It does not take long to notice that Azerbaijan is hosting the Eurovision Song Contest.
Baku Airport is emblazoned with advertisements for the competition, which will take place a fortnight from now, as is almost every taxi and bus in the city, along with many of its buildings. The gleaming, 25,000-seat concert hall, built especially for the contest, has been completed on time and was opened by the President himself last week, and hardly a day goes by without breathless items on the evening news extolling the upcoming event.
Not for Azerbaijan the flippant attitude that Eurovision is a carnival of kitsch that should be taken as a bit of a joke. Here, it is deadly serious business, and a chance for the country’s rulers to show the progress that this small, oil-rich nation has made in the two decades since it won independence from the Soviet Union.
But rights activists say that the government, led by the authoritarian president Ilham Aliyev, is using the contest to deflect criticism from the country’s appalling human rights record, and are calling on the singers and delegations who will descend on Baku later this month to speak out publicly.
Khadija Ismayilova knows all about what happens if you get on the wrong side of President Aliyev. A campaigning reporter for Radio Liberty, she has uncovered several corruption scandals linked to Mr Aliyev’s family, including a report released this week providing evidence that the first family has benefited financially from the construction of the Eurovision stadium, using a number of shell companies and opaque schemes. Last month, as she was researching the story, she received a letter with stills from an intimate video in which she was an unwitting participant – someone had broken into her house and installed a hidden camera in the bedroom.
“It warned me that if I didn’t stop my investigations, they would publicise the video,” she says. “They were calculating on me being ashamed and going quiet. But they miscalculated.” Instead of acquiescing to the blackmail, she went public with it, and vowed to continue uncovering corruption. The video was published online, and government-backed newspapers wrote stories attacking her and her “loose morals”, dangerous in conservative Azerbaijan.
Ms Ismayilova is not the only one to suffer in the cause of Eurovision. For many of the residents of the area around the site of Crystal Hall, the Eurovision venue, the contest has ruined their lives. According to Zohrab Ismayil, who has authored a report on forced evictions in Baku, 281 families have been kicked out of their homes to make way for construction directly linked to Eurovision. The government paid them compensation at several times below market rate, he says. “They managed to spend more than $700 million on construction for the event, but couldn’t find the money to pay proper compensation to people who were kicked out of their homes onto the street.”
The forced evictions are not just related to Eurovision, with an estimated 4000 houses demolished in Baku alone over the past three years as some of the money from Azerbaijan’s huge oil reserves is spent on new construction. Award-winning journalist Idrak Abbasov has attempted to publicise demolitions in his village of Sulutepe, just outside Baku. Last month, he was given a savage beating by security officers from the state oil company when he attempted to video them knocking down houses in the suburb of Sulutepe where he lives. He is now out of hospital, but his broken ribs mean he is still unable to walk, and he spends his days reclining on a maroon sofa in his parent’s small house. He has also lost sight in one eye after the attack. Strewn over a chair is a fluorescent yellow jacket, emblazoned with the word “Press” and caked in dried blood – he was wearing it when he was attacked.
“They are not giving people any compensation at all, simply telling them they have built houses illegally on land belonging to the state oil company,” says Mr Abbasov. “They were attacking houses with bulldozers that still had people’s belongings in them. People were screaming and shouting, and I was filming it.”
Security guards attacked him and continued to beat him for 15 minutes while he was unconscious, say witnesses. “It is pretty clear that their goal was to kill me.“ Previously, Mr Abbasov’s father was assaulted and put in hospital, stones have been thrown at his house and car, and his six-year-old son was run over in suspicious circumstances. Nobody has been charged with any of the attacks.
“The government is spending huge sums of money to show Europe that people in Azerbaijan are happy,” says Rasul Cafarov, a pro-democracy activist who runs Sing for Democracy, a campaign set up to ensure that the performers who fly in for Eurovision will know exactly what kind of country they have landed in. “Our message is clear: please don’t close your eyes to the negatives. Try to meet with the family members of political prisoners, opposition members, and people who have been forcibly evicted from their homes.”
Some of the contestants have promised support, says Mr Cafarov, who hopes that the government will be given a “nasty surprise” from the stage. “It is an event to unite countries and communities and bring understanding,” said a spokesperson for Eurovision, which is likely to strongly discourage contestants from speaking out. “We believe strongly that Eurovision is not political.”
But activists say that the government was the first to politicise the contest, by making Mehriban Aliyeva, Mr Aliyev’s wife, the head of the Preparation Committee. She is an MP with the ruling party and one of the most powerful people in the country. “Accusing us of politicising it when the First Lady is constantly appearing on TV promoting it and they are using it for propaganda goals is just ridiculous,” says Mr Cafarov. Ms Aliyeva’s role is not the only link between the ruling family and the contest – the President’s son-in-law, a budding pop star who has little trouble getting plenty of airtime on state-controlled radio, will be singing at the contest’s Opening Ceremony.
Numerous investigations have linked Azerbaijan’s top officials to allegations of huge corruption, including £30m of property in Dubai apparently purchased by Mr Aliyev’s 11-year-old son. Officials from the Presidential Administration have either denied or refused to comment on all the allegations against them.
There is no danger that the properties of Baku’s ruling class will be bulldozed, like the homes of so many of their citizens have been. However, says Mr Abbasov, the attacked journalist, a fear of losing their own property abroad could be a catalyst for the government to be fairer with ordinary people. “If there was real pressure from the West at events like Eurovision, then of course the ruling clan would get scared,” says Mr Abbasov. “If there was a threat that all their millions and all their villas and properties in Europe could be taken away from them, they would think again.”
“It’s a joke to have Eurovision in a country with a rights record like Azerbaijan’s,” says Ms Ismayilova. “It would be really great to hear some kind of message from the stage from some of the contestants, to remind the regime here that Europe is a set of values, not just a song contest.”