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Azerbaijan’s Song Contest Victory Puts A President In The Hot Seat

Eurovision Song Contest winners Eldar Gasimov (left) and Nigar Jamal meet the crowds in Baku after their win
Eurovision Song Contest winners Eldar Gasimov (left) and Nigar Jamal meet the crowds in Baku after their win
By Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez
Last month, more than 120 million viewers watched a pop duo from Azerbaijan win the 2011 Eurovision song contest. That’s a bigger audience than any ever recorded for the Academy Awards show.

For more than 50 years, Eurovision -- in all its kitschy splendor -- has pitted Europe’s best pop acts against one another for the cause of national glory. And while easily sloughed off as an exercise in the lowest of popular culture, the success of Eurovision has mirrored the evolution of Europe itself. Just as the geographic conception of the continent has changed, and its population diversified, so too has the pool of Eurovision winners, expanded to include representatives from the Balkans, the former Soviet Union, and even Turkey (in 2004).

Each year the contest is hosted in the home country of the previous competition’s winner, and Eurovision viewers often find themselves learning about places they would have never bothered to visit. This wave of publicity can be a blessing for the host country’s rulers -- or a curse.

So what will Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev make of the opportunity?

He could start by thinking hard about how he wants his country to look when it takes the stage before its first European mass audience. Azerbaijan’s capital Baku is geographically closer to Kabul or Baghdad than to any EU capital city, but that has never stopped Azerbaijanis from thinking of themselves primarily in European terms.

'First Muslim Democracy'

When Azerbaijan first gained its independence from the Russian empire back in 1918, its citizens prided themselves on establishing the world’s “first Muslim democracy.” More recently, European integration has been the stated goal of Azerbaijani foreign policy since the country first achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. On the face of things, joining the Eurovision winners’ circle should be, if not a complete vindication of this policy, than at least a massive step in the right direction.

It’s the timing that’s bad. The title, and the surge of international attention that accompany it, come amid the harshest crackdown on human rights and freedom of expression in the country’s young history.

Just two days before the winning Azerbaijani duo received the Eurovision crown for their ballad “Running Scared,” the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning “the wide-ranging clampdown on freedom of expression and assembly…including arrests, harassment, and intimidation of civil society activists, media professionals and opposition politicians in Azerbaijan.” To which European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek curtly added that “what we demand from Azerbaijan is that it honor its commitments” -- alluding to the fact that Azerbaijan has signed a number of European treaties and agreements that pledge it to safeguard human rights.

A great place for President Aliyev to start would be with the case of Bakhtiyar Hajiyev. Hajiyev, 29, is a pro-democracy activist and former parliamentary candidate who is currently serving a two-year sentence in prison. His apparent offense: attempting to organize a peaceful protest in Baku via the social-networking site Facebook.

The Azerbaijani government has thrown its critics into jail for much less. But as an alumnus of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and an ex-employee of the World Bank, Haijiyev enjoys a higher profile than many other Azerbaijani dissidents. His imprisonment was sure to raise serious questions about the intentions of the Azerbaijani state.

So in this case the Aliyev government tried to come up with something a bit more creative. Rather than charging him with an overtly political crime, prosecutors have accused him of “failure to complete mandatory military service.”

Were military service in Azerbaijan actually universal the government might have had a stronger case. Yet in practice it’s not. Affluent and well-connected Azerbaijanis routinely purchase or talk their way out of service provided they have not run afoul of the government. Eldar Gasimov, half of the duo who won at Eurovision, has not completed his military service, nor have multiple members of the Aliyev presidential family. In fact, the total size of the Azerbaijani military, including career soldiers and those conscripted beyond one year, is less than the number of young Azerbaijani men who reach the age of conscription every year.

And even while it’s clear that many Azerbaijanis are not serving, the law does not provide an alternate service option for conscientious objectors (those opposed to bearing arms as a matter of pacifism, tradition, or religion), save prison terms. All of this, of course, runs dramatically counter to accepted European norms.
Hajiyev is serving two years in prison


In 2002, as a condition for membership, the Council of Europe extracted a promise from the Azerbaijani government to allow the possibility of alternative national service for those minorities who were unwilling to bear arms. The Azerbaijani constitution was amended to that effect, but the parliament has since failed to draft the corresponding legislation, and the government has used this failure as an excuse to leave this express constitutional right un-enforced.

In 2005, and again in 2008, Azerbaijan faced official criticism by the Council of Europe for noncompliance with its treaty obligation to create this promised alternative. Both times the government responded with assurances that such legislation would be in place within a matter of months, yet to this day no alternatives have been created nor exculpatory cases defined.

