In the Shadow of a Dictatorship
This report is written by Elisabeth Precht on behalf of the Jarl Hjalmarson Foundation Front page illustration: An oil field that used to be part of the Swedish Nobel Company until it was nationalized in 1920. Photo: Elisabeth Precht ÂŠ Jarl Hjalmarson Foundation 2012
he Azeri regime tries to hide the real Azerbaijan from foreigners”, explains an Azerbaijani woman when the Eurovision Song Contest is mentioned. Like most Azerbaijanis she is pleased that the show will be held in Baku on May 26, 2012. She explains that citizens of Azerbaijan finally can feel like winners: after a lost war and lost territory [to Armenia]. Also bearing in mind that Azerbaijan has been “lost to corruption and people have lost opportunities in their lives, opportunities that our major energy assets could have given them”. “People want to win – for once – and it’s OK that it’s only a song contest”, the woman says somewhat apologetically. It’s an advantage that many Europeans will visit the country for the contest, she believes. They will catch a glimpse of Azerbaijan and talk to ordinary Azerbaijanis. At least this is what she anticipates. “We are proud to be part of Europe. And telling outsiders about the present conditions in our country is the best we can do for future generations. This must be done today for tomorrow there will be nothing left on which we can build the future. When the government doesn’t listen to us, we have no choice but to talk to people from abroad”, explains Xadica Ismayilova, a journalist for Radio Liberty in Baku.
The population in Azerbaijan is 9.2 million (2011). In the East it is bordering the Caspian Sea, south to Iran, in the west to Armenia and in the north to Georgia and the Russian Federation. The autonomous republic of Nakhichevan and the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh is also part of Azerbaijan. The latter is since 1993 controlled by Armenia. The capital of Azerbaijan is Baku. Source: www.ne.se
On several occasions during my visit to Baku Azeri citizens tell me that it is unacceptable when European politicians come to Azerbaijan, staying in luxury hotels paid for by the regime while they praise the regime’s rigged election results and act as lobbyists for the Azerbaijani government. A number of people let me know that the government’s lobbying has corrupted a number of European officials. These representatives no longer stand for democratic values which has created great disappointment and major problems for the indigenous democracy movement. Minister for Foreign Affairs Carl Bildt, February 21, 2012, responding to a question posed in Swedish Parliament: ”How does the Minister intend to act to make sure that the state of Azerbaijan will live up to the European convention on human rights and release its political prisoners?” The state of Human Rights in Azerbaijan is of particular concern with arbitrary detentions, a non-independent judiciary system and problems in regards to freedom of opinion, press and association. Sweden as well as others are pointing out these problems. Importantly, the Council of Europe is monitoring Azerbaijan’s compliance with the terms of membership of the Council of Europe. A special monitoring group has been appointed by the Council of Ministers to monitor that the progress of Azerbaijan meets its commitments as a member of the Council of Europe regarding respect for human rights and democracy. These questions are also addressed in bilateral contacts. The EU Action Plan for cooperation with Azerbaijan, within the framework of European Neighbourhood Policy, includes several priority areas such as democracy and human rights, the promotion of an independent judiciary, strengthening of civil society and independent media, as well as effective implementation of legislation ensuring freedom of information. As part of the Eastern Partnership, the EU and Azerbaijan have agreed to work towards deepening democracy, strengthening the rule of law, to strengthen the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms and reform public administration and fight corruption.
Lack of freedom Azerbaijan is a semi-authoritarian society, writes Svante E. Cornell in his book Azerbaijan since independence (2009). Indeed, Azerbaijan is governed by a dictator, but under the country’s constitution it is a democracy. The country is member of the Council of Europe and OSCE, and is part of EU’s Eastern Partnership. Azerbaijan was elected nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council in October 2011 and we will host the Eurovision Song Contest in May 2012. Azerbaijan also competes to host the Summer Olympics 2020. Azerbaijan has since long been criticized by Amnesty International and other international organizations and governments for its lack of human rights, freedom, etc. “Azerbaijan wants to improve its international image by holding leadership positions in regional and international forums and by hosting mega-events,” said Hugh Williamson, the director of the Human Rights Watch for Europe and Central Asia. “However, ensuring the rights of ordinary citizens is at low level, and the authorities must improve this figure.” Hugh Williamson explains that Azerbaijan’s track record on human rights deteriorated in 2011. In the Swedish Foreign Ministry’s report on human rights in 2011
The editor of a magazine critical of the government was shot and killed in the lobby of his apartment building in Baku, the capital, the police and colleagues said. Seven shots were fired and four struck Elmar Huseinov, founder and editor of the opposition magazine Monitor, the police said. Tension between the government and the opposition in the tightly controlled country has increased since the presidential election of October 2003 in which Ilham Aliyev replaced his father, the longtime leader Heydar Aliyev, in a vote the opposition called fraudulent. Source: New York Times March3, 2005
it is stated that “the freedom of opinion, media and association is still problematic in Azerbaijan. The situation has deteriorated in some areas. The conditions for journalists and regime critics are perceived as hostile and arbitrary. Detention and harassment occur. Therefore, self-censorship is often practiced in newspapers, radio and TV channels.” The actual censorship was abolished at the end of the Azerbaijani journalists and photographers wear these vests to be able to watch demon1990s. Today the country strations etc, without police intervention. is ranked number 152 out of 173 countries in Reporters without Borders Freedom Index (20102011). The organization cites Azadlig, the largest independent daily newspaper, as a telling example of what actually is happening in Azerbaijan: Ganimat Zahid, editor of the newspaper has been imprisoned for years and subjected to continued threats. At the same time one of the newspaper’s young reporters, Agil Khalil, is in exile after he was the victim of a hate campaign and physical attacks. Another opposition newspaper, Khural, has been forced to shut down operations after its editor Avaz Zeynalli was arrested in late October. And last but not least, the questions are many in regards to the death of journalist Rafiq Tagis in November 2011. “In Azerbaijan you can do anything to a journalist without a penalty”, explains Xadica Ismayilova, at Radio Liberty in Baku. The radio station is housed in a modern but rather run-down building. The equipment
in the studio is well used and office furniture is reminiscent of government agencies behind the former Iron Curtain. Over several of the chairs brightly colored vests are draped with the word “PRESS” in big letters on the back. Radio station employees explain that they wear these in the street, in order to go free, when reporting from protests and rallies. Despite the violence used and murders the leaders in Azerbaijan have not managed to silence its critics. In 2006 a journalist questioned where money came from to an endowment founded by former President Heydar Aliyev. The trust, led by the current president’s wife, provides financial support to humanitarian and cultural purposes. “The journalist who wrote about this was kidnapped and someone ran over his leg - twice ... he was left to die, but was found by chance [and survived].” Yet again in 2009 a number of stories about the presidential family’s financial affairs were published. The first was published in the Washington Post. It was a report about the three Aliyev children’s properties in Dubai, which is said to be worth $ 77 million! Later, Radio Liberty in Azerbaijan investigated and reported, including the sale of a state bank to the president’s daughter. And Xadica
Ismayilova has many more stories about the presidential family, enriching themselves at other’s expense. “We ask where the presidential family’s money comes from and why public contracts are not preceded by a transparent public procurement. We show who benefits from today’s corruption. We track the money ... and make public who benefits from the corruption.” All Azerbaijani TV channels are directly or indirectly controlled by the regime. Though, there is no official censorship as such, but self-censorship. How this intricate process works was highlighted a number of years ago when the broadcasting license was canceled for the private channel ANS-TV after allowing the opposition to take part in debates. A “faux pas” that is not repeated. ANS-TV is otherwise the only channel where there is some criticism of the government, says Fuad Muxtarli, former International Secretary of the opposition party National Independence Party of Azerbaijan (NIPA). Xadica Ismayilova is critical of today’s Azeri TV channels, explaining that “they broadcast mostly entertainment.”
