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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
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