Like any exacting stage manager, the Azerbaijani government has labored hard to adjust the lights and perk up the props for Baku’s international debut as the host of Eurovision 2012. But the painstaking preparations did not just involve the Azerbaijani capital’s buildings and infrastructure. They also involved the distribution of Eurovision tickets.
For the past month, discussions on Facebook and articles in pro-opposition Azerbaijani media have alleged that the government was forcing public employees in Baku -- working for schools, hospitals, universities, courts and stationed at military bases -- to buy Eurovision tickets.
A Eurovision spokesperson denied the reports, but an informed Azerbaijani law enforcement agency source told EurasiaNet.org that fear of possible “security issues” during Eurovision’s May 22-May 26 run prompted the government to scoop up tickets ahead of time and distribute them to “reliable” individuals, meaning state employees.
Disturbances by local Islamists enraged by Eurovision’s displays of flesh and flash, or organized by neighboring Iran, which has denounced the event as “Zionist” and “gay,” posed the chief concern, said the source.
As a result, Azerbaijani security services “screened everyone who bought tickets,” the officer said, describing the operation as “huge.” The screenings began after ticket pickups started on May 15, but no ticketholders were rejected, he claimed.
Arguably, secular critics prompted concerns as well.
Activists from Sing for Democracy, a local group protesting human rights abuses, earlier had pledged to stage protests within the Eurovision venue, Baku’s Crystal Hall, during live performances. About 70 activists marched through downtown Baku on May 23, but without interference from police.
That police track record changed on May 25 when activists were arrested during what had been billed as "a stroll" along Baku’s Caspian Sea promenade by the Public Chamber, a loose association of opposition parties, non-governmental organizations and human rights activists. One blog showed plainclothes policemen dragging participants from the scene.
Attempting to guarantee the presence of more “reliable” guests at Eurovision, however, was initially an operation that did not rest on the government alone. Donations for Eurovision tickets were expected from state employees who were not necessarily expected to receive tickets themselves.
In interviews with EurasiaNet.org, more than 20 state employees confirmed that they had been required to hand over money for Eurovision tickets. One source, a professor at Baku State University who also requested anonymity, recounted that the university administration told employees in late April that the university was required to sell a certain number of Eurovision tickets.
“Each department had to buy at least one ticket,” the professor said. “So, employees collected money and decided who will go to the concert. If several people wanted to go, they cast lots.”
Such demands are not uncommon in the Caucasus, and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, when state interests are deemed at stake, as they clearly are for Azerbaijan with Eurovision. Influential senior presidential administration official Ali Hasanov has described the contest as an opportunity to show that Azerbaijan is “part of the world,” the pro-government AzerNews newspaper reported.
The chief spokesperson for Eurovision-2012, however, strongly denied that Azerbaijani state employees had been forced to buy tickets to the contest, either for themselves or for co-workers. “This is absurd,” said Tahir Mammadov.
“Some organizations” had received a set number of tickets to be sold to those who desired to buy one, he claimed. He did not identify the organizations. “But no one can force anyone to buy tickets, and it did not happen,” Mammadov asserted.
None of the interviewees expressed irritation or anger at the alleged demand that they contribute money for Eurovision tickets. Perhaps, at least in part, that is because their money was eventually refunded, and tickets distributed for free.
State employees told EurasiaNet.org that in early May, as international criticism of Azerbaijan’s civil rights record picked up, their ticket money was returned and vouchers for the tickets distributed free of charge.
“It’s good that I did not buy a ticket before. Now I’ve gotten it for free. Cool,” commented one Baku-based schoolteacher who attended the May 22 semi-final.
The total cost of these handouts to the government, which has spent $63 million on the contest, according to official data, is not known.
Regular ticket sales took place via the official Eurovision website, with ticket vouchers dispatched via email. Imprinted with the buyer’s name, the vouchers were exchanged for actual tickets, also bearing the purchaser’s name, upon display of an ID in Baku Eurovision ticket offices. One person could buy a maximum of four tickets.
Many Azerbaijanis have complained that, a few hours after online ticket sales began on March 15, they were unable to buy even top-end tickets (160 to 240 manats or $203.72 to $305.58) to the final. Sales, though, proceeded without a hitch for friends and family outside of Azerbaijan, they say.
The law-enforcement-agency source conceded that the allocation of Eurovision tickets for “reliable” visitors did, in fact, contribute to an “artificial shortage” of tickets for fans based in Azerbaijan.
Information about final official ticket sales remains unknown.
About 5,000 foreign tourists have come to Baku since the Eurovision delegations started to arrive on May 10, according to Faig Gurbatov, the national coordinator for the government’s Tourism Development Project.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter based in Baku.