SWEDISH EUROVISION WINNER MEETS AZERBAIJANI ACTIVISTS
“Euphoria,” sung by Swedish entry Loreen won the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest hosted by Azerbaijan on May 26. By singing of freedom, “where everything’s allowed,” Loreen was the only contestant to meet with Azerbaijani human rights activists on the eve of the final, which was met objections from Azerbaijani officials.
Loreen met with activists who accused the government of human rights violations, some of which related to evictions from houses that were demolished for the sake of the building of the Crystal Hall where the song contest final was held on Saturday night. According to official information, the 23,000-seat arena that was built by a German firm in eight months is estimated to have cost US$ 64 million, but independent experts claim that the cost is much higher. Even relying on official figures, the 57th Eurovision song contest in Baku became the most expensive, overshadowing the one organized by Russia in 2009.
Human rights groups say some buildings in the centre of Baku were demolished especially for the purpose of constructing new buildings for the song contest and that the forced eviction of residents, especially in areas around the Crystal Hall, casts a shadow over the event.
“..Unbelievable, unbelievable…,” Azeri opposition newspaper Azadliq quoted Loreen as saying after viewing images of the evictions. “Human rights are violated in Azerbaijan every day. One should not be silent about such things.” Loreen, who won the contest by her emotional performance on stage, stood out among the 26 contestants through her meeting with some non-governmental organizations and democratic movements, including the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), Club of Human Rights and “Sing for Democracy.” According to APA news agency, the meeting was organized by Swedish organization “Human Rights Defenders” and Norwegian House of Human Rights.
In addition, APA claimed that Swedish ambassador Mikael Eriksson had “instructed” Loreen to attend the meeting and make “political statements” from the Eurovison stage. This caused the senior presidential administration official Ali Hasanov to tell local media that the EBU, the association responsible for staging the contest, should prevent such meetings with “anti-Azerbaijani” groups. “The European Broadcasting Union must intervene in this issue and stop these politicized actions,” Hasanov told Trend news agency.
However, the Swedish foreign ministry denied that the ambassador has given any instructions to Loreen. “There is no substance to the rumor that the ambassador has asked Loreen to make any political statements,” said Theo Zetterman at the ministry to the daily Expressen. Ambassador Eriksson told APA that he was asked by Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry about Loreen’s meeting and answered that he was aware of such meetings of the singer, but “this was her own choice; I didn’t participate and didn’t initiate this meeting.”
The head of the EBU told the BBC that the evictions were necessary for such a large event:
“To be very frank, I think evictions are taking place everywhere. It is more about the way that you’re doing it, about proper procedures, proper compensations and here I can’t comment because I don’t know but again, when the Olympic village was built in London there were evictions as well and you had heavy protests.”
The government also denies the activists’ charges that hundreds of Baku residents were not fairly compensated when they were forced to leave their homes in order to make way for construction projects. Despite the effort by the authorities to highlight the transformation of Azerbaijan into a glamorous and modern destination for tourism and business, critics of President Ilham Aliyev’s government have taken the opportunity provided by the Eurovision contest to air allegations of human rights abuses.
On May 22, police arrested 25-year-old Anar Aliyev as he distributed postcards to passers-by near the May 28 subway station. The postcards criticized the government, including by mocking government slogans. For example, the government’s slogan designed for Eurovision, “Light your Fire!” was rewritten as “Fight your Liars!” in reference to government officials.
When Aliyev refused to answer officers’ questions about where he had obtained the postcards, they allegedly threatened to assault him sexually with a bottle. The police did not allow Aliyev to contact either his family or his lawyer and held him overnight in a room in the police station, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). Azerbaijani authorities detained over 70 peaceful protesters gathered on a seaside promenade in the capital, Baku, HRW reported on May 25. As soon as protesters began to shout “Azadliq!” [“Freedom”], the police grabbed them, covered their mouths, forced them into nearby buses or police cars and drove them away.
“The Eurovision week, instead of being a celebration for all, has been devastating for people trying to exercise their right to free speech in Azerbaijan,” said Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus senior researcher at HRW. “It is incomprehensible that the authorities meet even the most basic attempts at free expression and protest with violence.” This was the third peaceful anti-government demonstration forcibly broken up by police this week. Azerbaijani media reported that a protest outside of the home of a prominent opposition leader took place without police interference.
Eurovision has also been the subject of some tension between Azerbaijan and neighboring Iran. On May 22 Tehran recalled its ambassador for consultations after some of the Islamic Republic’s clerics and lawmakers criticized Azerbaijan's hosting of the contest and a “gay parade” as part of it. That was not true, however Eurovision does draw huge numbers of gay fans. A senior Iranian cleric, Ayatollah Sobhani, issued a statement urging Muslims in the region to protest what he described as anti-Islamic behaviour by Azerbaijan's government.
Also, Tehran was angered by subsequent anti-Iranian protests in Baku to denounce Iran’s perceived anti-Azerbaijani policies and violation of the rights of the Azerbaijani people in Iran, where demonstrators carried pictures of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and banners that read “Azerbaijan does not need clerics-homosexuals!”
“We warned Iran many times … We told them not to interfere in our affairs and we also will not interfere in your affairs,” Ali Hasanov said.
Although opposition activists have successfully promoted their message of discontent, many residents of Azerbaijan are proud of hosting Eurovision and considered the contest as a brilliant opportunity to show the world that Azerbaijan is a modern nation with unique culture.