Sabina Babayeva is not the only Azerbaijani singer preparing for Eurovision. The government apparently has a song to sing, too, and it's called (with apologies to Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe) "Just You Wait."
Sick of what they term international media and rights groups' "politicization" of Eurovision, officials say that when Europe drops by Azerbaijan on May 22 for three days of pop and glamour, visitors will see for themselves that Azerbaijan is up to snuff on all fronts.
“Tourists and visitors to Azerbaijan will be able to personally make sure that Azerbaijani society is tolerant . . .Political pluralism, human rights have been fully ensured,” declared Ali Hasanov, head of the presidential administration's public and political policy department.
Azerbaijanis are wonderfully hospitable people and Baku is, in fact, looking dazzling these days. With glittering new buildings, fancy illuminations along the Caspian Sea, squeaky clean streets, and London-style taxi cabs, the oil-and-gas wealth is written all over the place.
But while the Eurovision song contest, perhaps the biggest international attention-grabber for Azerbaijan since the Nagorno-Karabakh war, has inspired an impressive overhaul of Baku, it has not led to a "remont" of Azerbaijan's civil rights record.
Report after report in recent months has focused on how, behind the snazzy buildings, the ruling elite has literally beat political dissent and free media into a corner.
Given the Caucasus' long record of ethnic and religious violence, alarm bells are ready to go off any time there is a quarrel over borders or churches in this neck of the woods. Both items made headlines this week in a dispute between Georgia and Azerbaijan, perhaps the friendliest countries in a region where it’s all but de rigueur not to be on speaking terms with at least one neighbor.
Rich with ancient Georgian frescoes and writings, the monastery is a major cultural and spiritual hub for Georgians, but some Azerbaijani officials and historians claim that the monastery was created by ancient Albanians, reputed ancestors of the Azerbaijanis.
Georgian politicos, keen to seize a prime PR opportunity ahead of the October parliamentary elections, hurried to the site to deliver some fiery speeches, while disputes raged online and in the media.
The Georgian government has urged restraint, but it also admitted that the Soviet-era demarcation of the then Soviet republics' borders left some two percent of the complex on Azerbaijan’s territory -- a fact duly noted by some Azerbaijani news outlets.
Georgia is clearly the closest US ally in the South Caucasus, moving in lockstep with American interests on just about every foreign policy issue – except one: Iran. Not wanting to become embroiled in a potential regional conflict, officials in Tbilisi are trying to finesse relations with Tehran, while staying in Washington’s good graces.
Armenia's May 6 parliamentary election may have left less space for political checks and balances than desired, but it could lead to more financial cheques. While opposition parties cry fraud and observers frown at irregularities, the triumph of Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan’s ruling Republican Party of Armenia at the polls is a “credit positive” event for Armenia, according to Moody's Investor Service.
That the Sargsyan-loyal parliamentary majority has become even a larger majority will have a stabilizing effect on Armenia’s national creditworthiness, Bloomberg reported, citing Moody’s Investor Service.
The election outcome “will ensure a degree of political stability and policy continuity,” Moody’s analysts are quoted by Bloomberg as saying. And that policy has been to reduce government deficit and improve tax collection.
Yet Armenia's creditworthiness still carries a junk rating. The Ba2 grade on Moody’s list of naughty-and-nice countries (ranked by their ability to repay loans) means that lenders to Armenia run “significant” risk. Armenia has little external shock-absorption capacity thanks to its high dependence on the volatile Russian and EU markets, Moody’s wrote in November last year. Though Armenia has convalesced from its 2009 slump, Moody’s assessment for Armenia’s credit outlook has remained “negative” ever since.
The magic dust was stolen (oh, horror!) by the dark lord Mrakovlast. Who will bring the dust -- and the hope -- back to the people? This sounds like a job for the brave little superhero Cosmoboy, and his goofy, hulking robot friend, but, first, they must do battle with Mrakovlast, a monster from hell and a car junkyard.
You guessed it right. This is an opening scene from "August 8," the latest in the apparently never-ending Georgian-Russian face-off of films inspired by the 2008 Russia-Georgia War.
The Russian-made "August 8" does not boast big names like Andy Garcia and Val Kilmer, as was the case in the Georgian-sponsored, Hollywood-made "Five Days of August," but it does come with shape-shifting evil machines and explosions.
It may not seem easy to work robot transformers into a story about a war with critical geo-strategic consequences that forced thousands of ethnic Georgians out of their homes in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but not when Russian film director Dzhanik Faziyev gets his creative juices flowing. The fantasy robot world is a figment of imagination of the film’s little protagonist, Artyem (Cosmoboy), who is caught in the Georgian-Russian crossfire.
