In just over two weeks' time Eurovision will go to Azerbaijan and the eyes of the European pop viewing public will be on Baku—a city on the shores of the Caspian known largely as a hub for oil and gas, which visitors can literally smell in the city air.
Activists are hoping that a television audience of millions as well as visiting journalists and fans flocking to town for the May 22 event will scrutinize more than the glittering outfits or the purpose-built Crystal Hall, part of a Eurovision complex that will have cost this small country an estimated $277 million.
Forced evictions, unlawful expropriations, and house demolitions have characterized the capital’s “beautification” program. Activists in Baku are now calling on Eurovision contestants to "Sing for Democracy" in Azerbaijan. The recent release of a video petition dedicated to two journalists who have been killed, 70 political prisoners languishing in jails amid allegations of torture, and the families forced out of their homes to make way for Eurovision’s glittering facades is just one effort in a campaign activists will hope to escalate in the coming weeks. The flagship event Sing for Democracy is now working towards is an open air concert on May 18. It is as yet undecided whether the authorities (including the wife of the president, who is heads the Eurovision committee) will grant the relevant permission.
International scrutiny and oversight are vital in this hydrocarbon-rich country, because in Azerbaijan asking certain questions or voicing dissenting opinions is not encouraged. Governance is highly authoritarian and centralized around the presidential family. Business dealings are opaque and corruption is endemic. Rumors circulate involving lavish purchases and profiteering by the presidential family including the recent finding by a Radio Free Europe investigative journalist that a lucrative mining contract has been awarded to the president’s family.
Telling that story and others came at great personal cost to the journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, who was subjected to a blackmailing campaign in March, suspected by many, including Members of the European Parliament, who wrote a letter of protest to the president on her behalf, to be officially sanctioned. Civil society in Azerbaijan, including the media, has a key role to play in protecting the public interest – just as we expect them to do actively elsewhere in Europe.
Yet as events within the last month show, when journalists try to work they are intimidated, held incommunicado as in the case of Zaur Guliyev and Vugar Gonagov or beaten unconscious, as was Idrak Abbasov at the hands of State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) officials, when he tried to document illegal housing evictions linked to the SOCAR pipeline construction. Others have been forced into exile.
By contrast, the government is keen to use its state-controlled media to accuse local rights activists and foreign governments who speak out—in particular Germany—of scandalizing the country. Even those who work cooperatively with the government can fall foul of it. In the last two weeks a leading figure in the Azerbaijan chapter of the international Publish What You Pay—an NGO campaign which fights for transparency and civic oversight of oil and gas revenues and which had enjoyed early success in engaging the government on such questions—was unlawfully detained following a public meeting. This is despite the fact that Azerbaijan is signed up to allow civil society participation and oversight under the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.
Two liberal-leaning former members of the ruling party, including the former Minister of Economic Development, are also in jail serving long sentences for corruption – an indication that no one is safe once they get on the wrong side of the Presidential administration, absent the rule of law in the country.
International companies too have counted the cost of operating within this regime. Nestle withdrew from Azerbaijan in March in a decision which has been linked to corruption and the company’s alleged refusal to pay bribes or deviate from official tax payments. The many oil and gas companies , hungry for Azerbaijan’s oil and gas, must take note and demand high levels of transparency and human rights protection (from freedom of expression to property rights) in their dealings with Azerbaijan.
The stakes are high, not only for Azerbaijan. Investigations into Azerbaijan’s networks of lobbying and influence in key European capitals reveal worrying trends; rather than extending European standards to Azerbaijan through its membership of the Council of Europe, Azerbaijan’s network of interest groups is seemingly undermining standards and values within these institutions. Whilst former parliamentarians find employment as lobbyists for Azerbaijan, elected rapporteurs of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) are openly disregarded.
Christoph Strässer, PACE (Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe) rapporteur on Political Prisoners in Azerbaijan has been prevented multiple times by the Azerbaijani authorities from fulfilling his full mandate; “an unprecedented course of action” Strässer himself acknowledges.
At the same time, the EU has launched a judicial cooperation program with the government worth €800,000, and has signed up on paper to a Trans-Caspian pipeline with Azerbaijan amid jostling by national champions including the UK’s BP, France’s Total together with Statoil and others for lucrative pipeline deals. Yet these companies need to reflect—as Nestle appears to have done—on the cost benefits to themselves and ordinary Azerbaijanis of engaging Azerbaijan without clear conditions on rule of law, transparency and, underpinning both these principles, human rights.
A good place to start a more comprehensive cooperation would be to support independent civil society groups and call on the government to allow these groups to participate in public actions, express themselves freely without fear of intimidation, and protest without being gagged and jailed.
Meanwhile, activists from Sing for Democracy continue to petition to hold their open air concert on May 18. The festival will feature songs to freedom and human rights, and represent the best talent of Azerbaijan—a young, well educated and courageous citizenry who want their country to have a bright and democratic future, and to show it is part of the European family by deeds rather than expensive PR. It remains to be seen whether the authorities will raise their standards to meet those of their citizens by allowing this event to take place.