Thursday, May 19, 2011

Azerbaijan's Eurovision challenge

Azerbaijan's duo Ell and Nikki pay tribute to Heydar Aliyev's statue in central Baku (

Four years after its debut in the Eurovision Song Contest, Azerbaijan won this iconic, but now kitchy music competition.

On 15 may in Dusseldorf, Azerbaijani duo Ell/Nikki received the highest number of points from 43 countries across Europe and became first. Despite late hours and heavy rain, Baku did not sleep that day, but a large and accidental crowd celebrated the moment at the historic Freedom Square.

However, this victory at Eurovision is also a big challenge to Azerbaijan with notorious record of human rights violations and authoritarian policies.

As a matter of fact, the very same Freedom Square is closed to any political and opposition rallies since at least 2003.

Reluctantly proud

This is how majority of Azerbaijani activists feel here. At least, this is how I feel.

On one hand, we are proud that Azerbaijan won. It is a huge achievement and to get recognition of European family is not a thing you witness every day. We do reply with thanks to every congrats of foreigner friends, and all of these replies are genuinely sincere.

On the other hand, we clearly understand what results this victory might bare - encountering serious legitimacy concerns at home, the Azerbaijani government will use this opportunity to full extent to mobilize popular support for their authoritarian policies.

It will become a favorite propaganda toy in the hands of the government. Tightly controlled media has already started to sing dithyrambs in honor of the President ("architects of the victory") and the victory itself is soon going to be the result of successful foreign and domestic policies of the government. Serious human rights and democracy concerns will be pushed aside.

Baku will host Eurovision 2012 and as a typical shame-based society, critics will be silenced – with a silent approval from general conformist public - not to spoil the show.

And ever-present corruption concerns - there is almost no doubt in public that the Eurovision will be another pet project through which millions from public coffers will be embezzled. Another opportunity for corrupt schemes in a country that ranks 134 out of 178 countries in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index.

A window of opportunity?

But there is an opinion that the Eurovision is also a window of opportunity for the Azerbaijani society to get some of its freedoms back.

From my talks with local and foreign experts and activists, and my observations, I have an impression that almost all international and domestic tools and means to persuade the Azerbaijani government to democratic reforms have been exhausted.

Eurovision brings Azerbaijan into a spotlight of whole Europe and as every authoritarian government imitating democracy, Azerbaijan has to do something to preserve its benevolent image. You are now under a magnifying glass, thus you have to do more - some real reforms and concessions perhaps.

Thus, Eurovision can transform Azerbaijan - as the Guardian says – it can force Azerbaijan's dictatorship into greater political openness.

Yet no signs of change

Three days after the Eurovision victory, a court in Azeri city of Ganja has handed down a 2-year prison sentence to a young activist Bakhtiyar Hajiyev.

Hajiyev, a graduate of Harvard Kennedy School of Government, is imprisoned on baseless charges of evading military service. In fact, many believe that he is punished for his political activities.

Jabbar Savalanli, a 19-year old student from Sumgayit is also imprisoned for his political activities - but on fake drug charges – for two and half years.

A group of opposition activists are in pretrial detention after participating in unsanctioned but peaceful rally in the downtown.

The government defies European Court of Human Rights and hasn't released Eynulla Fatullayev, the editor-in-chief of Azerbaijan's most popular, but now defunct two newspapers.

And as a peak of all absurdities, the Azeri government asked Interpol to detain another online activist and blogger, Elnur Majidli who is in Strasbourg – for “anti-state activities.”

So, what does the timing of Bakhtiyar Hajiyev's sentence show us? Why to hand a harsh sentence to a young activist in a time when everybody waits reason from you?

Evidently, the Azerbaijani government doesn't think of any – even the slightest – concessions in human rights issues. Even for Eurovision's sake.

We don't see any wish and will of the government in Baku to soften the regime yet.

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