Eurovision Spotlight Falls on Azerbaijan

Eurovision Spotlight Falls on Azerbaijan

Western-style entertainment and illiberal regimes coexist uneasily.

Azerbaijan is one of several countries which demonstrate that merely eliminating totalitarian communism is not enough to bring forth democratic capitalism. There are plenty of dedicated human rights activists, but the regime ably deploys the traditional tools of repression.

Eurovision nevertheless held its latest songfest in Azerbaijan—which won the competition last year—and garnered upwards of 125 million viewers. But there was no noticeable improvement in human rights; indeed, families were forcibly ousted from their homes with inadequate compensation to make way for the new Crystal Hall venue. The result has been substantial recrimination, especially against the European Broadcasting Union, which owns the Eurovision Song Contest. However, the private association made up of broadcasters from 56 nations was never well-positioned to do much about a member state’s misbehavior.

In fact, the music extravaganza was previously held in other countries with human rights problems, including Russia and Turkey. Similar complaints could be made against Ukraine and even Hungary, which has tightened restrictions on press and religious freedom. Israel, which also belongs, occupies the West Bank. It’s too much to expect a private group with such a varied membership to pick and choose among its members, especially if Western governments are still prepared to deal with the regime.

Not all news about Azerbaijan is bad, however. Oil production is falling, which will force economic diversification and reduce the opportunity for high-level corruption. The Economist magazine reports that an e-government program has helped cut low-level corruption. A newer generation of energetic younger dissidents, journalists, and activists is growing, giving hope for the future.

Moreover, the descent of 1,500 international journalists on Baku helped highlight human rights abuses, which limited the propaganda value of the contest. One dispossessed homeowner declared: “When else can we make noise? Eurovision is it, at no other time would anyone pay attention to us.” The Aliyev government even publicly complained about the negative attention.

Reflecting on the controversy, the Financial Times observed that, by drawing attention “to Azerbaijan’s record on rights and freedoms, [Eurovision] will achieve something very worthwhile.” If any of those reporters return in the future to cover energy development—abundant supplies of oil and gas are one reason Europe limits its complaints about President Ilham Aliyev’s rule—they aren’t likely to have forgotten their Eurovision lesson.

And they soon may have a much bigger target than Eurovision. Baku reportedly is preparing a bid for the 2020 Olympics. That would put Azerbaijan on the world stage—human rights warts and all.