Professor Ali Hasanov is one of president Aliyev’s close associates.
Television is the main source for news and information to the overwhelming majority of the Azeri population. A perennial
complaint within the political opposition is that their leaders are not allowed to be on TV and that accordingly their message only reaches a small proportion of the population. Why, I ask Professor Ali Hasanov. His office is located in an impressive government building. He is part of the president’s staff and he is Head of the Department for Public Political issues and 1st grade State Councillor. “Spin doctor” explains Azerbaijanis when I tell them that I have been granted an interview with Ali Hasanov. “There is a state television channel, eight independent, and one public service channel. We have not forbidden any of these to invite the opposition. I know of no such case. Private and state television is organizing political debates every week that everyone is free to join. So I cannot agree that they [the political opposition] cannot be on TV”, says Ali Hasanov emphatically. He is thinking aloud: “Maybe they are not included in state television because there are entertainment programs ...” And then there’s the Internet, he notes, adding that 55% of the Azerbaijani population has access to computers and the Internet. “In ten minutes, they can get statements made by the opposition. In addition, many opposition parties have their own daily newspapers distributed freely.” Visiting Baku you spot satellite receiver on most houses, it seems. How come? “We all want to watch TV programs without paying for it ... In Baku there are eight cable television companies offering a range of between 20 and 180 channels. The cost is 7-60 manat a month. But people do not want to spend that money. And don’t be surprised if you travel outside of Baku and see three satellite dishes on a tent! Azerbaijan is a young country with young people that want to see what’s happening in the world.”
Media Briefing by Amnesty International, February 20, 2012 In March-April 2011 hundreds of protestors gathered in the streets of Baku demanding democratic reform and greater respect for human rights. The authorities of Azerbaijan suppressed these nascent signs of popular protest with a wave of repression and intimidation. Following the protests, 14 people were convicted for organizing and/or participating in the anti-government rallies. The authorities also used trumped up charges to arrest and imprison three activists; two young members of the opposition and a human rights defender. 16 prisoners of conscience are still behind bars. Some examples: *On 27 August 2011, human rights defender and former parliamentary candidate Vidadi Isgandarov was sentenced to three years in prison for allegedly interfering with the 2010 parliamentary elections, charges that had been dropped for lack of evidence in 2010. Journalists have been beaten, ill-treated and abducted. To date there have been no effective investigations into several violent attacks on journalists and no one has been brought to justice. *On 26 March 2011, Seymur Haziyev, a journalist with opposition newspaper Azadliq, was reportedly abducted and beaten by six masked assailants. He reported that his abductors warned him against writing articles critical of the President. The city authorities formally prohibit public gatherings in the centre of Baku on the grounds that it disturbs the leisure activities and normal functioning of commercial entities. Protesters in Baku are only allowed to assemble in officially designated areas. Even here opposition political parties and anti-government protesters have been banned from holding demonstrations. *On 2 April 2011, another banned opposition protest in central Baku of some 1,000 participants was violently broken up by police using shields, truncheons, and rifles to beat and arrest protesters. Some 174 people were detained both before and after the protest; 60 people received from five to 10 days of administrative detention and four organizers were jailed for up to three years. Torture and ill-treatment remains an issue of concern in Azerbaijan. Several activists detained at and after the protests in March and April 2011 complained of ill-treatment at the moment of their arrest and subsequently while in police custody. To date, none of these allegations have been effectively investigated.
Ali Hasanov is interested in new technology - both at work and at home. He has four satellite receivers at his house: “My wife sees Turkish series, my son only wants to watch American programs and I look at Russian and European channels.” Ali Hasanov explains that the government is preparing a new IT policy on digitalization and a policy for mobile internet. “The customer will be able to watch local and foreign TV stations. But even today everyone who has access to a mobile phone has access to Internet over the phone. Of 100 people, we have 130 mobile subscriptions! Soon, 100 percent of the population will be using the Internet. In this regards it is our plan to create a balance between town and country.” Though, a few years ago the regime banned all foreign television and radio stations to broadcast in Azerbaijan. “Previously, Radio Liberty was the most popular radio station in Azerbaijan. When walking down the street you could hear it spilling out from every car”, says Xadica Ismayilova. “During the elections of 2008 we documented a series of irregularities. The following year it was decided to silence us by putting an end to all international broadcasts. Today we are sending via satellite and internet and thus the largest share of the audience is lost. One advantage is that today, compared to before, you can listen to Radio Liberty in the entire country, not only in Baku.” Xadica Ismayilova has not herself been physically attacked, though slandered. And on a regular basis someone warns her: “You have to be careful ...” Are people in general scared to speak freely?
