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Germany Hands Over the Eurovision Baton, With Barbs

With the song contest coming, German media spotlight human rights in Azerbaijan, and Baku hits back.

by Shahla Sultanova 11 May 2012

BAKU | Search for “Azerbaijan” at German newsmagazine Der Spiegel’s online English-language edition and you’ll find 11 results for all of 2011. Most make only passing references to Azerbaijan in stories about other, vaguely related topics, such as Russian gas or Turkish-Armenian tensions.

 

Do the same search for the first five-plus months of 2012, though, and you’ll get nearly the same number of hits. That list features headlines like “Azerbaijan Seeks to Burnish Image Ahead of Eurovision,” “Azerbaijan Flouts Free Press on Eve of Eurovision,” and, most recently, “Azerbaijan and Eurovision: German Government Report Slams ‘State Repression.’ ”

 

Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov and his German counterpart, Guido Westerwelle, at a March meeting in Baku, under happier circumstances. Photo from the website of the German Embassy in Baku.

 

The titles make clear the reason for German journalists’ increased interest: following Azerbaijani singing duo Eldar & Nigar’s victory in last year’s Eurovision Song Contest in Dusseldorf, Baku plays host this year to Europe’s most-watched television event, to take place at the new Crystal Hall on 22-26 May.

 

Opposition activists in Azerbaijan have welcomed the parade of coverage led by Hamburg-based Der Spiegel, one of Europe’s most-read weeklies. But with the contest drawing closer – and with international human rights groups and domestic critics of President Ilham Aliev’s regime using the occasion to highlight Azerbaijan’s record on freedom of expression and assembly – Baku has come out swinging against the critical coverage, blaming a Berlin-orchestrated smear campaign and even invoking Hitler.

 

Following a spate of Spiegel articles, Azerbaijani state broadcaster AZTV fired the first return salvo with a documentary featuring footage of purported drug users in Frankfurt as well as sex shops and brothels. “Do you know who is exploited there?” the narrator says. “Women, of course. They do it voluntarily. Where are human rights, where is gender equality? Does Germany think about that?”

 

 

A subsequent AZTV show accused Germany of hypocrisy on human rights, noting the country’s non-participation in last year’s Western intervention in Libya and its extensive trade ties with the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. The narrator contrasted Libya with Azerbaijan – “a country that has opposition parties, opposition media, and NGOs, and where the government can be criticized” – and cited economic interest as the reason Germany stayed out of the Libya conflict while engaging in “revolutionary rhetoric in countries that are experiencing all elements of democracy.”

 

 

The suggestion that German officials were fomenting the bad press prompted a response from Herbert Quelle, Berlin’s ambassador to Baku. In an article published 15 April in the state-owned Yeni Azerbaijan (New Azerbaijan) newspaper, he said the German media had reported truthfully on issues such as arrests of Azerbaijani protesters, evictions of people from their homes to make way for Eurovision-related construction, and Baku’s blocking of a visit by German legislator Christopher Strasser, the rapporteur on political prisoners for the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly.

 

“I cannot dictate [the actions of] German media, as my Azerbaijani colleague in Berlin cannot do to Azerbaijani media,” Quelle wrote. “I highly doubt the idea that the German government can influence media coverage of Azerbaijan.”

 

Quelle’s piece escalated rather than eased the tension. A 27 April Yeni Azerbaijan article claimed Germany was carrying out a state-level smear campaign. A story the following day featured a photo of Quelle next to pictures of Bismarck and Hitler and said the ambassador was actively aiding Azerbaijani opposition groups. Azerbaijani lawmakers and the country’s embassy in Berlin have named Strasser and Marcus Loening, the German government’s ombudsman for human rights, as anti-Azerbaijan instigators.

 

 

“If Western media want to show the reality of Azerbaijan, where were they when we had a million refugees and internally displaced people as a result of war with Armenia?” Zahid Oruj, a pro-government member of parliament, said in an interview. “Why do they not cover stories on what the government did for those people, providing them with houses, or on other good projects the government [implemented] for the public?”

