance reporter in Baku and hosts a daily program on current affairs broadcast by the Azeri Service of RFE/RL. Ulviyya Asadzade is a freelance reporter, based in Baku.