EU court is investigating unfair judgment against blogger The European Court of Human Rights will investigate a complaint that the bloggers from Azerbaijan Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade submitted in January 2012. They were being held in prison from July 2009 to November 2010. The two bloggers want it to be recognized that the Azerbaijani authorities violated their rights. Although they are now free, it is just a parole, and the verdict against them was not repealed. Emin Milli, founder of the movement ”The Alumni Network” and Adnan Hajizade, video blogger and member of the politically independent movement ”OL! Youth Movement ”was arrested and charged with hooliganism, Though, the real reason was their criticism of the authorities and the fact that they distributed a video mocking corrupt politicians. They were arrested in Baku in July 2009 at the time when they went to the police to report that they suffered physical abuse. Two days later they were charged with hooliganism. A report by the UN Human Rights Council, July 31 2009, condemns the Azerbaijani authorities for the repeatedly making use of hooliganism charges to stop free speech. Source: Reporters Without Borders
Xadica Ismayilova says that this was the case earlier, that people provided information anonymously. “It still happens, but there is also a group of people who are more outspoken. I think social media taught them to express themselves and that people are tired of [the regime]. Nowadays, citizen journalists can easily distribute photos and movies.”
Freedom on the Internet There is little doubt that the Azerbaijani government keeps tabs on its citizens’ movements. The blogger Ali Novruzov tells how one student posted an anti-regime piece on Facebook and 16 minutes later somebody called his family and said that unless he immediately stopped doing this, his government scholarship to the university would be canceled. “Bloggers who like me started early are mostly left alone. In most cases because we have many international contacts. But newcomers they try to scare.” Ali Novruzov started using the Internet in 2006 and started blogging two years later. He says that one third of the Azerbaijani population has access to the Internet – 40 percent of them via cell phone, 40 percent via a telephone modem and the rest have high-speed (ADSL) access. He explains that bloggers gradually are shifting to using Facebook. Who uses the Internet? “At the risk of generalizing, one can say that Internet users are city dwellers with good income, as 2 Mb costs 40 dollars per month. A teacher’s salary is 100-200 dollars. But even if you can pay for the digital infrastructure it is poorly developed, especially in rural areas.”
It is difficult to make an impact with social media outside of the metropolitan area because poverty is widespread and the jobs hard to get. The young people are moving to Baku. “96 percent of all wages are earned in Baku and 94 percent of the money spent here” (!) explains Ali Novruzov. Activists using social media is often engaged in some youth movement participate in various training courses. With bloggers, it’s different. They are often seen as independent critics of the regime, as troublemakers. “Traditional media has failed”, says Ali Novruzov, adding: “They communicate either news or public debate. For the moment, everything happens on Facebook. There all kind of information is published: news, views and pure enlightenment. All active social commentators are on Facebook – which is still free. Sure, the regime hack accounts from time to time. But as far as I know this has only happened five or six times.” Ali Novruzov believes that the Internet revolution began in earnest in Azerbaijan in 2009, in connection with the referendum on amendments to the Constitution (with the result that the president can remain in office for life). “A political process got under way and many were critical of the regime. But we didn’t think that a movie about a donkey (as I was a partner in doing) would result in Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade spending one year in prison. They were not at all radical. They were not for or against anyone, but only for free speech.” “The Internet movement was led by a progressive youth faction and a group of students who had studied abroad. They became a third power next to the regime and the political opposition. Common to all the
participants was that they were against the regime. The opposition parties do not use the Internet. They are old fashioned in this regardâ€?, adds Ali Novruzov. Much has happened since 2009 and less people dare to protest online. Many have been intimidated into silence. Bakhtiyar Hajiyev is a net-activist in prison. He was arrested on March 4, 2011 and questioned by police about his activities, including Facebook - where he wrote about a planned protest against the regime to be held on March 11. He was sentenced to two years imprisonment for having averted military service. This is an accusation often used against the opposition by dictators when no true accusations can be found. Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, who studied at Harvard in the USA, attracted much attention internationally. The same applies to Jabbar Savalan who on Facebook urged to Egypt-inspired protests against the regime. The day after he was arrested and charged with drug possession. An accusation also not unusual for critics of the Azerbaijanis government. Savalan was pardoned and released December 26 last year. Ali Novruzov said that the regime does not understand what the youth wants. Instead of listening to them, they are silenced. This is done by giving money to certain groups and punishing others (such as the two bloggers). But the opposition has also begun to court the young people, according to Ali Novruzov, adding that many net-activists have joined the ranks of the political opposition. In November 2010, the Azeri government informed that it has plans to begin monitoring online news. So far it has not happened. Still the proposal is overshadowing net-activites. The same applies to a proposal that a state license will be necessary to broadcast TV programs online.
“Today, many practice self-censorship because of fear. And we do not know what the limits are for freedom on the net”, says Ali Novruzov reminding me of the bloggers and the donkey and the astonishing prison sentence.
The political opposition How does the public perceive the political opposition? “The public has almost no opportunities to learn about it. But we know that in elections many vote for oppositional politicians and that when the opposition takes part in elections, in principle it wins”, replies Xadica Ismayilova from Radio Liberty A number of Azerbaijanis political parties are working for a democratic government and in different ways protesting against President Aliyev and his family’s all-encompassing power. Etibar Mammadov, Party leader of National Independence Party of Azerbaijan (NIPA) is part of this set. He is well known for the politically versed Azerbaijanis partly because he, after the bloody Soviet invasion of Baku in January 1990 went to Moscow to inform the outside world of what had happened. He was arrested and spent nine months in a Soviet prison.
