Friday, 6 January 2012

Azerbaijan could make this an awkward year for Eurovision

It’s a new year, and of course this week everyone’s minds are on one thing – Eurovision 2012! Ok maybe not, but an interesting article in Der Speigel this week details the way in which Azerbaijan is already engaged in a public relations push ahead of their turn to host the world’s largest non-sporting television event in May of this year.

Azerbaijan will host the contest because they won last year. But there are concerns that this could be one the most problematic year in the show’s 56-year history because of the human rights record and military conflicts of the host country. Seemingly aware of this less-than-stellar reputation, the Azerbaijanis have reportedly stepped up a charm offensive in the core members of the European Broadcasting Union – Germany, France, Spain, Italy and the UK. Of course this is all part of a larger charm offensive by the oil-rich country, particularly as the Nabuco Pipeline project moves forward.

But could this year’s contest highlight the awkward relationship between the oil-hungry West and this autocratic regime? Or, as many argue, will an international event like this help to bring Azerbaijan more into line with the West and with Democratic principles? I suspect it may be the former. Even as Azerbaijan pursues its charm offensive, there are reports circulating that they are evicting Baku residents in order to build the 25,000-seat arena that will house the show this year.

In the past the contest has been held in Francoist Spain, Zionist Israel and, most recently, Putin’s Russia. But Eurovision’s first trip to the Caucasus, to a small autocratic country which still has a semi-active conflict with its neighbour Armenia, could prove more troublesome than all three.

Franco’s Spain may have been a Fascist dictatorship, but it was still a main country of Europe. Holding the Eurovision Song Contest in Israel may have been a strong statement, but it was consistent with Europe’s support for the country (and in turn reinforced perceptions in the Arab world that Israel is a European colony). Russia’s spotty track record on human rights, particularly gay rights, may have caused some discomfort with the song contest’s large gay following, but Russia is still a large mainstream European player that can’t be ignored.

Azerbaijan, on the other hand, is a small dictatorship on Iran’s border ruled with an iron fist by a dynasty of autocrats. Whatever discomforts existed two years ago over Russia’s human rights record, they are dwarfed by the situation in Azerbaijan. Media freedom is severely curtailed and few independent news outlets exist. The country is ruled by a cadre of mafia-like families who control virtually all aspects of the economy. In diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks in 2010, the US diplomats who were station there described it as a feudal society, where “a handful of well-connected families control certain geographic areas, as well as certain sectors of the economy." The leaked cables also contain remarkably blunt descriptions of the ruling family, including the heavy plastic surgery of the powerful first lady Mehriban (pictured above along with Azerbaijan president Ilham Aliyev and the Browns).

Azerbaijan is ranked 171 out of 196 countries for press freedom, 135 out of 167 countries in the Economist’s Democracy index and is the 40th worst country for corruption according to the world corruption index. Dissidents are violently suppressed. One such crackdown led to this photo which made the rounds as one of the most iconic of 2011.

Like in Russia, there will likely be discomfort for the contest’s large gay following in this year’s host country. Like in neighbouring Iran, were the vast majority (three-fourths) of the Azerbaijani people live, there are few openly gay people in Azerbaijan. While homosexuality isn’t punishable by death as it is for Azerbaijanis in Iran, homosexuality is still considered as an aberrant behaviour rather than an identity in Azerbaijan. According to the United Nations, accusations of homosexual acts are often used by state-controlled media to discredit government opponents or journalists. But, like in Russia, homosexuality was decriminalised in 2000 in order for the country to join the Council of Europe.

Then of course there is the concern over Azerbaijan’s past behaviour in the Eurovision Song Contest itself. The country has been in an active conflict with its neighbour Armenia since 1993 over the disputed territory of of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is now technically still part of Azerbaijan but is under Armenian military control. This conflict has in the past bled into the song contest. In 2009 a number of Azerbaijanis who had voted for Armenia's entry Anush and Inga (pictured left) during the contest that year were reportedly summoned for questioning by the Ministry of National Security. Once word got out, the EBU threatened to exclude Azerbaijan from the contest if it ever happened again.

There were also allegations in 2009 that the Azerbaijan broadcaster blurred out the number for people to call to vote for Armenia during the contest. The EBU fined Azerbaijan €2,700 euros for this, as well as for distorting the TV signal during Armenia's performance. There is still an open question over whether the Armenian entry will be able to go to Baku for next year's contest, as Armenians are not allowed to enter Azerbaijan.

There are also questions over the political stability of the regime. We are, after all, still in the age of the Arab Spring - and Azerbaijan is a Muslim country (though it is not very religious, as opposed to Azerbaijanis in Iran). There are already signs that the Arab Spring movement could inspire more protests against the Aliyev family, which has ruled Azerbaijan since 1993, as occured last year. The protests last year were forcefully repressed by the government, which is clearly nervous that the violent anti-government demonstrations in the Middle East could spread to their country.

It is entirely possibly that come May some large-scale rebellion could have broken out. Though the elite families are getting richer and richer from the country's oil wealth, over 40% of the country's population lives in poverty, according to Der Spiegel. The average monthly income is just €24. At the same time millions of dollars and euros are flowing into the country to develop its oil infrastructure. It's not exactly a recipe for stability.

So it will be an interesting year for Eurovision to say the least, and one could envision a host of scenarios that could result in the contest being cancelled for the first time in its histroy. This will be one to watch.


itinerantlondoner said...

Of course I can quite imagine why some dissidents would think the Eurovision would be the perfect time to hold protests, just at the time when the whole of Europe's media would not just be watching but be present as well - which would certainly be a bit of a dliemma for the government, I'm really hoping that the best that comes out of all this is a PR disaster for them rather than the PR coup they are hoping for.

(also - are you planning to go? Despite my opinions of the government, Baku is a fascinating city, and the deserts around are stunning)

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