Azerbaijan, which is to begin hosting the Eurovision Song Contest 2012 on 22 May [the final takes place on Saturday 26 May], is systematically applying to organise international events. Following the rejection of its application to host of the 2016 Olympics, it submitted a further demand for the 2020 Olympics and the European Football Championship of the same year.
All of this indicates that the country, which considers itself to be "a strategic partner" of both the United States and the European Union, feels welcome and at ease in international forums. It also enjoys cordial relations with Estonia: the Estonian parliament has a 14-member Azerbaijan friendship group, while Estonian activists who defend human rights in former Eastern Bloc countries avoid the subject of Azerbaijan: the human rights records of Minsk, Moscow, and, more recently Kiev, might be cause for concern. However, Baku’s is not.
But why is this case? Is Azerbaijan really different to Belarus? Isn’t Baku the capital of a dictatorship? You only have to pose the question for the answer to be immediately apparent, but we prefer not to notice. We know who the opponents of the government are in the country, because they have not been totally silenced. But they have no room for manœuvre.
The reality is that the state which has been chosen as the venue for this year’s joyful international festival is a jailer of journalists and political prisoners, who are no less numerous than they are in Belarus. But we choose to get along with Azerbaijan because it has oil. Unlike many other former Soviet republics, the land of the Azeris is not poor. Kazakhstan is another country that is treated with respect even though it is ruled by an authoritarian government.
We know that these countries have a bad reputation, but we also know that money talks. There will always be someone who knows someone in London or some other city, who, in exchange for funds, is willing to help authoritarian countries develop a glowingly positive image, or at least an image that bears no reference to life and the reality of power in the country.
Eurovision marked by dissent
“Run-up to Eurovision is a headache for Azeri authorities!” announces the Baku based daily Zerkalo. While Michelle Roverelli, a spokeswoman for the famous international contest, has protested against the “the political appropriation of a light-entertainment event”, criticism and threats to the glitch-free conduct of the competition have emerged on all sides, and in particular Germany and certain international NGOs which have called for a boycott.
In the meantime, in Azerbaijan itself, human rights activists and the opposition have been demonstrating to focus international attention on “a deplorable human rights situation marked by the persecution of government opponents, failure to respect the right of assembly, press freedom and freedom of speech”. For the first time, marchers have demanded the resignation of Ilham Aliev, and a series of further demonstrations has been planned to coincide with the competition. As for the country’s radical Islamists, in a statement published by the Azeri news website Aze, they have announced that Eurovision is “is a nightmare for Muslims”, and pledged that guests and participants will the target of attacks.