Today Etibar Mammadov is an elderly gentleman. We meet in his office and he offers the obligatory tea - and
Government and Politics Azerbaijan declared its independence on August 30, 1991. Since that time political life has been dominated by the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and the Aliyev clans influence. A new constitution was adopted at a referendum in November 1995. The Constitution gives the president a strong position. He is elected for five years. A new parliament was established with 125 members. Heydar Aliyev (Head of State 1993-2003) was succeeded in 2003 in the presidency by his son Ilham. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), governments and state-controlled media prevented numerous candidates from participating in elections on an equal basis. Upcoming selections: • Presidential elections 2013 • Parliamentary elections 2015 Sources: www.ne.se and Utrikespolitiska Institutet
sweet snacks. He doesn’t chat to bridge the gap while performing practical matters. He waits patiently and quietly for the questions I am supposed to ask. Why did he get involved in politics? “I was 19 and studied at the Faculty of History at the university here in Baku. We students thought a lot about our country. We learned that Azerbaijan voluntarily sought cooperation with the Soviet Union (USSR). But soon we realized that the Soviet Union occupied our country. We also realized that Azerbaijan is larger than the territory within the Soviet borders were. Many Azerbaijanis live in Iran. We asked about all this, but many of our teachers were afraid to answer. Soon we realized that we were already politically active.” Some teachers were not afraid, among others Abulfaz Elchibey who
later became the country’s first democratically elected non-communist president. Etibar Mammadov himself was arrested in 1975 and expelled from the university for a year. “They wanted to intimidate those who were thinking of becoming politically active. But in the 1980s the process continued and we realized that it was not only the Soviet leaders who were dying, but the entire Soviet system.” Perestroika was introduced in the mid 1980s – also in Azerbaijan. The ban on foreign contacts was gradually removed and the influences from abroad increasing. “There was a change in the entire Soviet Union. For us, the first spark was lit 1987 in connection to the Nagorno-Karabakh problem. That was when we first claimed the right to our own country and created a profound conflict between the people and rulers. The country was ruled from Moscow. Those who were dissatisfied with the government and claimed the right to our territory formed the Popular Front Party in 1988.” Two issues dominated the debate at the time: •
Protecting and strengthening Azerbaijani territory
Changing the legal system
During this time the Popular Front dominated in Azerbaijani politics, and most people believed that the party would win a majority in the 1990 parliamentary elections. “The number of protesters had grown exponentially. Strikes were organized. I was one of the strike leaders. We had adopted a Declaration of Independence on September 18, 1989 and a Constitution. But those in power in the Soviet Union declared that our laws were not valid. That
The Judiciary System As a Soviet republic Azerbaijan had a legal system where courts were dependent on the rulers. The rule of law was flawed, and the courts were an instrument of the political leadership. Local party and state bodies intervened in the work of the courts. In the Soviet debate this was called ”telephone law”. The situation did not change immediately after independence in 1991. Legislative power shall be exercised by Milli Madzjlis instead of the previously elected Supreme Soviet, whose operations have been suspended. A new constitution was adopted in November 1995. The change process is assumed going slowly and Azerbaijan is still far from any rule of law. Source: www.ne.se
left us with only one option: to separate from the Soviet Union.” While the tug of war between Moscow and Baku was going on the relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia became increasingly strained, culminating in a war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Since the ceasefire in 1994, most of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas are under joint control by the Armenian army and Nagorno-Karabakh’s selfdefense forces. Half a million Azerbaijanis escaped from the area, the UN refugee agency UNHCR reported, and today there are approximately 700 000 so-called “internally displaced refugees” in Azerbaijan. It should also be mentioned that Armenians had to flee from their homes and that today there are very few Armenians living in for example Baku. But back to 1989-1990, when Azerbaijanis citizens had created an independent state which was not recognized by the Soviet Union. In
mid-January, the Soviet authorities declared a curfew in Baku. “People protest against the curfew, and when we heard that the [Soviet] army was on the march people blocked the entrances to Baku with buses and cars and ... In the evening of January 19, Baku was invaded [by Soviet troops] and hundreds of people lost their lives. The official explanation for the invasion was the desire to create order”, says Etibar Mammadov and continues: “All our contacts with the outside world were cut off. That’s why I secretly left Baku and went to Moscow. In Azerbaijan’s official mission we was organized a press conference and I told what had happened in Baku. The day before I was going to file an appeal with the Soviet authorities I was arrested by the KGB and spent nine months in prison.” Etibar Mammadov was set free after he had been moved to a prison in Azerbaijan and one million signatures were collected for his release. In December 1990 he was elected to Parliament for the Popular Front. “Already at this time our opinions were divided within the Popular Front. I thought it was pointless to wait for Gorbachev to grant us independence. We first had to become independent and then introduce democracy - not in the reverse order. The result was that in 1991 NIPA was founded which today is a member of the International Democrat Union.” And today, is it still a difference between fractions in the opposition? “We all work for economic reform. We need a larger middle class, with more affluent people, to create a stable society. An independent economy is the foundation for democratic independence.” Etibar Mammadov explains that all other opposition parties are to the left of NIPA on the political spectrum. “They all want government to play a central role in society. I believe
that the current system needs to be changed to enable improvements. A government should with laws create the conditions, but should not interfere in economic affairs.” What are the biggest problems of today? “Today’s political leaders deal with Azerbaijan as their private affiliations. The Government believes that it is entitled to do whatever it wants,” says Mammadov and appears for the first time during the interview deeply indignant. He identifies the problems: •
Lack of economic independence
• There is no guarantee of private ownership. No independent courts that guarantee the right to private property “Look at all the destroyed buildings here in Baku”, he says, and throws out his arm in the direction of a building skeleton next to where we are. Properties are expropriated. “They say that a property is needed for the state ... But such a decision should be taken by the government. But this is not the case. And the houses are demolished even if the owners don’t want it.” Etibar Mammadov explains that many buildings have been expropriated to make way for the Eurovision Song Contest. He adds that the value of land in Baku is 4000-5000 manat (6-7000 dollars), but that the homeowners have been offered only 100-500 manat. Many Azerbaijanis testify to this unsatisfactory state of affairs: in the government’s zeal to create new infrastructure, the regime has evicted families from their homes without just compensation. Expropriation is the correct term for these compulsory acquisitions which is not acceptable in a democracy.
“Infrastructure projects sound so positive, but then we do not see the thousands of families evicted from their homes without just compensation and without reasonable consideration. Often, even with police force. Each minister can evict people to make room for a separate project”, says Xadica Ismayilova on Radio Liberty. But the biggest problem in Azerbaijan, says Etibar Mammadov, is that people don’t believe in the judiciary system; the courts are dependent on the executive powers. “There are indications that more and more people feel crammed into a corner, which often leads to an explosion. Look at the Arab revolts. But I do not want the same thing to happen here. One of the causes of the Arab events was that the West made the [Arab] political leaders in power to their friends. Had they instead criticized them this had put pressure on the leaders to do something and it had perhaps been a peaceful revolution. That’s the kind of revolution we are working for in Azerbaijan.” “Certainly, Azerbaijan must become a democratic society. But I want us to get there without violence. And I want it to happen soon.” What can the West do to help democracy on its way? “West must not ignore the developments in authoritarian states and dictatorships. And it must keep its own house clean. Remember that all dictators have their money elsewhere – not at home ...”