In The Spotlight In 2012

The government argues that there is no provision for alternative service and that, even if there was, it would not apply to Hajiyev because he allegedly refuses to explain his motive in seeking an alternative in the first place. This argument is tortuous in the extreme, and clearly runs afoul of other rights enshrined in the constitution -- like Article 74, which guarantees that “nobody may be forced to identify or refute their ideas and principles.” Clearly, the amount of text dedicated to defining human rights in the Azerbaijani constitution does not matter one whit if the system itself refuses to enforce them.

As the argument behind Hajiyev’s arrest is so weak, his imprisonment has been rightly condemned by Amnesty International as “trumped up,” by the U.S. Department of State as “very troubling,” and by Reporters Without Borders as “illegal.” Yet cases like his are tragically typical in Azerbaijan today, where journalists, bloggers, lawyers, and opposition figures continue to be detained, beaten, and even “disappeared.” Protesters have been arrested on charges ranging from the vague (“sedition” or “dishonorable behavior”) to the outright absurd (“use of abusive words”).

The thousands of international reporters who will descend on Baku for 2012’s Eurovision Song Contest should be aware of the irony that the host government routinely imprisons journalists. The media outlets that will be transmitting the show to nearly 50 countries should remember that they are broadcasting from a country that rigidly restricts and controls its own people’s access to media.

The Eurovision spectacle has at last gives Baku a chance to prove its “European-ness” in the eyes of the world. The international community should make clear that attaining this seal of approval is not merely a matter of building a flashy stadium or putting on an impressive light show. To earn its place in Europe, Azerbaijan should show that the country that once staked a claim as the world’s first Muslim democracy can stay true to the core values that modern Europe represents: democracy, the freedom of expression and, above all, the sanctity of human rights.

Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez works on the Comparative Constitutions Project at the University of Chicago Law School. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
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by: Kristi from: America
June 05, 2011 14:47
Great Post. Eurovision should show values.
In Response

by: Turgai
June 08, 2011 13:05
Dream on. In my opinion, it's going to be recuperated by the first lady, the presidential glam daughters and the Baku jetset for a huge PR stint for the regime. BTW, the effeminate glitz of it all is an insult for the mass of Azerbaijanis whose daily reality can not be more different.

by: Lara Alcantara from: New York City
June 05, 2011 15:03
Very well written and very interesting. Your writing is very fresh and just involves the reader in such a way that you just want to keep reading.

by: Tim from: Newcastle, United Kingdom
June 05, 2011 17:58
This is indeed a well written article and factually accurate. However, having lived for five years in the cty state of Baku and now married to an Azerbaijani, I cannot confirm that Azerbaijanis think themselves European. If this is aspirational and if it may cause the ruling dynasty to move towards European values, the very long journey would take far longer than the year they have before they host the next Eurovision.
In Response

by: Anonymous
June 07, 2011 19:20
Well, as an Azerbaijani who is married to the non-Muslim man of European origin, I can tell you that your perception is applicable only to some people. Most of the Azerbaijanis I know do associate themselves more with Europe than with any other part of the world. May be you should talk to your in-laws more and really listen
In Response

by: Turgai
June 09, 2011 15:15
Well as someone with wide experience in the region I think Tim is more right. The identification with (Westrens) Europe/the EU is indeed strong among part of the westernised intelligentsia, the jetset and the regime-connected elite in Baku, but not among wider society which you find once you go beyond that.

The latter's ties with 'Europe' are a) the Soviet legacy including the Russian lnaguage which is still quite widely spoken and b) the labour migration to/the remittances from Russia (which tens of thousands of Azerbaijani men do each year). But are those 'European'? I don't think so. Half-European.

Anonymous, if you are indeed married to a non-Muslim European man it means that you belong to the more westernised-urban caste, i.e. not really representative for the country as a whole.

by: James from: Wales
June 05, 2011 20:04
An Azeri friend once told me that the only people who consider Azerbaijan Europe have either never been to Azerbaijan or have never been to Europe. But at least the government seems to think to the contrary: "Oil has turned once provincial town of Baku into one of the nicest cities of Europe." - From Azerbaijan Government's website http://en.president.az/azerbaijan/history/

by: Alex from: LA
June 05, 2011 20:17
"On the face of things, joining the Eurovision winners’ circle should be, if not a complete vindication of this policy, than at least a massive step in the right direction." Haha HA! What does a social contest in singing have to with political and social culture. NADA! The author praises this nation of hungry and poor people, while their leader buy up weapons to go to war. This what you have to say about Aliev's clan, that they need to change their ways, because 2 singers won a Eurovision, what is a dream? People of Azeristan need to assassinate their leader and put another idiot in his place so he can pledge and sign document with other nations and the do the opposite of what it pledged to do. That's the way they are and will be.

by: Rob from: Chushkeria
June 06, 2011 02:12
the words "Azerbaijan" and "democracy" go together like Baileys & Coke..
HOWEVER having witnessed various riots and frenzied actions in AZ over the last more than dozen years (and the complete stupidity), there is a case to consider that just maybe the people NEED Iron Fist control.

