Eurovision turns spotlight on Azerbaijan

Eurovision contest in Duesseldorf, May 2011
Image caption Eurovision will bring some international glitz to Azerbaijan

Victory in the Eurovision Song Contest has given Azerbaijan a unique opportunity to showcase its culture, when it hosts the event next year. But it will also throw a spotlight on its much-criticised human rights record, and comes amid growing fears of war.

Last weekend's win by the duo Ell and Nikki sparked celebrations on the streets of the capital, Baku, despite being announced in the middle of the night.

President Ilham Aliyev called the result "a great success of the Azerbaijani state and people". The country's public broadcaster said it would give the country a chance to show off its culture and traditions to the whole of Europe.

After all, Eurovision, that riotous celebration of sequins, high-kicks and cheesy lyrics, is one of the most watched televised events in the world, attracting more than 100 million viewers.

So host countries see the competition as a major PR opportunity to boost tourism and trade - something particularly appreciated by the former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, squeezed into an often overlooked region between Russia, Iran and Turkey.

'Fake charges'

But light-hearted Eurovision camp sits uneasily with Azerbaijan's human rights record.

When it comes to media freedom, Azerbaijan is ranked 171 out of 191 countries by the Freedom House NGO. In March and April, hundreds of people were detained in peaceful protests against the government. And, according to Amnesty International, increasing numbers of journalists and youth activists are being imprisoned on fabricated charges.

One of those, Amnesty says, is 20-year-old Jabbar Savalan, who at the beginning of May was convicted to two-and-a-half years in prison on drugs charges, after calling for anti-government protests on Facebook.

Human rights activists are now hoping that Eurovision will bring more than just upbeat jingles to the Azeri capital, Baku.

"This victory will now put Azerbaijan in the spotlight which could mean that the government starts treating its citizens better," says Baku-based political analyst Tabib Huseynov.

"The Azeri government cares about its international image. And when you are in the spotlight you behave better."

The authorities in Azerbaijan deny accusations of human rights abuses. When asked by the BBC why peaceful protesters are arrested, government officials said demonstrations are allowed, but only in permitted areas outside the city centre.

Image caption Ell and Nikki made a triumphant return home to Baku on Tuesday


It is unlikely that international attention during a song festival will necessarily lead to the release of government critics. After all, condemnation from the European Parliament and the European Court of Human Rights has so far not led to that. But the hope is that Azerbaijan will at least try to avoid international criticism which could mar the celebrations.

But Arastun Orujlu, head of the East-West Research Center in Baku, says Eurovision is actually being used to shore up the government's position.

"President Aliyev is promoting the Eurovision win as a success of the government," he said.

"Officials are not prepared to accept there are any problems with democracy, media freedom or human rights. If they deny these problems even exist, it's clear they are not ready for democratic development."

One problem that cannot be denied, however, is the conflict with Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The two countries went to war over the enclave in 1992 after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Around 25,000 people were killed and more than a million became refugees.

A tenuous ceasefire was agreed in 1994. But both sides are even now acquiring more sophisticated weaponry and upping the bellicose rhetoric. The number of skirmishes and fatalities on the front line is rising, and peace talks have stalled. So there is a growing risk that the already precarious situation could spiral out of control, leading to an accidental war.

"We're stuck unfortunately in a quagmire," says Laurence Sheets, of the International Crisis Group. "This is a region of tremendous strategic and energy importance to the entire world. And there is the potential for countries like Turkey, a Nato member, Russia or Iran to be drawn into war or open hostilities."

Personal connections

Image caption Tension and deadly skirmishes between Azeri and Armenian forces continue

In such a tense environment, even the apparently innocent fun of the Eurovision Song Contest is politically sensitive. In 2009, Azerbaijan's ministry of national security called Azeris accused of voting for Armenia in for questioning. Voting in Eurovision is a matter of national security, was the explanation of the authorities.

Next year's event in Baku has the potential to bring both sides together. If the Armenian delegates decide to attend, and the Azeri authorities welcome them, Eurovision's party atmosphere could provide a rare opportunity. If people meet on a personal level, Arastun Orujlu believes, they inevitably stop fighting.

"It's only the governments on both sides which are aggressive because they can blame domestic problems on the conflict," he said "But people themselves are tired. They want to co-operate."

This year Armenia's entry sang "boom, boom, chaka, chaka" while emerging out of a giant boxing glove on stage - seen by some as a metaphor for winning the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The lyrics at Eurovision are not always the most erudite. But if Eurovision can help ease tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, there may be some sense to them after all.

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