Can the democratic opposition act as one? “Nothing is impossible and it is important to work together. But one must remember that we are “cursed” with a Bolshevik heritage pronouncing that those who are not with us are against us. I think we can build a
consensus in regards to different issues (and we are ready for it today) but unfortunately there are those who believe that all others must join his or her camp”, ends Etibar Mammadov the interview and is ready for the photo shoot. He stands straight with hands at sides. No posturing.
“I am an optimist and believe that if we work together it is possible to change for the better”, says Isa Gambar, Chairman of the Musavat Party, an opposition party founded in 1911 and today a member of the Liberal Democrat Union. The party dominated the political scene in the short time Azerbaijan was an independent state from 1918 to 1920. He and other opposition leaders have tried in the past cooperation, but in vain. “The Azeri people are ready for democracy. That we showed at the beginning of the 1990s [when the country gained independence]”, says Isa Gambar who together with Etibar Mammadov was one of the founders of the Popular Front. He believes that corruption is the biggest and most serious problem the country faces. He is not alone. Every single oppositional politician in Azerbaijan seems concerned. As well as the general public. “Corruption is a cancer. A blow to the country’s future. And so it was also during Soviet times.” How do ordinary people experience corruption on a day-to-day basis?
The conflict on Nagorno-Karabakh The dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh is rooted in history. On various grounds two people believe that they are entitled to the same area, which is certainly a phenomenon not uncommon also in other parts of Europe. Each year 20-30 people are killed on the line of contact between the two disputing people. Hundreds of thousands are denied the right to return to their homes, regain their land and visit the graves of relativeâ€™s. There must be a peaceful resolution accepted by both sides to the conflict. A new war would be yet another disastrous step with many deaths and misery. At the heart of Armeniaâ€™s concerns is the safety of its population. To Azerbaijan it is of main importance that the many displaced persons may regain their land and their homes. The OSCE Minsk Group is trying to find a solution acceptable to both sides. The principles for such a treaty are obvious, thus the challenge lies more in getting the parties to accept the solution rather than finding the solution as such. In societies where pride and principles are important and where compromise is seen as a weakness, this might be a more difficult challenge than to find on a clever practical solution. The main feature of a possible solution is that territories around Nagorno-Karabakh, today occupied by Armenia, should be returned to Azerbaijan. Though, they must be demilitarized under credible international supervision. A safe corridor between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh has to be established, also under international supervision. The border between the countries is opened and refugees allowed returning. The status of Nagorno-Karabakh has also to be determined. Neither country would have their claims fully satisfied, but the benefits to both people would be great. EU could provide vital support by assisting in the integration process between Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as Georgia, the third country in the region. Europe has extensive experience in integration as means to resolve conflicts between countries with a long history of conflict. A clear EU-membership perspective would make it easier to put the conflict to rest, as the experience in the Balkans shows. GĂśran Lennmarker, former president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and its Special Representative for the South Caucasus, today chairman of the Jarl Hjalmarson Foundation
“It is everywhere. It’s like an epidemic. Those who bear children have to pay for a safe delivery (not the regular fees, but also under the table). The same applies to the cemetery.” It’s hard to get rid of corruption, says Isa Gambar, as people from all political camps take bribes. “In other parts of the world parents pay for their children to attend good schools. Here in Azerbaijan we bribe so that the children get good grades without the need to study ... It gives the wrong signals! But we cannot blame parents and children. It’s the system.” As Etibar Mammadov also Isa Gambar was a history teacher at the university in Baku. For his part, the break with the prevailing system came in 1988 when the Soviet Communist Party declared that NagornoKarabakh would be part of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia, “that’s when we started to work for our own political leaders and founded the Popular Front” says Isa Gambar who was MP in the early 1990’s. He was later Speaker in Parliament and a short time acting President. His successor in that office was Abulfaz Elchibey, Popular Front’s leaders from Musavat party. In 1993 the communist leader and first Aliyev was elected President and Isa Gambar resigned in protest. 2003 (when the son Aliyev Isa Gambar
was elected president) Gambar was a candidate in the elections with a number of opposition parties backing him. The election was marked by electoral fraud and protests from the opposition were great. The regime put down the protests by force. About the 2003 election OSCE wrote: “There was widespread intimidation in the pre-election period, and unequal conditions for the candidates … The counting and tabulation of election results were seriously flawed. Post-election violence resulting in the widespread detentions of election officials and opposition activists further marred the election process. International observers were not allowed to monitor the post-election activities at the CEC in the crucial days before the announcement of the final results.” OSCE went on saying that “An atmosphere of intimidation gravely undercut public participation and free campaigning. This situation was compounded by serious violence and an excessive use of force by police at some stages of the campaign”. “Protests and violence broke out on election night, and post-election disturbances continued with rioting in Baku on the next day. This was followed by a sweeping government crackdown on the opposition in which over 600 persons was detained around the country.” Still, Ilham Aliyev was declared the winner of the election with 77% of the votes. In the presidential election in 2008 the OSCE reported that the incumbent President Aliyev toured the country to inaugurate a number of new infrastructures. The visit received wide media attention and meant that the border between the president’s official duties and his campaign became blurred. In several cases, schools closed so that students and teachers could participate in the manifestations of the president’s party. Some were forced to participate in them. OSCE also noted that “The election took place in a peaceful environment, but was characterized by
a lack of robust competition, a lack of vibrant political discourse, and a restrictive media environment, and thus did not reflect some of the principles necessary for a meaningful and pluralistic democratic election.” Is it risky to be in politics in Azerbaijan? Certainly there are political prisoners, Isa Gambar says, explaining that a number of today’s political prisoners belong to Musavat Party, including the chairman of the Youth League. They were sentenced last year to between one and three years in prison. Among the prisoners are also representatives of the “pro-Islamic movements.” “It’s a big risk for anyone who is a member of an opposition party because they can be arrested. It happened to me and my deputies”, says Gambar: “We can’t be on TV, we can’t arrange demonstrations or protests and when we go to the polls election fraud is prevalent. Actually the community has extremely low confidence in the government. The regime gets fewer votes than us [the opposition] in all elections and should step down from power. Today dozens of political activists are in prison for exercising freedom of the press and/or freedom of assembly. Counting prisoners of conscience, it is between 50 and 100 persons.” “Azerbaijan is an authoritarian and corrupt regime. The regime tries to convince everyone that it is strong and that the opposition is weak. But it is absolutely wrong. If this was the case - why is the government so afraid of the opposition, asks Isa Gambar and offers us tea. It is winter in Baku and the room in the party HQ is freezing cold. The property is located outside the center, and as almost everywhere in Baku you can see streets in need of repair and houses that have seen better days.
