With two weeks to go until Azerbaijan hosts the Eurovision 2012 Song Contest, official preparations are wrapping up in Baku. But the Azerbaijani government is not the only party getting ready for the event. Civil society activists are hard at work, too.
Over the last three months, activists from the home-grown Sing for Democracy campaign have visited the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland in an effort to raise awareness about human rights issues in Azerbaijan -- ranging from forced evictions to the arrests of journalists.
The awareness initiative was launched shortly after a pair of Azeri performers won the Eurovision 2011 contest, thus ensuring that Baku would host this year’s competition. Four Azerbaijani non-governmental organizations (the Human Rights Club, the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, the Institute for Peace and Democracy and the Alliance for Defense of Political Freedoms) form the core of the awareness campaign. In all, roughly 30 local NGOs and 15 international human rights watchdogs have signed on.
“[T]he campaign created a kind of new [dynamic], which is to use large international events as a tool to promote democracy in Azerbaijan,” said Rasul Jafarov, director of the Human Rights Club.
“Never before has Azerbaijan [generated] so much attention among international media,” Jafarov added.
The awareness campaign has received a boost from a series of articles by investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who works for both Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and EurasiaNet.org. Her articles have focused on questionable links between President Ilham Aliyev’s family and various business ventures.
The last such article, published on May 9 by RFE/RL, reported that First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, who oversees the government’s Eurovision preparations, and her two daughters, Leyla and Arzu, are owners of a construction company, Azenco that worked on the $134 million construction of the 25,000-seat Baku Crystal Hall, the main venue for the Eurovision 2012 Song Contest. The presidential administration has not yet responded to the report.
Emin Huseynov -- the director of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety in Baku, and one of the leaders of the Sing for Democracy campaign -- said the story offered additional, “indirect proof that high-ranking government officials use Eurovision not only for the country’s image, but for their personal interests.”
The Aliyev administration has brushed off criticism of Azerbaijan’s rights record, and, in some cases, has pushed back vigorously against international critics.
The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), Eurovision’s producer, maintains that the contest is “apolitical,” but the group emphasizes its commitment “to the principles of freedom of expression and information.”
On May 2, reportedly after multiple Sing for Democracy requests, the EBU organized a meeting in Geneva between Azerbaijani government officials and civil society activists to discuss free-speech issues in Azerbaijan. That encounter, according to Huseynov, produced “hot debates,” and evidently did little to narrow differences.
On May 8, both Jafarov and Huseynov, two of the highest-profile government critics inside Azerbaijan, were expelled from Baku State University’s law school, where both men had been studying. “[W]e were told by the university administration that we are expelled and not allowed to attend classes,” Huseynov said. “No clear explanation was provided, but I have no doubt that it is the result of our activity in the Sing for Democracy campaign.”
University representatives declined to discuss the matter to EurasiaNet.org. Ali Hasanov, chief of the presidential administration’s Political and Public Affairs Department, was not available to comment on the university status of Jafarov and Huseynov. In an interview with EurasiaNet.org, conducted before the expulsions, he asserted that “attempts to politicize the Eurovision contests are wrong.”
“At the meeting in Geneva, I tried to persuade them that the situation with freedom of speech and civil liberties in Azerbaijan is not worse than in European countries,” he said in reference to fellow attendees. “Rare cases of murder and pressure against journalists happen in all countries.”
Hasanov also claimed that the EBU is “under huge pressure” to bring pressure to bear on Azerbaijan.
Meanwhile, Huseynov believes that the EBU organized the Geneva discussion only for show. “The statements of the EBU officials were declarative in nature and did not contain demands [to the Azerbaijani government] to solve problems,” Huseynov said.
Tension between the two camps seems sure to increase when Eurovision gets underway in Baku. Azerbaijan’s opposition has prepared a Eurovision action plan: the Public Chamber movement, an alliance of politicians, political parties and NGO activists, will set up an “alternative information center” to get its message out to visitors. The movement additionally intends to deploy activists in T-shirts proclaiming “Freedom to political prisoners” to walk around downtown Baku during the days leading up to Eurovision’s final May 26 show.
Hundreds of other activists with Eurovision tickets “will chant the same slogan several times” during the contest’s shows, said Hasan Kerimov, deputy chair of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan, a member of the Public Chamber.
Azerbaijani law-enforcement officials have their own action-plan, however. Deputy Interior Minister Oruj Zalov told the pro-government ANS television channel that there will be a heavy police presence in Baku during Eurovision, with the Eurovision contest venue surrounded by multiple rings of security checkpoints.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter based in Baku.