Thursday, April 24, 2014


Azerbaijan

Eurovision Glitz Is Assured, But For Azerbaijan's Gays, It's Same Old Song

Azerbaijan won hosting rights for this year's Eurovision Song Contest after the country's entry into last year's contest, Ell & Nikki (above), took home top honors.
Azerbaijan won hosting rights for this year's Eurovision Song Contest after the country's entry into last year's contest, Ell & Nikki (above), took home top honors.
TEXT SIZE - +
By Daisy Sindelar
For Ruslan Balukhin, the hardest part about being a young gay man in Azerbaijan is living what he calls a "double life."

Balukhin, the 22-year-old founder of the gay.az support website, has lively online friendships with fellow Azerbaijanis who understand his lifestyle.

"Artists, journalists, actors," he says. "You know -- adults."

But at home with his parents, or in the courtyard with neighbors, Balukhin tries to keep his sexual identity a secret. He's been spared the violent attacks and discrimination suffered by many members of Azerbaijan's homosexual and transgender minority. But he says his sense of isolation is profound.

"The main problem is loneliness," he says. "Society doesn't accept you or your friends. And that's very difficult to deal with."

Living In Shadow

The social stigma attached to homosexuality is hardly unique to Azerbaijan, whose mores are forged from a conservative mix of Muslim faith and Soviet-style squeamishness.

But as Baku prepares to host next week's 57th Eurovision Song Contest -- a bejeweled meringue of a spectacle, with unabashedly gay overtones -- the country's unyielding stance on sexual minorities is coming under fresh scrutiny.

Activist Ruslan Balukhin: "Society doesn't accept you or your friends. And that's very difficult to deal with."Activist Ruslan Balukhin: "Society doesn't accept you or your friends. And that's very difficult to deal with."
x
Activist Ruslan Balukhin: "Society doesn't accept you or your friends. And that's very difficult to deal with."
Activist Ruslan Balukhin: "Society doesn't accept you or your friends. And that's very difficult to deal with."
The oil-rich nation decriminalized homosexuality in 2001. But discrimination and harrassment remain day-to-day facts of life for many members of Azerbaijan's gay community, who have no legal protection and almost no representation in civil society.

On May 17, as gay-rights groups staged protests in nearby Georgia, Ukraine, and Russia to coincide with the International Day Against Homophobia, Baku's streets remained silent.

Hossein Alizadeh of the New York-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission says Azerbaijan's gay population has been intimidated to the point of invisibility.

"In the case of Azerbaijan, we feel that the community of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) activists and individuals do not feel comfortable, at this stage of development, to go public about their existence," he says. "There is not an openly out LGBT group in that country."

'Big Propaganda Show'

Azerbaijan, under the regime of President Ilham Aliyev, has come under mounting censure for its dismal rights record, particularly its jailing of critical journalists and crackdowns on public protests.

International watchdogs like Amnesty International have used the Eurovision Song Contest -- which features 42 country-contestants and is expected to draw upwards of 125 million viewers worldwide -- to refresh global outrage over government repressions.

Volker Beck, an openly gay German lawmaker, traveled to Baku this week to meet with opposition activists and members of the gay community.

"The Aliyev regime should not be allowed to turn Eurovision into a big propaganda show," he said. "We have no choice but to kick this dictator in the shin -- verbally, at least."

The controversy has led some to question whether Eurovision was wrong to grant hosting rights to a country whose indifference to human rights is well-documented.
The government in Baku spent $134 million to build the 23,000-seat Crystal Hall for this year's Eurovision contest.
The government in Baku spent $134 million to build the 23,000-seat Crystal Hall for this year's Eurovision contest.
Eurovision, which was founded in 1956 as a Western European talent-sharing extravaganza, has gradually spread eastward to the countries of the former communist bloc, with Ukraine, Russia, and Serbia all playing host in recent years.

Eurovision's communications manager, Sietse Bakker, says while Eurovision can help shed light on unwelcome policies in host countries, the contest itself has no political agenda. He expressed confidence that gay visitors to the Azerbaijani capital would meet with a warm reception.

"I think it has to be said that gay people are normal people," he says. "They can freely walk around here in Baku, and I'm sure they will all take into consideration the [Azerbaijani] culture as well."

'Land Of Flames'

For European fans making the trip to Baku, confusion over visas and travel plans are proving as complex as concerns about what reception homosexual or transgender tourists may hope to receive.

One long-standing British Eurovision fan, who asked that his name not be used because of continued uncertainty about his own visa, says his upcoming trip to Baku is "a bit of a leap into the unknown."

