When the music dies: Azerbaijan one year after Eurovision

As was the case with former Eurovision host Azerbaijan, sometimes it’s better not to boycott them.

Eurovision Song Contest 2012 in Baku
Last year's Eurovision Song Contest was held in Azerbaijan, a country known for its poor human rights record [EPA]

As an estimated 125 million viewers tuned in to watch the grand final of the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest in Malmö, Sweden, on May 18, I could not help but think how different this year’s Eurovision experience was from last year’s, when the contest was held in Baku, Azerbaijan. 

Azerbaijan became the host of the contest through Eurovision’s normal process: the country whose entry wins the contest one year becomes host the next. Azerbaijan’s competitors, Ell and Nikki, won Eurovision 2011, and so Baku was set as the location for Eurovision 2012. 

However, Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record made the country a controversial choice. Over the past several years, Azerbaijan has become increasingly authoritarian, as the authorities have used tactics such as harassment, intimidation, blackmail, attack and imprisonment to silence the regime’s critics, whether journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders, political activists, or ordinary people taking to the streets in protest. When pressed, even the generally spineless European Broadcasting Union, which organises Eurovision, had to admit that Azerbaijan did not respect the right to freedom of expression. 

But Eurovision 2012 was by no means the only time the question had arisen: should international sporting and entertainment events be held in non-democratic countries? Other notable examples of controversial events include last month’s Formula One Grand Prix race in Bahrain, the Euro 2012 football tournament in Ukraine and various Olympic Games. 

The question of whether to boycott such events in non-democratic countries is complex, and responses are often divided, both among the international community and domestic groups, even those staging protests in connection with these events. 

For example, during the protests in the run-up to the Formula One Grand Prix race in Bahrain, protesters did call for a boycott, chanting: “Your race is a crime”. However, Sheikh Ali Salman, the head of opposition bloc Al-Wefaq, which organised some of the protests, told Al Jazeera, “We do not want to hold up the race, but we are trying to benefit from the increased media presence.” 

Indeed, the increased international media attention to non-democratic countries when they host such events can help significantly in shedding light on human rights abuses that would otherwise not be exposed to the mainstream international public. But once this international attention has faded, local activists can be left in a worse position than when they started – as currently seems to be the case in Bahrain. 

Azerbaijan’s Eurovision experience 

Rather than calling for a boycott of Eurovision 2012, Azerbaijani activists opted to use the higher-than-usual level of international media interest in the country to draw attention to human rights violations and press for democratic change. They, like most Azerbaijanis, did not oppose holding the event in the country, and in fact, many were proud to host Eurovision. But they wanted to ensure that the real situation in the country, behind the “glitz and glam” of Eurovision, was exposed. 

Azerbaijan wins first Eurovision song contest

Most international human rights organisations also chose not to call for a boycott of Eurovision 2012. Instead, they supported the efforts of local activists through initiatives such as the Sing for Democracy campaign, which used Eurovision as a platform to expose human rights issues in the country and promote democratic reforms, and published their own reports exposing human rights violations in the country. 

This tactic was by some measures effective, as for a brief period, there was intense scrutiny by mainstream media outlets in countries with previously scarce media coverage of non-energy related issues in Azerbaijan. At the time I was working with ARTICLE 19, coordinating the International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan, a coalition of international organisations working to promote and protect freedom of expression in the country. I was struck by the stark contrast in the media’s interest in our issues during this period as compared to the norm. 

Typically, stories on Azerbaijan are a difficult pitch to the international press, and often even significant human rights developments are covered only by outlets with a strong focus on the former Soviet Union, such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Eurasianet. But in the run-up to Eurovision 2012, journalists began to seek out those of us with expertise on human rights issues in the country, asking for information, interviews and local contacts. Suddenly, television stations such as CNN, the BBC and the UK’s Channel 4, and newspapers such as The New York Times, The Independent and Der Spiegel were running in-depth coverage of human rights issues in Azerbaijan. 

Eurovision’s aftermath 

But this victory was short-lived, and not without costs. President Ilham Aliyev and other high-level officials have repeatedly called activists who were critical in the run-up to Eurovision “anti-national forces” and “traitors”, with a senior presidential adviser calling for public hatred to be shown to them. Human rights lawyer Bakhtiyar Mammadov, who represented families that were forcibly evicted from the area where the Eurovision venue, Crystal Hall, was constructed, was sentenced to eight years in prison on what seem to be politically motivated charges of extortion. 

Photojournalist and activist with the Sing for Democracy campaign Mehman Huseynov faces five years in prison if convicted of politically motivated hooliganism charges stemming from a pre-Eurovision protest. Human rights defenders Emin Huseynov and Rasul Jafarov, two of the organisers of Sing for Democracy, were expelled from Baku State University, where they were studying law. 