The Power of Religion Is religion influential in Azerbaijan? Over 90 percent of the population is Muslim and the majority of these are Shiite Muslims. “The issue is very complex. We need to use polls to find out about the public opinion. If we had free elections, we would know what percentage Islamist parties represent. Some say that their position is very strong; others argue that it is negligible. The truth is probably somewhere in between,” says Isa Gambar. Founded in 1918 Azerbaijan was the first secular democracy in the Islamic part of the world. During the Soviet era the country was officially atheist, which according to Isa Gambar “created an indifference of many in regards to religion.” When the country gained independence freedom of religion was established. “You might say that Islam today is trying to take its rightful place in society. Discussions are ongoing about the degree to which Azerbaijan is to be a secular state.” Since 1920 the state and church have been separated. “The Muslim leaders want to strengthen the position of Islam. And the government has the wrong policy towards religious groups, which means that on the one hand, some radicalize, on the other hand, others seek solace, solutions and explanations in religion.” Isa Gambar believes that previous secular regimes in Egypt and Algeria wanted to cooperate with the West, but when the West did not care about the democratic opposition, the power went to radical Islamists. In Azerbaijan, no Islamist movement has received more votes in an election than the democratic opposition. It will probably stay this way for
Religion The dominant religious affiliation among Azerbaijanis is Shiite Islam, unlike other Turkic peoples which most often are Sunni Muslims. The religious traditions show pre-Islamic features such as reverence for fire, forefathers, holy places and celebration of Nauroz – the Persian New Year. The substantial Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh region is Christian, and there are also Christians within the Russian minority. Source: www.ne.se
the next 5-10 years, Isa Gambar predicts. But what happens next is difficult to foresee. Like many other Azerbaijanis he points out that as long as democratic regimes [read the West] backs up authoritarian leaders [read Azerbaijan], it means that people lose faith in democracy and seek out something else. What can the West do? “The Western countries have begun to come to their senses following the economic crisis in 2008. The impossibility that some parts of the world are very poor and other parts rich and democratic have been recognized. Though, poverty neither results in stability nor prosperity. Look at all the people from Asia and Africa seen in European capitals. This migration can’t be stopped. People will go where they can create a better life”, says Isa Gambar at the end of the hour-long interview. It should be noted that President Aliyev and his regime are anxious to keep good relations with the U.S. and Europe. After the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 in New York Azerbaijan allowed U.S. military aircraft to land and refuel in the Baku civilian airport. It has also later in different ways supported U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.
Traditionally the Azerbaijanis are in different ways connected to both Russia and Iran, as well as Turkey and the West. Azerbaijan is often described as a borderland between East and West. Between tradition and a modern society. In the classic novel Ali and Nino by the pen name Kurban Said, a colorful picture is given of the struggle between these two sides in the early 1900s Baku. Ali is thinking about if it is “possible to be a good Mohammedan and still sleep in a bed and eat with knife and fork.” Nino is appalled that Ali exercise “barbaric” religious rites. The result is an amalgamation of what has been and what’s to come. Today Baku is a city of many faces and definitely with a western atmosphere.
Not Politics – But Still Politics Eldar Namazov, used to be one of President Heydar Aliyev (in power 1993-2003) closest men but resigned in 1999. “Problems arose in 1997 when we began to discuss internal affairs. Previously, it was all about war with Armenia and oil contracts. In these matters there was no difference in our views. [At that time] I thought that the time was ripe for democracy and rule of law and saw Azerbaijan as part of the European family. But we wanted different things ...” Eldar Namazov summarizes the situation in today’s Azerbaijan: “Azerbaijan today is similar to Mubarak’s Egypt. We have a secular regime that wants good relations with the West. Meanwhile, the regime is authoritarian and corrupt. There are violations of human rights, elections are not free and the regime puts pressure on their political opponents.” Like most people in Azerbaijan who talk about politics Eldar Namazov soon dig into the subject of the widespread corruption in
the country. He believes that corruption today is a national attitude. “Everyone takes bribes at every level.” Still he is hopeful and believes that corruption has not become part of the country’s nature. “The example of Georgia shows that if the political will is there, you can change this. What we need is transparency, free elections, free media Eldar Namazov and an independent judiciary. Thought, political will is required to curb corruption.” Today Eldar Namazov is the leader of the Public Forum for Azerbaijan, a network of NGOs that was formed in 2001 and works on issues related to economy, democracy and the legal system. “We are not a political party. We work only with social problems and what can be done about them. “ What’s the scope of the Public Forum? “For example, for more than two years we have worked with the project Next-ten-years and organized over 30 conferences and seminars. We have published two books about possible political reforms, including the Constitution. We want to increase public participation around the country and focus in the first line on youth and society’s intellectual elite, for example writers, poets and academics.” Rustam Ibragimbekov, screenwriter and Oscar winner, is involved in this work.
The parliament in Baku on a cold winter day 2012.
“This group is working with issues such as human rights and democracy and has contributed to making these matters more popular.” Why the elite and young people? “In recent years the government has restricted the possibilities to work for the political opposition and increased pressure on them. Accordingly we must enable civil society where young people and the cultural elite have a special place.” Eldar Namazov is convinced that this work has had an effect. Never before has the intellectual Azerbaijanis elite reacted and protested as much as today. In addition, this is strengthening the opposition
forces when they see that you can resist the regime’s pressure. Public Forum for Azerbaijan has also produced a document (charter) with an outline of seven steps what is needed to make Azerbaijan a democracy. Mr. Namazov explains that the regime is putting pressure on him and other political activists: “Recently, we organized a conference for 150 participants. Two hours before the conference was to begin we got a phone call from the hotel where it would take place. We were told that they had electrical problems in the room we had rented and paid for. This is an international chain with headquarters in Chicago. We had to cancel the event. Now I have called the hotel several times to get a new time for the event. But they have not been able to help us ... But is Azerbaijan really ready for democracy? The question upsets Eldar Namazov. He explains: “We have had capitalism since the oil industry was established here in the 1800s. And the first parliamentary republic was founded in 1918. We introduced the Latin alphabet even before Turkey, and we are a nation with a European mentality. There is no doubt that Azerbaijan wants to be part of a democratic Europe.”
