Eurovision may now be over, but the controversy over Azerbaijan's freedom-of-speech practices keeps grooving on.
The latest matters at hand kicked off with the burlesque. Norwegian-Iranian satirist Amir Asgharnejad, a sort of Norwegian version of Borat, claimed he was stripped and forced by Azerbaijani policemen to step on an Iranian flag in the Baku airport, Norwegian media reported. Norway reportedly nearly pulled its Eurovision contestant, Tooji, out of the contest over the incident and a diplomatic exchange is ongoing.
In the run-up to Eurovision, Asgharnejad, who has a comedy news show on Norwegian public television, pretended to be a reporter from Iran and dispatched several tongue-in-cheek video reports from Baku, one of which described Azerbaijan as a "lousy country" that "has lived in the shadow of great Iran," and is now busy "draining the earth for oil" with help from "their Satan worshiping partners from the West."
Such humor was reportedly lost on Baku, which is engaged in a longstanding face-off with Tehran over issues of Islam, pop and homosexuality. Baku denies that airport police mistreated Asgharnejad or any other member of Norway's delegation, but has stopped short of an apology.
On May 26, the Norwegian ambassador to Baku, Elring Skonsberg, went to the Azerbaijani foreign ministry to clarify matters. “I emphasized that freedom of speech is very important in every democratic society. We agree on that,” Skonsberg was quoted by The Norway Post as saying.
When music talents battled for the title of Europe’s best pop act in Baku at the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest last week, little did they know that there was a parallel battle going on backstage between alleged Wahhabi terrorists and Azerbaijan's security forces.
Azerbaijani officials today claimed that they busted an Islamist terror group and took out its leader just as they plotted to bomb the music show, assassinate President Ilham Aliyev, and blow up a couple of mosques and five-star hotels into the bargain.
As with previous reported cases of planned terror attacks, Azerbaijani’s ever-alert security officials are always a step ahead of the villains, but prefer not to share many details. Forty members of the group, allegedly based in Russia's North Caucasus, were arrested, while their leader, a certain Vugar Padarov, was killed in a shootout, the government claims.
What happens if European pop music and Islamic fundamentalism -- two equally powerful forces -- come head to head in Baku this week? Signs of a sequins-versus-turbans face-off already are emerging, as Azerbaijan, the host of the Eurovision 2012 Song Contest, does battle with a steady stream of tongue-lashing from neighboring Iran.
Apparently, Tehran has put aside its earlier worries of a possible Western attack on its nuclear facilities to focus on the more pressing matter of a syncopated saturnalia with gay overtones erupting to Iran's north.
The words "Azerbaijan" and "gay pride" are not often seen together, but one senior Azerbaijani presidential administration official nonetheless felt the need to clarify matters for Iran.
“We are hosting a song contest, not a gay parade,” bristled Ali Hasanov, head of the administration's political and public policy department and Azerbaijan's de-facto point-man for all Eurovision PR matters. “I do not know who got this idea into their heads in Iran.”
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.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s son-in-law, pop singer Emin Agalarov, has been confirmed as an act for Baku’s staging of Eurovision, the European Broadcasting Union’s annual pop blow-out, but a senior contest executive maintains that special interests did not play a role in the decision.
In a May 2 statement, the Eurovision.tv website announced that guest acts for the May 22-26 event “combine Azerbaijan’s music and culture and are a synthesis of national traditions and modern trends.” Along with the 32-year-old Agalarov, the Azerbaijan National Dance Ensemble, mugham singer Alim Gasimov and the band Natiq will also take part.
Agalarov’s inclusion, originally announced last month by the Moscow-based singer himself, had sparked criticism about favoritism. First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva heads the organizational committee for the event, which kicks off the day after the May 21 worldwide release of Agalarov’s latest album, “After the Thunder.”
But in emailed comments on May 3, Sietse Bakker, event supervisor for the Eurovision Song Contest 2012, maintained that “[t]he people who have proposed Emin as [an] interval act have only one interest: To make the best Eurovision Song Contest possible in Azerbaijan.”
Azerbaijan’s public broadcaster, Ictimai TV, was responsible for issuing the invitation, which had to be confirmed by the Eurovision Song Contest committee.
Describing Agalarov , the husband of President Aliyev’s elder daughter, Leyla, as “a respected artist in Azerbaijan and abroad,” Bakker maintained that the European Broadcasting Union, the contest’s producer, “has strict control over the content and would not accept anything but a fantastic interval act.”