One year later, the human rights situation in Azerbaijan is markedly worse than before Eurovision 2012. The authorities are currently engaged in an unprecedented crackdown to silence the few remaining critical voices in the country. There are now more than 50 political prisoners, including seven journalists, two human rights defenders and scores of political activists, including the opposition Republican Alternative (REAL) movement’s presidential candidate, Ilgar Mammadov. 

The authorities are making moves against local and foreign NGOs alike, and becoming increasingly hostile towards international organisations. They are adopting regressive legislation and applying it politically to target their critics. They are now crossing what many see as the last red line, by taking action to limit internet freedom. The situation is likely to continue to deteriorate in the run-up to the country’s October presidential election. 

Views of local activists 

Despite this, most Azerbaijani activists stood behind their decision not to call for a boycott of Eurovision 2012. Further, many remain open to the prospect of other international events taking place in Azerbaijan in the future. For example, in January it was announced that the first European Olympics would take place in Baku in 2015. Some local groups are already planning campaign activities in connection with the event. 

Human Rights Club chairman and coordinator of the Sing for Democracy campaign Rasul Jafarov explained, “We knew the campaign wouldn’t solve all of our problems. We knew there would be retaliation, and it has happened. But Eurovision helped us to raise international awareness about the situation in Azerbaijan, and there were some positive results.” Jafarov believes that a temporary decrease in the level of political arrests and the early release of some political prisoners was a direct result of international attention related to the contest. He views the current crackdown as more connected to the upcoming presidential election than a lingering effect of Eurovision 2012. 

Human rights defender Vugar Gojayev agrees that the 2012 song contest was beneficial from an advocacy perspective. “In recent decades, no other event has captured that level of international attention to human rights abuses on the ground,” he said. However, he also believes that Eurovision directly caused a number of violations. Gojayev himself was forced to leave Azerbaijan for safety after he and his family were threatened in connection with Gojayev’s human rights work in the period surrounding Eurovision. He pointed to new cases of political imprisonment and widespread violations of property rights as other examples of Eurovision’s impact. 

As for the prospect of hosting Eurovision again in the future – which was almost a possibility for 2014 as Azerbaijan’s representative, Farid Mammadov, came in second in this year’s final – the two have split views. Jafarov actively used social media networks to encourage people to vote for Azerbaijan. As he told me, “We wish we could win Eurovision again, in fact, as often as possible.” 

Baku residents say Eurovision has led to evictions

But the cost of Eurovision 2012 has weighed heavier on Gojayev, who told me he would object to hosting Eurovision in the country again. “It is definitely not worth it when the basic rights of people are ignored for the sake of an entertainment event,” he said. While he would also think twice about other such events in the future, Gojayev said it is too early to make the call about whether to boycott the 2015 European Olympics. He said rights groups and international organisations should be working now to develop a clear strategy for how best to use the event as a platform to improve the human rights situation in the country and press the government to fulfil its international obligations. 

The boycott dilemma 

It can be difficult for international observers to determine their best course of action when it comes to these events being held in non-democratic countries. As a general guideline, I believe that we should take our cue from the local activists, assessing how to approach each event on a case-by-case basis. We should strive to abide by a “do no harm” principle, seeking not to make the situation unnecessarily worse for individuals already at risk. Activists in repressive countries are used to taking on a certain degree of risk, and are best placed to assess what tactic is more likely to be effective, and whether the potential gains are worth the potential costs. And most importantly, we should ensure that we remain attentive and supportive in the aftermath of these events, as local activists become more vulnerable to acts of retaliation once international attention has shifted from their country. 

Although there certainly were repercussions against activists who were critical in the run-up to Eurovision and other international events in Azerbaijan in 2012 (and in fact, I was kicked out of Azerbaijan in connection with my human rights work shortly after the country hosted the Internet Governance Forum in November 2012), I stand by the decision we took not to call for a boycott of the event. Because of the courageous efforts of local activists in the run-up to Eurovision 2012, the world now knows more than it used to about human rights violations in Azerbaijan. These brave individuals deserve international support and protection as they face retaliation for exposing unsavoury truths. 

And as international attention shifts from Eurovision until next year’s contest in Denmark, I hope some will at least remember the words of Eurovision 2012’s winner, Swedish pop star Loreen, who was the only competitor to take the time whilst she was in Baku to visit local rights groups and ask questions about the human rights situation in the country. When asked about the experience by a local newspaper, she said “Human rights are violated in Azerbaijan every day. One should not be silent about such things.” 

Indeed, one should not.

Rebecca Vincent is an American-British human rights activist currently based in London. She is a former US diplomat and has worked with a wide range of international and Azerbaijani human rights and freedom of expression organisations.

Follow her on Twitter: @rebecca_vincent

You can follow the editor on Twitter: @nyktweets