Watching the movie leaves the impression that Faziyev really wanted to do a Russian version of the Transformers series, but chose to throw South Ossetia into it to get Russian state funding.
Much like previous August war opuses, whether Georgia or Russian-made, "August 8" is ridiculously propagandistic and cynically out-of-touch. But it is so wonderfully bizarre, so laden with cinematic platitudes and tacky moments that it almost provides for silly entertainment.
If you are a European Union citizen with a voice in your head telling you to quit your daily European cares and run for parliament in EU-aspiring Georgia, this is a good time to do it. There is a time-limited offer from the Georgian government to allow EU citizens with the right qualifications to participate in this fall's parliamentary elections.
And the story gets better: If you become popular with the parliamentary majority, you may even become prime minister, a posting, which, as of this year, will be determined by parliament.
They've even planning to amend the constitution to make it all totally legit.
But don't think that these changes mean just any Portuguese, Belgian or Austrian will be fiercely debating the future of Georgia in the country's new assembly. Interested EU citizens must have lived in Georgia for the past ten years and must have been born in Georgia.
For now, that means that, if elected, Georgian-born billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, an EU citizen, most likely will be as European as the Georgian parliament is going to get.
The parliamentary doors, though, will be open to Ivanishvili and his EU ilk for only three years. If Ivanishvili wants to run again (the next vote would be in 2016), he will need another amendment.
Within almost one day, France elected a new president, Russia installed its old one and Armenia essentially kept its old parliament. All three events have significant implications for Armenia’s future.
Back in Yerevan, Armenia’s political opposition is finding it hard to digest the news that it will remain an opposition and one with a modest presence in the new parliament, according to early election results. Whether or not the election's top-two finalists -- President Serzh Sargsyan's Republican Party of Armenia and the Prosperous Armenia Party -- will revive their governing coalition remains open to speculation, but is not a question likely to keep anyone up late.
But while Armenia faces a prospect of more of the same in its political kitchen, there has been a change on the foreign policy front.
On May 6, France laid off President Nicolas Sarkozy, a self-styled friend of the Armenians and a longtime Turkey-skeptic. President Sargsyan enjoyed good vibes with Sarkozy, and the latter played the Armenian card heavily in the final year of his presidency.
In France, Sarkozy backed a law that criminalized denying that the Ottoman Empire's World-War-I-era slaughter of ethnic Armenians in Turkey was genocide. He went barn-storming across the Caucasus, where he struck the pose of a supporter of the Armenian cause and the savior of Georgia during its 2008 war with Russia. But wagging a finger at Turkey and wooing the Diaspora Armenian vote did not help Sarkzoy secure a second term.
Looks like Azerbaijan has moved from censoring news to censoring fiction. A May 1 prohibition on broadcasts of foreign TV series and films has put the kibosh on everything from Latin American tearjerker epics to HBO dramas.
Non-complying stations may face sanctions from the broadcasting regulator. Most of the television channels immediately yanked foreign series from their programming, however. That meant that many soap opera fans were forced to go cold turkey in the middle of the television season.
“I’ve been going through all the twists and turns together with the [series] characters. I feel that the characters are like members of my family,” sighed one Azerbaijani homemaker in her comments to Mir24 TV. “I think that without the television series, my life will become empty and boring.”
Like thousands of other viewers, she might have to opt for a satellite dish or cable. Or just head to Baku.
Farmers in Azerbaijan’s western Dashkesan region apparently must make space when the president’s daughters come digging for gold. Area residents, many of them displaced by the Nagorno-Karabakh war, are finding their livelihoods threatened by an expanding gold-mining operation linked to President Ilham Aliyev's family, reports an investigative piece co-authored by RFE/RL and EurasiaNet.org reporter Khadija Ismayilova.
The residents blamed a British company for taking over their lands at bargain-basement prices and choking off access to irrigation water, but the report, produced by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and RFE/RL, found that the farmers actually have Azerbaijan’s own “first daughters,” Leyla and Arzu Aliyeva (also known for their telecom ties), to blame, via their executive positions at three of the companies working on the mine.
The presidential family’s gold business was cloaked in a web of shell companies and front operations, which took some painstaking reporting to unravel. President Aliyev's office declined to elaborate about the connection, while presidential spokesperson Azer Gasimov pretty much vanished.
Few Azerbaijani journalists would dare to peek into Aliyev family matters. Ismayilova recently has become the target of a smear campaign that used the online publication of a video of her intimate life in an attempt to shame her into stopping her reporting.
Journalists, who are or have been in Azerbaijani prisons, would beg to differ. With a long record of repressing free media, Azerbaijan hit a new low recently with a character assassination campaign against investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who works for both EurasiaNet.org and RFE/RL.