Leading article: Look behind Azerbaijan's glitzy façade


When the curtains open tonight for the start of the Eurovision Song Contest final, the host nation will be hoping that the world's gaze stays firmly fixed on the stage.

Having stumped up the best part of £24m to turn the glitzy competition into a showcase for their country's "progress", the last thing Azerbaijan's authorities want is for the assembled international media to stroll far beyond the specially built stadium on Baku's Caspian shore.

Those who do will find a nation strait-jacketed by an increasingly autocratic government that has spent a fortune from its oil and gas wealth vigorously lobbying everyone else to turn a blind eye to its excesses. The European Broadcasting Union, which organises the contest, could hardly plead that it was unaware of human rights abuses in the former Soviet republic. The fact that Azerbaijan had to give a public guarantee that foreign broadcasters would not be censored during the competition says everything anyone needs to know about the scope of free speech at other times.

The country has not held a single competitive election since Heydar Aliyev, the father of the current President, Ilham Aliyev, came to power in 1993, following a coup against the first elected President. Opposition groups, journalists and trade unionists have long faced harassment from a state security apparatus intolerant of dissent. The regime has stacked the odds so firmly against its critics that they have rarely seen the inside of the country's rubber-stamp parliament.

Azerbaijan's government seized on last year's Eurovision victory – which automatically handed it the right to host this year's competition – as a golden opportunity to present an airbrushed picture of itself to the world. Only a month before, scores of opposition activists and critical journalists had been rounded up and imprisoned following pro-democracy protests inspired by the Arab Spring. A year on, most of these people still languish in prison and the repression has continued unabated. Last month, an investigative reporter, Idrak Abbasov, was beaten unconscious by private security guards as he tried to film a demolition by the state oil company. The police simply looked on and did nothing. So far, Europe has done the same.