A Eurasianet partner post from RFE/RL
There's a side of Azerbaijan that the ruling regime wants the world to see as the country prepares to host the most extravagant Eurovision in the contest's five-decade history.
It's the side that features a multimillion-dollar venue, bespangled performers, and all the frothy pop that audiences have come to expect of the world's most celebrated song competition.
But there's another side that its leaders may be less eager for the world to see -- moments such as May 21, when police in central Baku violently dispersed protesters calling for the right to peaceful assembly. That incident came even as the organizers of the 57th Eurovision contest launched a full week of dress rehearsals and fiercely fought semifinals leading to the grand finale on May 26.
Forty-two countries will be vying for success at this year's competition, which is expected to draw as many as 125 million television viewers worldwide.
But this year, the musical side of the competition almost seems like an afterthought compared to the spectacle and controversy surrounding Azerbaijan's debut as host.
The ruling regime of President Ilham Aliyev has spared no expense in preparing for the event, spending an estimated $134 million on a sparkling new venue alone.
But rights-watchers like Amnesty International say the government has also shown no restraint when it comes to muzzling journalists, activists, and other critics of the Aliyev regime.
Max Tucker, Amnesty's campaigner for Azerbaijan, calls the situation "appalling" and says it sets Baku apart from other post-Soviet countries who have also played Eurovision host in recent years.
"There is a line that you cannot cross," Tucker says. "If you just talk about the president's family or expose some kind of corruption among the ruling oligarchy, then you're really putting yourself at grave risk of abuse and attack. I'd say the situation for freedom of expression for Azerbaijan now is certainly worse than that in Russia and Ukraine."
Journalists have long been considered a primary target of the Aliyev regime.
Azerbaijan last year came in 162nd out of 179 countries in Reporters Without Borders' press-freedom index, with dozens of journalists beaten, jailed, and even killed for their work.
The approach to Eurovision has seen no let-up in the attacks.
Reporter Idrak Abbassov is still recovering from a brutal beating he received by state security personnel after reporting on the illegal demolition of homes in Baku to make way for new real-estate projects.
Khadija Ismailova's critical reporting on high-level government corruption includes a recent RFE/RL report on the government awarding a lucrative gold-mining contract to the Aliyev clan. She was recently the target of a vicious smear campaign after blackmailers threatened to go public with an intimate videotape of her and her boyfriend.
Ismailova has said she believes the blackmailers were acting at the behest of the government.
The regime has also shown little mercy when it comes to public activism. Hundreds of protesters have been beaten, detained, and jailed in the past year for participating in peaceful protests like the May 21 demonstrations in Baku.
There are currently 12 prisoners of conscience being held in Azerbaijani jails, many for their role in antigovernment protests.
A 13th, Elnur Mecidli, was released on May 16 after receiving a two-year sentence for participating in an opposition protest in Baku in April 2011.
But overall, the regime has not used Eurovision as an opportunity for a goodwill amnesty, let alone genuine reform.
Tucker of Amnesty International says neither Europe nor the European Broadcasting Union, which runs Eurovision, have done much to protest continued attacks on journalists or the general climate of repressions under Aliyev.
"The fact that the European Broadcasting Union has been downplaying and keeping silent about human rights abuses has encouraged the authorities to continue, and they now feel that they will not be held accountable by anyone," Tucker says. "We also see that the states of the European Union are very reluctant to talk about human rights in Azerbaijan because of the oil and gas profits coming out of there, and the strategic concerns because it borders Iran and is en route to Afghanistan."
But some European observers expressed hope the mounting criticism of Azerbaijan would still be heard through the carnival din of Eurovision.
Speaking to RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service in Baku, German lawmaker Volker Beck said events like Eurovision should be used not to justify Azerbaijan's regime but to highlight the problems faced by ordinary citizens.
"We cannot tolerate that journalists and bloggers are pressured, that political prisoners sit in jail, that protesters are beaten up, while we keep silent and simply applaud the musicians," Beck said.
RFE/RL's Baku Bureau contributed to this report
Copyright (c) 2012. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036