 

Amid the back and forth, a group of Azerbaijani legislators made what Arastun Orujlu, a political analyst with Baku’s East-West Research Center, characterized as a rare group visit to Germany. According to Azerbaijani media, the politicians talked to their German counterparts to discuss Azerbaijan’s economy and the conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory; met with the chief executive of Consultum Communications, a public affairs consulting firm; and visited the Berlin office of Reporters Without Borders.

 

“I believe it is an investigative visit,” Orujlu said. “They want to know what the actual position of the German government is. They tried to assure the German government that everything is great in Azerbaijan, its economy is the most developed in the region, and its only problem is Nagorno-Karabakh.”

 

The wave of coverage might not spring directly from Germany’s leaders, but some observers said it does generally reflect public and political sentiment, and has deeper roots in foreign and energy policy.

 

Since the Arab Spring, Western governments have started to think more deeply about their ties to oil-rich but autocratic states, and “where their tolerance to those kinds of countries can take them,” said Leyla Alieva, president of the independent Center for National and International Studies in Baku. “Germany seems more sensitive to that issue and more active in moving into a stage of their relationships with countries such as Ukraine, Belarus, and Azerbaijan where they will not be dependent on the energy resources or strategic location of those countries.”

 

Such a move might be easier for Germany, which Alieva said has never been as interested in Azerbaijan’s oil as the United States or Britain. German investment in Azerbaijan has focused more on agriculture and banking, and generally promoting a market economy, although Essen-based energy giant RWE owns 17 percent of the Nabucco gas pipeline project, for which Azerbaijan will be a supplier.

 

Silvia Stoeber, a journalist with German news service Tagesschau who has reported from Azerbaijan, said in political and business circles there “was already a discussion [of whether] companies should do business” in Azerbaijan. Eurovision raised public and media interest in such questions, as it did two years ago when Moscow hosted the contest, she said.

 

“When Azerbaijan won [Eurovision] last year, the same discussion [about human rights] started,” Stoeber said. “And people remembered that the Olympic Games in China did not change anything in that country.”

 

The flap comes as international groups step up efforts to divert the Eurovision spotlight onto Azerbaijan’s human rights record. Amnesty International said on 1 May that public protests have been banned in central Baku and regularly dispersed with violence. Both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, in a video it released on 3 May, criticized the European Broadcasting Union, which oversees Eurovision, for staying silent on harassment and beatings of Azerbaijani journalists while cooperating with Baku authorities in staging the song contest.

 

The Guardian has reported that some activists, Azerbaijani bloggers, and members of the European Parliament have called on countries to boycott the event. But Alieva said the boycott calls are not a factor in the government’s aggrieved response to the German coverage.

 

“Public opinion is not at all important to the current government,” she said. “They might be alarmed if those kinds of calls were supported by the European Union. But in the end, they do what they want.”

 

Rather, Baku is irritated by the megaphone Eurovision has given to Azerbaijani opposition figures and to German politicians critical of the Aliev regime, according to Zerdusht Alizade, head of the Baku Journalism School and a former leader of the Social Democratic party.

 

“Opposition leaders are actively giving interviews to European journalists; opposition newspapers [in Azerbaijan] are writing over and over about the statements of Strasser and Loening,” Alizade said.

 

“Azerbaijan has recently been discussed in the media of most European countries, in the United States, even in South Africa,” said Ilgar Mammadov, leader of the opposition political movement REAL. “The government decided to focus on Germany … because not only the German media, but some important people in Germany, Strasser and Loening, accused Azerbaijan of repression.”

 

What problems Azerbaijan does have are a matter neither of state policy nor of Eurovision, said Oruj, the pro-government lawmaker.

 

“Interviews from the opposition should not be used to defame the government,” he said. “[Eurovision] is important to us to show the world our stability, the tourist opportunities we have, and our rich history. Eurovision is a victory for the Azerbaijani people, not just the government. Fights against the government should not be the focus.”

Shahla Sultanova is a freelance journalist in Baku.

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