"It's difficult to gauge what the reception will be," says the fan, who has traveled to past contests in Kyiv, Moscow, and Belgrade and is familiar with the challenges faced by gay and lesbian tourists along Europe's easternmost edge.

Narguiz Birk-Petersen (left), Eldar (Ell) Gasimov (center), and Leyla Aliyeva are this year's Eurovision hosts.Narguiz Birk-Petersen (left), Eldar (Ell) Gasimov (center), and Leyla Aliyeva are this year's Eurovision hosts.
x
Narguiz Birk-Petersen (left), Eldar (Ell) Gasimov (center), and Leyla Aliyeva are this year's Eurovision hosts.
Narguiz Birk-Petersen (left), Eldar (Ell) Gasimov (center), and Leyla Aliyeva are this year's Eurovision hosts.
"We've had some advice from embassy people about etiquette and dress, which makes it a little bit different from previous locations," he adds. "There was one story where people were saying that men shouldn't wear shorts if they're going to Baku, which we certainly haven't heard before. Even getting a guidebook hasn't been that easy."

But while guidebooks have been in short supply, Azerbaijan's main preparations for Eurovision conform impeccably -- perhaps unwittingly -- with the contest's traditional penchant for glitzy camp.

The country has already broken spending records with an outlay of $134 million on its massive Crystal Hall venue alone -- plus a fleet of purple taxis and a promotional campaign that proudly labels Azerbaijan as a "land of flames."

Lost Opportunity?

But there have been serious missteps, as well. When Iran recently launched a series of anti-Eurovision protests that falsely accused activists of planning a gay pride event to coincide with the contest, Azerbaijan shot back -- not by defending gay pride but by holding its own series of anti-Iran protests.

The New York- and London-based Business and Human Rights Resource Center on May 17 issued a warning to visitors to the country against having sex while visiting the country, arguing that the Aliyev regime has routinely used hidden-camera footage from hotels to blackmail its opponents.

Such publicity could hurt Azerbaijan's aim of buffing its image as a player worthy of the world's respect and a prime travel destination for moneyed tourists.
If the Azerbaijani government wishes to be perceived as a modern European country, this is a golden opportunity.

Ian Johnson, the managing director of Out Now, a European agency specializing in LGBT markets, says Azerbaijan's stagnant social policy may leave it locked outside the European club of nations -- not to mention hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue from Europe's upwardly mobile homosexual and transgender tourists.

"The reality for the majority of Europe's citizens is that anything less than genuine acceptance and respect for people who just happen to be born lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender is seen as outdated and really old-fashioned," says Johnson, whose group last year released a first-ever survey of Eurovision's gay fan base. "It's not to be admired. If the Azerbaijani government wishes to be perceived as a modern European country, this is a golden opportunity."

Balukhin, who says he was "shocked" when he learned his country had won the world's most-famous song contest, sees no golden opportunity for his country's fellow gays.

"It's just a song contest," he says. "Tourists will come to Azerbaijan and we'll treat them well, because you always treat your guests well. But after they leave, I don't think anything will change. Because first we need to work with the public, to educate society. But nobody does that, and nobody wants to."

RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report
This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Nightair from: UK
May 17, 2012 19:37
Today has been a sad day in Eurovision world. The hackers, an Azerbaijani anti-gay group, attacked the biggest and one of the oldest Eurovision sites, esctoday.com and destroyed all its content or 12 years old hard work from its editors, among them also yours truly. The text they displayed is translated as follows: "What do gay men bring to Azerbaijan? What will happen in Azerbaijani families after the gay parade? There is no place for gays immoral in Azerbaijan. Leave our country. No place in Azerbaijan for gay men who look like animals. There is no place for the evil in this country. We paint blue to red blood". Also some other sites were down due to attacks today. The official Eurovision website, eurovision.tv was down for a few hours last month for similar attack. So far these's no official statement by EBU for the matter but this published by a German site Prinz.de: "Of course it's unfortunate for these websites and their owners that their websites were attacked. We are here to organize a song contest, not a gay parade. As always, there's a solid security arrangements around the contest." Public relations and communication manager of the Eurovision 2012 Tahir Mammadov told APA that reasons of the incident are being investigated and the public community will be informed in details later.
In Response

by: Caspian from: Baku
May 18, 2012 19:50
I'm sure it is Iranian hackers, backed by their theocratic government. Iran has already organized anti-Eurovision rallies in some Iranian cities with homophobic slogans, and this incident pretty much fits into the official Iranian policy. Iranian hackers organized similar attacks against Azerbaijani websites in the past, so nothing new here.
In Response

