By Samuel Jaberg
Azerbaijan was hoping to show off its economic progress by hosting the Eurovision Song Contest, but the annual kitschfest will more likely highlight corruption and human rights abuses in the former Soviet republic.
The contest began in the capital Baku on Tuesday with Switzerland participating but failing to reach Saturday’s final.
The local authorities planned to make the weeklong competition an opportunity to show off the changes made since independence in 1991.
President Ilham Aliyev and his clan spent big to promote their oil-rich country. According to Zurich’s Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ), the bill for hosting Eurovision is around SFr600 million ($633 million) based on estimates by Baku’s Economic Research Center.
Described as a “mafia” by the United States embassy in Azerbaijan, the ruling family has taken over the event. First lady Mehriban Aliyeva is head of the organising committee while her local pop star son-in-law Emin Agalarov will sing.
“Azerbaijan is in the hands of a corrupt potentate whose model for running the country is somewhere between a communist state and eastern despotism,” said Thérèse Obrecht, president of the Swiss section of Reporters Without Borders.
In recent weeks, organisers have come in for heavy criticism, especially from the British media. Channel 4 and the BBC have broadcast reports showing intimidation of members of the opposition, corruption and violence linked to the preparations for the contest.
The BBC website sums up its view of the country and its leaders. “The regime has held onto power through a combination of rigged elections, jailing opponents and by irregular control of the country’s vast oil wealth,” it says.
Swiss media have also turned their spotlights on Azerbaijan. Public television recently broadcast a report highlighting the plight of people being forcibly evicted from their homes without compensation as well as the destruction of entire neighbourhoods in Baku.
These actions are supposed to help show the success of the oil-producing nation, but Zurich’s two main newspapers have published reports stating otherwise.
“Azerbaijan pretends it is an open and modern nation. But it’s all a lie. The human rights situation is precarious,” wrote the NZZ.
The Tages-Anzeiger talked with a rapper who was imprisoned and mistreated for insulting the president.
According to Obrecht, freedom of press in Azerbaijan is also non-existent and seven journalists are currently languishing in prison.
The presidency has responded to these accusations via the pro-government azerbaijan.az website, saying “Western media and organisations were […] conducting anti-Azerbaijan campaigns”.
It added that “the Azerbaijani government has taken all measures to ensure […] socio-political security during Eurovision”.
Questions have been asked whether the competition should be held in Azerbaijan. The director-general of the Geneva-based European Broadcasting Union, Ingrid Deltenre, has come in for heavy criticism, but she has defended the decision.
“Not a single political organisation, be it the United Nations, the European Union or the Council of Europe, has imposed sanctions on Azerbaijan,” she told Swiss public television.
“The same rules have applied for 46 years: the country that wins the competition gets to host it the following year.”
Deltenre reckons it is also an opportunity to show both the good and bad sides of a country.
“It’s a worthwhile opportunity to put it under the spotlight.”
Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty International tend to agree.
“Our campaign has led to an improvement of human rights in a little-known country,” said Nadine Boehlen, spokeswoman for Amnesty Switzerland. “Thanks to outside pressure, some political prisoners, including the pacifist Jabbar Salavan, have been freed.”
According to Boehlen, there are still 13 dissidents, who were mistreated when they were arrested or interrogated by police, in prison for no clear reason.
Amnesty was able to convince former and current Eurovision contestants to each support one of these detainees. Swiss duo Sinplus signed up with the non-governmental organisation.
“As musicians and ordinary citizens, we can only express our solidarity with people elsewhere deprived of their fundamental freedoms,” they told Lausanne’s Le Matin newspaper.
Progress pipe dream
Boehlen admitted that the contest in Baku would first and foremost serve the regime’s image and communication. “But it has also allowed dissidents to make their voices heard and forced Azerbaijan to open up,” she told swissinfo.ch.
The Tages-Anzeiger agreed, pointing out that despite spending vast sums of money to promote itself, including for the purchase of expensive television advertisements, the government was not able to prevent political issues rising to the surface.
For Amnesty, it would make no sense to boycott Eurovision. Rather, it is an opportunity to highlight human rights abuses in the country, as will be the case during the European football championships that will be co-hosted by Ukraine in two weeks.
“We will be demanding an end to police violence there,” said Boehlen.
International sporting and cultural events are being held increasingly often in countries known for their authoritarian bent, with the Olympic games in China, Formula One races in Bahrein and football’s world cup in Qatar.
“They are countries with enough funds to organise these events and which are used to corruption at the highest levels,” Obrecht told swissinfo.ch. “But any progress on the political front is more often than not a pipe dream, like we saw after the Olympics in Beijing.”
(Adapted from French by Scott Capper)