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Human Rights in Azerbaijan: The Legacy of Eurovision

It was with a conflicted sense of bitterness that I watched countless British Tory MPs espouse their latest vitriol towards all things European this week. Nothing new, there, you might say. The noticeable overlap between Europhobes and homophobes may leave some of their less articulate members – Nadine Dorries and Peter Bone to mention just a couple – panicking under the weight of their own prejudice during this Saturday evening’s Eurovision Song Contest.

Criticism of this annual display of the continent’s musical diversity –which, as it happens goes well beyond the ‘Brusselised’ EU (take note Mr. Farage) – is nothing new, of course. My concern, however, was the collective amnesia inherent amongst Europe’s political elite which, unlike the contest itself, is not something to take light-heartedly. Cast your mind back twelve months to the Baku extravaganza and Azerbaijan’s inaugural privilege as the host nation and suddenly the build-up to tomorrow’s event in Malmo appears disturbingly quiet, no matter how much those backbench voices try.

Certainly, a quick search of ‘Eurovision’ last year yielded an endless return of academic and media publications asserting their disdain at the systematic abuse of human rights in the South Caucasus. Not only did this criticism come from all corners of Europe but it became increasingly vocal in the weeks and days leading up to the May event, a growing voice of dissent which launched an attack upon President Ilham Aliyev’s claim to reform the country’s autocratic human rights agenda for the first significant time.

Twelve months later, perhaps it is worth examining the legacy of the competition in the wider context of the fight for greater individual freedoms in this beautiful, if not largely ignored, corner of Europe.

Ironically cast into the shape of a heart, Azerbaijan has done little to allay its practices of political persecution.

The Republic of Azerbaijan today is a country in which the murderers of independent journalism still run free and one where citizens are imprisoned and exiled for speaking their minds. Proponents of propaganda of different proportions continue to stifle those independent voices. Despite the stance Eurovision threatened on this very issue, journalists are routinely persecuted and are not able to function freely. It is a state where corruption reigns and justice is absent. The infamously opaque nature of Eynulla Fatullayev’s release from prison is as common a feature in 2013 as it ever was during the brief period of external criticism a year earlier. Backed by the slick European Azerbaijani Society (TEAS), institutional venality has gone largely unchecked (TEAS).

Situated within the broader development of linguistic, sexual and political rights across the former Soviet sphere, Azerbaijan’s current problems are clearly not unique; thwarted LGBT protests in Ukraine mirror the battling pursuit for gender equality in Georgia. That said, the glaring fact remains that the pressure exerted on Azerbaijan last year has had minimal effect. The country’s young activists have fallen afoul of international political inertia, and the subsequent lack of reform has therefore been lost all together on the national mainstream media in the West. This raises serious questions about the capacity to prevent international events taking place in autocratic countries.

Perhaps of greater concern, however, is that human rights organisations have been unable to affect and sustain genuine calls for humanitarian reform insofar as the media discourse in which they operate continues to be defined by short-termism. Put simply, international events may produce a period during which the terror fleetingly subsides but don’t be fooled – once the trophies are handed out and the international media turn their attention to the next ‘problem country’ the repression returns. The only difference is the level of scaremongering and coercion, now characterised by an even fiercer bitterness at having suffered the embarrassment of being temporarily exposed.

To that end, perhaps it would be wise to check in again in three months and not leave it until Dublin or Kiev 2014, by which time the unforgiving Caspian winter may have frozen out the last of the spirit in the battle against Aliyev and his ‘reforms’. That could be something to think about as the continent sits and waits for Greece and Cyprus to hand each other the annual douze points in Sweden this Saturday.