Baku pins hopes on Eurovision to boost image


Two weeks before it hosts the song contest, Azerbaijan is ready for its day in the spotlight – but some believe its gleaming capital is a distraction from its darker side, writes  DANIEL McLAUGHLINin Baku

THE CITY OUTSIDE Khadija Ismayilova’s window is changing by the week. Oil and gas from beneath the Caspian Sea are turning Baku from a post-Soviet backwater into the Dubai of the south Caucasus, where the creations of world-famous architects rise between boutiques offering exclusive fashions and jewellery to Azerbaijan’s free-spending elite.

The country’s president, Ilham Aliyev, believes this transformation deserves a wider audience than jaded oilmen, occasional visiting dignitaries and Baku’s two million people.

And this month it will get it, when acts from 42 countries take to the stage of the new Crystal Hall for the Eurovision Song Contest, watched by an expected 125 million television viewers from the Caspian to the Atlantic.

Jedward and rivals will be part of a spectacle that, Azerbaijan’s rulers hope, will fill a blank space on most people’s mental map of Europe with striking images of Baku, so attracting more tourists and businessmen to the city and boosting its bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games.

Ismayilova won’t be at the €100 million Crystal Hall for the Eurovision final on May 26th. But she knows better than most how Baku, and its people’s lives, are changing. Her life was altered forever by an envelope she received on March 7th. It contained six photographs of her having sex and a note saying: “You whore, behave or you will be defamed.”

Ismayilova is Azerbaijan’s best-known investigative journalist, and her articles and broadcasts for Radio Free Europe revealing the wealth and corruption of the Azerbaijani elite have won international acclaim and exposed how the Aliyev family and their allies run the country.

She is not the first journalist to be threatened in Azerbaijan, and some have been beaten and jailed in apparent punishment for their work. Elmar Huseynov, the chief editor of an opposition newspaper, was shot dead in front of his home in Baku in 2005. His killers have not been found.

“I had to decide whether to be silent or go public,” says Ismayilova. “And so I went public. My anger was bigger than my fear. I didn’t want to stop my work, and to stop would mean they had won.”

She has no doubt that the state security services were behind the blackmail, and in a flat near her home she found wires leading to a compartment where a hidden camera had filmed her; she is sure that her telephone, email and meetings are monitored.

Ismayilova held a press conference to publicise the threats made against her, and asked the police to investigate. A few days later, footage of her having sex appeared on the internet, and state-controlled media denounced her as “a loose woman, an alcoholic and other things”, she recalls.

Ismayilova says international outrage prompted officials to take a reluctant stand on the issue, as the approach of Eurovision sharpened concern about how Azerbaijan was seen abroad. The authorities called the video “part of propagandistic campaign by subversive forces, who try to violate stability in Azerbaijan, to damage the international image of the country, to create tensions and confusion in society”.

“We have friends but also enemies in the world,” says Ali Hasanov, a close adviser to Ilham Aliyev and earlier to his father, Heydar, who in succession have ruled the nation since 1993.

“Eurovision is, of course, a great event for the image of Azerbaijan, but those countries that are against us have tripled or quadrupled their efforts to destabilise and discredit Azerbaijan and the good things happening here.”

When it is suggested that only the security services could have installed a secret camera and filmed Ismayilova, Hasanov shoots back: “But security officials of which country?”

Everywhere from taxi cabs to cabinet offices, conspiracy theories thrive in Azerbaijan. Most involve Armenia, with which Azerbaijan is still technically at war after a 1988-94 conflict, and which is boycotting Eurovision after Aliyev said “our main enemies are Armenians of the world and the hypocritical and corrupt politicians under their control”.

Azerbaijanis can seem paranoid, but they live in a tough neighbourhood. As well as bordering Georgia and Turkey, Azerbaijan is hemmed in by Iran, Armenia, Russia and the Caspian Sea, across which lies despotic Turkmenistan.

Government supporters insist Azerbaijan is not in bad shape when you consider its location, its history within Persian, tsarist and Soviet empires, the “occupation” of about 20 per cent of its territory by Armenian forces and the displacement of up to a million of its people by war.

“We have a young population, a young democracy, which is developing very quickly,” says Elmar Mammadyarov, Azerbaijan’s foreign minister. “We have to be tolerant of criticism, but sometimes it is overplayed. I cannot recognise criticism of free media and free expression when almost 100 per cent of our people have access to the internet and can look at any media they want. There is always room for increasing the fight against human-rights abuses and strengthening rule of law. But as our late leader Heydar Aliyev said, democracy isn’t an apple I can buy in a store. It is a day-by-day process.”

The opposition were last month allowed to hold their first protest in Baku for seven years. But Azerbaijan fares dismally in global rankings on press freedom, democracy and corruption, and activists such as Jamal Ali believe that any signs of a political thaw will vanish after Eurovision.

The 24-year-old musician was arrested on March 17th after insulting the president and his late mother during a concert. He was jailed for 10 days, during which he says police punched him and beat his feet with batons.

“It would have been much worse without the media attention on Azerbaijan before Eurovision. They can jail you for five years for insulting the president in public, so now I might leave the country. If I stay, after Eurovision they could jail me for much longer,” he says.

“I wanted to show that some people are not afraid to speak out. To show that the government can’t just control me. Most people just keep their heads down and try to look after their family and obey the rules. For 20 years, people have been taught that the Aliyevs are the kings and that’s it – there’s nothing you can do. Whatever you try, you run into the fist of the government. It’s all about the Aliyevs, their friends and their money. I want people my age to see things could be different.”

Eurovision has the look of a ruling-family affair, with Aliyev’s glamorous wife leading the organising committee and his son-in-law scheduled to sing during a break in the contest.

Rights groups have also criticised the demolition of people’s homes during a pre-Eurovision building programme. Officials insist that proper compensation has been paid to all affected families.

“The government lost the war with Armenia, lost control of 20 per cent of Azeri territory, lost the chance to make the country a proper free-market democracy. They have failed in every single field,” says Ismayilova. Now the ruling family is basing its propaganda around Eurovision. They must have a victory – even if it’s just a silly song contest.”

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