Still today, oil is extracted in this field where the Nobel brothers worked until the nationalization of their company in 1920.
Oil – a Blessing and a Curse There is no doubt that economic conditions in general have improved since independence in 1991 – after having first gotten worse, as in all former Soviet republics. “People in the West often do not fully appreciate that it takes time to build a democratic nation with a functioning market economy. After the fall of the Soviet Union, a factory, for example, could fail to produce anything useful, since it was only a part of a system involving several countries that were dependent on each other for the production of a finished product,” explains Ambassador Fikret Akcura, representative of the UN and UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) in Azerbaijan.
Owners Azerbaijan International Operating Company 2007 Owners
Ownership in %
BP (Great Brittain)
State Oil Company (Azerb.)
Exxon Mobil (USA)
Turkish Petroleum (Turkey)
Devon Energy (USA)
Amerada Hess (USA)
Source: Azerbaijan since independence by Svante E Cornell
According to the agreement, Azerbaijan will get an increasing part of the turnover as time goes on. Estimates show that Azerbaijan will be able to count 80 percent of the profit and earn 120 billion USD in gas and oil during the years 2005-2025.
Industrial output in 1994 was only 38 percent of what it was 1990! And household income was only a fraction of what it used to be. Add to this that the independent Azerbaijan inherited a number of environmental disasters due to a ruthless industrialization in the name of socialism. The Azeri oil industry is one of the World’s oldest. It was here that the Swedish Nobel brothers built an oil company at the end of the 1800s, and controlled half of the oil extracted in Baku. Though, the Russian Revolution put an end to this – the company was nationalized 1920. Today, both gas and oil is produced in Azerbaijan. An industry that began in earnest after 1994 when the “contract of the century” was launched, i.e. that Azerbaijan and a consortium of
foreign oil companies agreed on oil exploration in the Caspian Sea. The state oil company SOCAR is in President Aliyevâ€™s hands. And he is knowledgeable of the business since he used to be vice president of the company. It is not uncommon that major oil assets, when being a major tributary of the state budget, tend to block needed reforms, while also fuelling corruption. Both of these gloomy scenarios seem to have become true in the case of Azerbaijan. But there might be a light to be seen at the end of the tunnel: in 1999 a State Oil Fund (SOFAZ) was founded. Like often in Azerbaijan this fund is placed under the presidentâ€™s personal control, which has attracted international criticism. But SOFAZ is also one of the most transparent (www. oilfund.az) and least corrupt institutions in Azerbaijan. Transparency, however, only in regards to the money that comes into the Fund, not the sums allocated to the Azerbaijani state budget. With money from the Fund, the government has among other things ensured that many of the internally displaced persons (currently around 700 000) from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have fairly decent living conditions. Money has also been used to the improvement of water supply and irrigation in agriculture. Income from oil and gas has given Azerbaijan a second chance. Accord-
rm an Ge
No rw ay
aij a er b
Income Share of Top 20% 46,6
Ru ss ia
ing to the IMF (International Monetary Fund), poverty has been reduced from about 50% in the early 1990s to less than 10% today. However, as for the distribution of earnings, between 2005 and 2008 the portion of the total income rose for the 20% of the population with the highest incomes and the population with the lowest income got a smaller share. We also know that even if the energy sector accounts for one third of the country’s GDP and 90 percent of exports it only accounts for 1 percent (!) of employment. Still today, almost 40 percent of the population is employed in agriculture. And the average wage in 2011 was about 425 manat ($ 540 U.S.), according to the Azerbaijani national statistics. A typical salary in the state sector is 600 manat. The private sector pays better. A teacher can earn between 120 and 500 manat a month. According to the World Bank, GNI (gross national income) per capita increased from US $1890 in 2006 to US $5330 five years later. What are the plans to diversify the industry and make the country less vulnerable to the energy sector’s impact, I ask Ali Hasanov at the office of President Aliyev. He explains that this work is already up and running. “We have cut down slightly on the oil production – by 1.5%. The same goes for gas. While growth in the non oil-based industry last year increased by 9%, i.e. the chemical industry, electricity (previously we imported a third of our electricity from Russia today we produce Income Share of Bottom 20%
Ma lay sia
aij an er b Az
rm an y Ge
more than we need!), agricultural products and automobiles.” Ali Hasanov says that the regime’s goal is to be a reliable partner. He believes that many countries see Azerbaijan as just that: “155 nations voted us as a non permanent member of UN Security Council! he proudly explains. This is a fact that the regime often uses as “proof ” that Azerbaijan is seen as “housebroken” in the international community. “Here at home we have often been criticized in terms of democracy, human rights and corruption. We take action and work in that direction. Last year we launched five programs to curb corruption. We are increasing these activities. This year measures to further human rights will be realized. Soon we will launch a proposal for a new law on how political parties will be funded.”
Everywhere in Baku you can see construction cranes and semi-finished buildings. The buildings above are supposed to look like flames and are simply called Flame Towers.
The law will create competition among the parties, Mr. Hasanov believes. Those that have affiliations across the country, that set up candidates on all three voting levels (local, state and presidential) and increase its membership will get financing. The difference in growth
between urban and rural areas is evident in Azerbaijan. Many of its activities and much of its population are concentrated to Baku. “Not all the infrastructure improvements are made in Baku, but also in rural areas. Still, people move to larger cities. This is not unique to us, but typical for transition countries. In all former Soviet republics the rural population is poor and outside the major cities face shortages of water and gas, which causes people to move. In the 1990s the population in Baku grew by 30-50 percent. The war with Armenia meant that people were forced to leave their homes. But in 1998 a new phase of development was initiated. We started to improve social conditions out in the districts. New jobs have been created there, but it is difficult to persuade people to move back [once they have settled in the cities]. We have introduced financial incentives such as higher salaries for teachers and doctors in rural areas and this has yielded positive results. Today we are building schools and the Government is focusing on a special policy for rural areas,” says Ali Hasanov.