“Rejecting Emin because he is the son-in-law of the President would make this a political decision - and that is exactly what we don't want to do,” Bakker added.
Call it Godwin’s law in action; the longer an online debate goes on, the higher the probability becomes that one side will compare the other to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Hence, it took only so much German criticism of Azerbaijan's human rights record ahead of next month's Eurovision show in Baku before the country's ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party compared the Germans to the Nazis.
Like many Azerbaijani critics, many German officials and journalists have been thinking out loud that the continent’s major song contest should be used to push for an end to crackdowns on political dissent, free media and basic property rights, among other problem areas.
Zerkalo (The Mirror) newspaper reporter Idrak Abbasov, the recent recipient of an Index on Censorship award, was filming SOCAR's demolition of illegally constructed residences in a Baku suburb when company guards set upon him, grabbing his camera, and knocking him to the ground, Turan news agency reported. Abbasov is now reportedly unconscious in a Baku clinic. SOCAR itself has not responded to the incident
Abbasov has a long history of run-ins with SOCAR in connection with his coverage of the company's demolition of houses on property it claims as its own. One of those demolitions included part of Abbasov's own house.
Striking first and thinking later has become a time-honored tradition for responses to media that poke Azerbaijani officialdom in sensitive spots, and, apparently, one that the muscle at SOCAR see no reason to cast aside -- Eurovision or no Eurovision.
Two big news topics involving Azerbaijan recently have been a report about its alleged military cooperation with Israel against Iran and, of course, the ongoing saga of its preparations for next month's Eurovision in Baku. It didn't take long before the two topics merged.
A senior Azerbaijani government official has announced that Baku will neither help Israel attack Iran, nor will it need Israeli assistance to provide security for the international pop singers who will be in town for the Eurovision Song Contest. In response to media reports that claimed Mossad will be lending a hand at Eurovision, Ali Hasanov, the presidential administration's front-man for matters political, clarified that “Azerbaijan does not need the help of foreign special services, including the special services of Israel."
He went on to repeat denials that Azerbaijan is collaborating with Israel against Iran, saying that "Mossad does not have any secret or special chapter in Azerbaijan . . . "
"All of Azerbaijan's relations with other countries are transparent, and they are not and will not be directed against some other country, especially Iran,” he claimed.
Few people may think that Eurovision, an unbridled celebration of European pop music, is all about family values. But when the glitzy annual music contest due arrives in Baku this May, the Caucasus tradition of looking out for one's relatives quite literally will take center stage. Emin Agalarov, the 32-year-old son-in-law of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, has been recruited to entertain the Eurovision audience before or between the contestants' acts.
Not to belittle the talent of a First Son-in-Law (married to Aliyev's older daughter, Leyla), but, to many, this looks almost like a classic move for a country renowned for liking to keep things in the family; the Aliyev family, that is.
The Eurovision organizing committee is headed by Agalarov's mother-in-law, First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva.
Agalarov, who sings in English and was raised partly in New Jersey, said he is humbled by the honor bestowed on him and hopes that Eurovision will be “an incredible showcase” for Azerbaijan that will prompt outsiders to Google the country's name and drop by for a visit.
European pop beats will hit Azerbaijan soon, but, before that, looks like the police are doing the hitting. Just like almost anything from Azerbaijan these days, the recent beatings and arrests of protesting youth rappers are being weighed against the Eurovision Song Contest, an annual pop-music romp to be hosted by Baku in May .
Singer Jamal Ali and brass player Natiq Kalmilov, both 24, were reportedly brutally beaten and then arrested after they hurled verbal abuse against Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev at a sanctioned March 17 protest rally in Baku. The event’s organizer, 25-year-old Etibar Salmanli, was also detained. Their lawyer and relatives are worried that the three continue to suffer abuse in police custody.
In a statement, human-rights watchdog Amnesty International*, a frequent Azerbaijan critic, condemned the reported police violence against the anti-government rappers. “It is deeply ironic that only two months before Baku takes the world stage for Eurovision, Azerbaijani authorities are using force to break up and silence musicians performing at peaceful protests on the city’s streets,” said Europe and Central Asia Director John Dulhuisen.
Amnesty urged the government “to give a greater voice to all its citizens in the run-up to the Eurovision Song Contest.”
There appears to be ample cause. Last week, Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who works for both RFE/RL and EurasiaNet.org, became a target of an ugly smear campaign while investigating a Eurovision story, and thinks that the government could have a hand in it. Earlier on, two youth activists were beaten by police. The two, just as the rappers, were charged with hooliganism.