Azerbaijan: Eurovision’s Dirty Secret

Tales of corruption and collusion

The grand finale of the Eurovision song contest, with its kitsch glamour, is watched by more viewers than any other non-sporting event in the world. This week-end the setting is Baku, the capital of oil-rich Azerbaijan.

Already protesters on the streets of the city have been arrested while demonstrating for freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and the freeing of the country’s media from direct control by the Aliyev dictatorship.

Millions of dollars have been spent on the venue for the event including the hasty construction of a ‘Crystal Hall’ on the banks of the Caspian Sea, with a seating capacity of over 20,000. Other ostentatious buildings and a 40-storey high flag-pole have gone up on ground cleared across Baku by the brutal eviction of thousands of families.

A BBC Panorama investigation – ‘Eurovision’s Dirty Secret’ – shown on 22 May, revealed the depths to which the dictatorial regime and its ‘kept’ oil companies go in trying to crush resistance. It awarded Azerbaijan ‘Nul points’ for its human rights record!

Cruelty and corruption

Azerbaijan is one of the world’s forty most corrupt countries. It has been run since a coup in 1992 by the Aliyev family – first Heydar, followed by his son Ilham. In 2009, a referendum gave Ilham the presidency for life with a 90% vote in favour! His daughters own big chunks of multi-million dollar businesses dealing in things like telephone networks and gold-mining. Through a Panama-registered company, 15 year-old son has a major interest in the smartest hotel in Baku and a $40 million worth of property on the prestigious ‘Dubai Palm’.

As the undercover journalist, Paul Kenyon, showed in this powerful programme, the slightest word of criticism of the regime is punishable by days, weeks and years in prison. Armed and uniformed thugs are regularly used to beat up recalcitrant workers. The houses of workers’ leaders and their elderly relatives are smashed down almost literally over their heads. Journalists are followed, beaten up, jailed and sometimes simply killed, as an easier way of silencing them. There are at least 70 political prisoners held at the present time, although the regime denies there are any.

The ‘parliament’ has not one opposition MP in it. The Azerbaijan Popular Front has had its headquarters closed by the state, its leader, Ali Karimli, is under 24 hour surveillance and its members are constantly harassed and persecuted. Protests are brutally attacked and dispersed and people’s homes are bull-dozed out of the way of prestige building projects while people are still living in them.

The music business and its friends

The programme also challenged organisers and participants in the song contest past and present – including Sandie Shaw and Engelbert Humperdinck – to say what they think of the total lack of democratic rights in the host country. They appeared to believe it has nothing to do with them. Humperdinck stresses that his only interest is in the music business, with the emphasis on the word ‘business’! (Not for Humperdinck the principled position of the singer ‘Sting’ who pulled out of an engagement in Kazakhstan when the lack of human rights in the country was drawn to his attention!)

Ingrid Deltense, director-general of the Switzerland-based European Broadcasting Union which takes responsibility for the Song Contest being shown, was questioned at some length. She admitted that one of the EBU’s core values was freedom of speech and it was not good to have this world-famous event being used by a dictatorial regime to promote its interests. But “We cannot do anything about it!” Clearly, her organisation had not even contemplated blocking it.

The dictator’s wife, Mehriba, chairs the Azerbaijan Eurovision Committee. His son-in-law, a pop singer, Emin Agalarov, will be singing on stage while viewers are voting.

The clan Mehriba is from, the Pachayevs, ran the country before the Aliyevs and remains a major power in the country. Mehriba is also an MP. She got 94% of the votes in her constituency! Azerbaijan’s ambassador in London politely tells an incredulous Kenyon that this kind of vote is entirely possible! The US embassy in Baku, more realistically, speaks of Aliev’s reputation for playing a “mafia-type role in organised crime”. (This is not, of course, enough of a problem to mean breaking off mutually advantageous relations!)


Armenia, Azerbaijan’s neighbour and ’long-time enemy’, will not be participating in the Eurovision contest this year. Their team’s safety cannot be guaranteed. In previous years Azerbaijani TV has suddenly gone blank when the Armenian team came on and also when viewers could vote for them. Paul Kenyon interviewed an Azerbaijani who had used his mobile phone to vote in support of Armenia ’as a protest’. He had immediately been hauled in by the National Security police who said his mobile number was “part of a criminal investigation”!

Hadija Ismailova is a broadcaster who specialises in investigating the ruling family’s wealth. She was humiliatingly spied on and filmed by the state. “My anger is bigger than my fear!” she says. Backing up her work, Paul Kenyon pointed to the country’s vast oil wealth remaining “in the hands of a very few” while the majority in Azerbaijan live in “grim poverty”. Pensions are “meagre”, he says, “the health care system is dominated by a culture of bribes”. He goes through a pitiful slum on narrow pathways between lines of shacks made of corrugated iron and wooden boards, “with little or no sanitation”.

The programme also featured Adnam – a young Azeri satirist – and his friend, Emin. They had publicly poked fun at the country’s agriculture minister who bought two donkeys “probably worth $50 each” for €42,000 each (“probably as a kickback for someone”). They made a satirical video of a press conference for one of the donkeys who appeared as a man-sized puppet, claiming he was very special to cost so much. He was “Extremely educated, with at least two degrees”, could (and did) play the violin and “spoke four or five foreign languages”. The two friends were subject to an assault in a public place. Their attackers were arrested and then released. The satirists were then taken to court and tried in front of TV cameras on charges of assault. Adnam was sentenced to two years in jail!

A popular singer, Jamal, was imprisoned and tortured for insulting the president, Ilham Aliyev. He was then ordered to leave the country before the Eurovision contest began, on pain of worse treatment than before. “Free speech is guaranteed,” asserts the ambassador again. “Things are not perfect” he says. “But twenty years is not long to get things right!” he adds, in a phrase reminiscent of another dictator in the region – Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan!

Rottenness exposed

In its own words, the BBC’s Panorama has “Pulled back the curtain” on the Aliyev dictatorship and on the silence that leaves it to pump up oil at almost one million barrels per day. 28 May, it its attention to the anti-Semitism, racism and attacks on foreigners in and Ukraine – the host countries of the Euro 2012 football tournament. This event is watched by even more viewers than the Eurovision Song Contest. But once again, big money will get the better of organisers’ consciences!

Programmes like these not only expose corrupt and treacherous regimes and the vicious state persecution of those who speak out against them. They bring home to socialists the need to build the forces capable of sweeping from the face of the earth the rotten capitalist system which spawns them.

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