by: Caspian from: Baku
May 18, 2012 20:31
For those who can read Russian, some evidence is presented here: http://ann.az/ru/?p=175247

by: Sinav from: South Azerbaycan
May 17, 2012 21:55
I would suggest Hossein Alizadeh to talk about the status of LGBT in Iran too.
He’s got to condemn his fellow Iranians for their interference with the domestic affairs of Azerbaijan and also he shall begin censuring the Iranian government for its sabotage and conspiracies in Azerbaijan. For sure the Islamic establishment in Iran will not remain idle to see the Eurovision going on peacefully in Azerbaijan. This is a pity that an Iranian in whose country the fundamental rights of over 20 million Azerbaijani is violated comes out to defend LGBTs’ rights in Azerbaijan rather than giving a damn about over 20 million colonized Azerbaijanis in Iran.

This is so funny that Volker Beck attacks Ilham Aliyev while he kept his mouth shut when his country in The United Nations’ General Assembly abstained from voting for the resolution that was condemning Armenia for its occupation of 20% of Azerbaijan’s territories. This is a pity that a lawmaker from a country that has no interest in the liberation of Azerbaijani territories comes to Baku and talks about LGBTs’ Rights. We would like him to first talk about 1.5 million Azerbaijanis who have been expelled from their homes as a result of Armenian incursion and this is what we are most concerned about.
In Response

by: Daisy Sindelar from: Prague
May 18, 2012 07:59
Sinav -- I'll refrain from commenting on Mr. Beck's record on Azerbaijan. But as to your first remark, Mr. Alizadeh was in fact very outspoken on the subject of Iran, although I couldn't fit it all within the parameters of the story.

Among other things, he said the following: "There have been rumors [from Iran], numerous government officials talking about Azerbaijan basically dishonoring the Muslim community by allowing a gay parade [during Eurovision]. And also there has been at least one demonstration outside the consulate general of Azerbaijan in Tabriz last week. And several other smaller demonstrations were in different Azeri-speaking cities in Iran protesting to this supposed gay pride parade, which there's no evidence is actually taking place.

"We feel the Iranian government is using this opportunity basically as a hook to put pressure on the Azeri government. From what I understand, there is a great deal of concern from the Iranian side about the popularity of Eurovision, and they want to make sure that such events basically do not draw the attention the Azeri-speaking population of Iran. So they are using political pressure on Azerbaijan and they are using issues such as LGBT issues and the [false rumors about the] gay parade in order to put pressure on government in Baku."

by: nigar from: england
May 18, 2012 08:33
I am living abroad, and I do not see a bad thing to spending gay parade!

by: elxan from: qasimov
May 18, 2012 08:51
Today's the day we live at a time when the independence of these narrow minded people do not understand why it is considered bad in all things, each one able to live as they want! gay parade as well as those of the people! Fortunately, I do not see the evil here

by: Shaking my head from: USA
May 18, 2012 18:28
"...57th Eurovision Song Contest -- a bejeweled meringue of a spectacle, with unabashedly gay overtones..." I couldn't have said it better myself. Every year, for the seven I lived in Europe, I was stymied as to what the fuss was about. The whole Eurovision thing always struck me a "camp" and pretty tawdry. But then I returned to the States to find television dominated by garbage like "America's Got Talent", "Dancing With the Stars," and assorted so-called "reality TV" garbage. Just proves that tastelessness is universal.

by: ESC from: Baku
May 19, 2012 10:37
In response to this: http://www.rferl.org/content/azerbaijan-eurovision-gay-rights-lgbt/24584507.html

check this: http://gayarmenia.blogspot.fr/2012/05/statement-by-ngos-and-activists-re-neo.html

Those who try to damage Azerbaijan's image before the Eurovision song contest by raising the "gay" issue (RFERL is particularly active in this), should instead turn their attention to Armenia. At least, in Azerbaijan we do not have neo-Nazis who come from Iran and attack gay clubs.

by: Natalie from: Germany
May 21, 2012 10:25
Eurovision is not a political, but a cultural event. But European politicians and human rights activists did everything for turning this event into a political show.

by: Paul from: US
May 21, 2012 15:23
RE: Azeri homophobia: is the irony of Azerbaijan's promotional campaign that proudly labels Azerbaijan as a "land of FLAMES" lost on everyone except me??

Most Popular