The incumbent regime is eye bleedingly rich. To replace these with a poorer bunch of Chushki will mean that the cash that IS going to good causes or capital projects will be halted whilst pockets filled, Mercedes purchased and dachas acquired.

Corruption is taught at kindergarten and honed at school where you have to pay for your mark (see Orient Xpress song "Change your Life). If this way is taught from an early age along with the control needed to maintain the way of life, why will the West consider anything will ever change?

by: Robert from: Prague
June 06, 2011 05:37
Incredibly naive. If being chairman of the OSCE didn't help Kazakstan reform one iota, then what is the point of even raising this question in regard to Eurovision? Azerbaijan has stated clearly that it doesn't view itself as a European country and wants only engagement, not integration. Eurovision is not going to change anything there.

by: Kemal Anaturk from: Kurdistan
June 06, 2011 22:06
Azeri`s victory puts Aliev in the hot seat-If the Western world has any real democratic values as it claims it should put him on an electric chair,dear Daniel,instead of pumping billions of petrol$$$$ into his mafia bank accounts. Azeri`s first gained independence in 1917 from tsarist Russia-in fact it was from `communist`Russia & the `country` didnt exist as an independent state until then-after that it was uncle Joe`s creation.And yes, the Freedom-loving azeris can be proud with their real MUSLIM DE-MOCK-RACY it as real as wooden stone , dry water or a virgin whore
In Response

by: musa from: Canada
June 07, 2011 19:16
your facts are wrong and you are fully biased towards Azerbaijan. Most likely you are one of the those armenians who never happy to hear anything good about Azerbiajan.
In Response

by: Kemal Anaturk from: Kurdistan
June 08, 2011 10:34
Dearest Musa from Canada,please, I`m begging you down on my knees,read my two posts on the theme & tell me which of my facts are wrong &why?I can see that your grammar is as wrong as your muddled `mind`set but nobody can blame you for that-you being the allahtan you are.I am very happy that the azeri petrol$$$ won the `Euro`vision song contest ,as yer proud ,freedom loving&truly democratic Azeristan is the real center of islamic,pardon European democracy.And please,my dearest dove ,do not insult me,I`m not a bloody armenian-these djin-gibi bastards who kill millions of muslims all the time and hate innocent peace loving doves like thou.I will pray allahakbar give Azeristan the victory again next year and that other ancient democratic Chenghiz khan empires like Tatarstan ,Mongolia ,Uaziristan & Djendemistan have their chance to participate and win all truly European song & dance contests. Allah Akbar!!!

by: Tahir Ceferli from: Baki Basqal
June 07, 2011 04:53
By reading the article, it is understandable, why Europe is surprised that Azerbaijan won the Eurovision song contest. They can not believe that such small country like Azerbaijan did make it within this representative competition. There is explanation for that. First of all, looks like, Europeans do not know Azerbaijan well, but if they know, then only by anti-Azerbaijan propaganda of Armenians, who want Europeans not to be interested in this beautiful country.
Azerbaijan is the motherland of a great Nizami Ganjavi, who created, in XII century, the principles of real democracy in his poem “Iskandername”. Do not forget Nasimi, who was the founder of Hurifism, which had a great impact on development of philosophical thoughts of Europe and East.
Modern Azerbaijan is the motherland of great Kara Karayev, Fikret Amirov, Niyazi, Arif Melikov, Muslim Magomayev, who have made their contribution to a treasury of world musical culture. These titans of Azerbaijan music created beautiful Conservatory, where thousands students study the European music.
Capital of Azerbaijan is the modern European city, where do live and work highly educated and intelligent people, who did transform this city to the one of the beautiful and cultural cities of the world, after gaining the independence.
Victory of the representatives of Azerbaijan on Eurovision has to be considered from this perspective. Soon, Europeans themselves will be convinced by correctness of my words, when they will see our beautiful city and of course the hospitality of our people, who managed to be released from rods of the Soviet empire.
In Response

by: Alex from: Seattle, WA
June 08, 2011 13:59
Wow, "...but if they know, then only by anti-Azerbaijan propaganda of Armenians", what an astonishingly stupid assertion. Yeah, it's the Armenians' fault, and has nothing to do with your unabashedly authoritarian government. Yeah, Azerbaijan's dismal image has absolutely nothing to do with the rule of Ilham Aliyev, the openly racist, revisionist, kleptomaniacal, nepotist, warmongering dictator. Azerbaijan's image has nothing at all to do with that. No, it's the Armenians' fault.

by: Erik from: NYC
June 07, 2011 12:26
Great post, I hope Azerbaijani state can make the reforms and adjust to European democratic values. I also find it kinda sad and pathetic that so many ethnic Armenians and Kurds are posting ridiculous things here. Yes Kurds, Azerbaijan was the first democratic country and they still have their independent state and no Armenians this show isnt about you.
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