Poor Education is a Major Problem Fikret Akcura at the UN believes that one of the best things that the Soviet era “left behind” were the education and healthcare systems, “which were much better than those in many rich countries”. “But this has eroded since independence – which is common in the CIS countries (Commonwealth of Independent States, Russia and others). Azerbaijan aims to expand its non-oil economy and be competitive in global markets. That implies a major change in the skills set of the working population and requires a significant reform of the education system“. Fikret Akcura sees the inadequate budget allocation and current education policy incompatible with the Government’s aspirations for economic diversification.
Today the Azeri government is investing less in education than it did in 1999 and at that time, the proportion had fallen significantly since the early 1990’s. Fikret Akcura points out that “due to the availability of oil funds, one would expect Azerbaijan’s education system to have started improving considerably in the basic parameters of attendance, completion and quality. However, the trends are not in that direction. The resource allocations out of budget or as a percentage of GDP are not at required levels. Neighbouring Georgia, for example, allocates more to education even though it is not as rich.” Corruption is also a wide spread problem in education, with teachers and other staff supplementing their meagre salaries with bribes from students to be admitted to an education, get good grades, and so on. Fikret Akcura and his colleague Nato Alhazishvili indicate that also “the Government’s health expenditures have been rather low and, for many years, below the middle-income country average. As a nation, the total health expenditure is about 6% of GDP, which indicates that the citizens incur a lot of health care costs out of pocket and that creates a burden on vulnerable population groups. Moreover, much of the Government focus is on physical health infrastructure while there is a notable absence of qualified staff in the hospitals and clinics – especially, in the rural areas.” Low pensions are a reality in today’s Azerbaijan. According to the State Statistics Committee of Azerbaijan the basic pension in 2011 was 120 manat (US $156). The minimum pension was 85 manat per month. However, explain the two UN officials, the UN has worked with the Government to improve the pension system. Today, pensioners get their pension via e-cards, that is, they can withdraw money from an ATM. And pension statements can be downloaded from the Internet.
“When the Soviet Union collapsed, the pension entitlements disappeared, forcing elderly citizens into poverty in most CIS countries,” explains Fikret Akcura. “However, in Azerbaijan, the Government has set aside a portion of the oil funds to establish a viable pension system. This is a great success story that played a major role in reducing the poverty rate in Azerbaijan. Average pension is between 186 and 217 manat ($240 to $280), depending on how many years the person has been active in the workforce.” When asked if you can live on minimum pension Nato Alhazishvili says: “You do not live well in retirement, but you can survive.” But it’s not only poor education and low pensions that are major problems in Azerbaijan. Water is also a main predicament and has been so since long. This applies to both access and quality. Azerbaijan has a long waterline along the Caspian Sea and the visitor to Baku can stroll along a beautiful promenade in the city centre. This is where oil companies now primarily are extracting oil. At independence, about 70 percent of the Azerbaijani population has access to good quality water. Today the aquivalent number is 80 percent. Still today there are suburbs of Baku where you just have water “maybe 7-11 in the morning and then in the evening again,” says Nato Alhazishvili, adding that the biggest problem however is the quality.
Women’s Role in Society Women have been able to vote in Azerbaijan since 1918. Though, still today there are few female politicians – no members of the government, and only just over 15 percent of the 125 MPs are women. Approximately 60 percent of the women are in the work force (labour participation).
The position of women in public life in Azerbaijan is weak, compared to Sweden. And in their careers, women are often working in low-wage occupations. In the well-known novel Ali and Nino (written by the pseudonym Kurban Said) it is told of what is known as bride kidnapping. These kidnappings still exist today, often involving a group of men that force a girl into a car, drive away and holds her over night. When the girl the day after return to her family it is most of the time considered a shame to be so great that she is forced to marry the kidnapper, regardless of what happened during the night. In Azerbaijan ancient traditions come together with novelties to form a life in which women slowly takes their rightful place. “The best of investigative journalism during the past two years has been made by women journalists”, says Xadica Ismayilova at Radio Liberty. But, she adds, women have also benefited from corruption, that is, women in the president’s family. “The president’s wife is very active in public life. She is more popular than her husband. But there are few incentives for [ordinary] women to participate in public life. And the men do not help with housework. That’s the way it is all over the Caucasus.” Xadica Ismayilova believes this problem will increase in the future: “In ten years we will have a group of educated women, but also women who have hardly received any education. When a family can’t afford to send all children to school, it is the son that can go because he will have to provide for a family in the future. Especially in rural areas parents keep daughters home from school “because they heard about rapes and sexual harassment outside the schools,” explains Xadica Ismayilova. She says that it is a cowardly excuse for not giving the daughters a proper education. “Some parents just don’t want their girls to be with boys. This is partly
due to religion, partly to traditions in the Caucasus. During the Soviet era the state forced people to send girls to school. But now we have to prosecute parents who take kids out of school. And that doesn’t happen.” One solution would be to have separate girls’ and boys’ schools and to allow girls to wear head scarf, Xadica Ismayilova believes. The UN has provided assistance to the Azerbaijani government to introduce a law against domestic violence. Today UN has projects for rural women. But, explains several Azerbaijanis I talked to, the social pressure is strong to do what is traditionally expected of a girl. And when all is said and done, it is often a question of what is available, not what you could be or dream of to become.
Eurovision Song Contest There is no doubt that the Eurovision Song Contest is important to Azerbaijan and its people. Everybody you talk to has an opinion about the festival. And basically all see benefits that foreigners – especially journalists – from many different countries will visit Baku in May (Semi-finals 22 and 24 May and the finals Saturday, May 26). 42 countries will participate in this annual music festival. As recently as early March, it was 43 countries, but neighboring Armenia – since decades involved in a conflict with Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh – announced that it was withdrawing from the contest and in other words will not be on place in Baku. “Our people are proud to have won the Eurovision Song Contest. It is a sign of our passion for music. Furthermore, we get the opportunity to showcase our culture and hospitality. The contest will appeal especially to young people in the country – 64 percent of
the population is between 12 and 35 years. Our youth get to meet young people from a number of other countries”, says Professor Ali Hasanov, PR Manager of President Aliyev. The festival’s slogan is “Light your fire “. What does that mean? “The first impression of Azerbaijan should be that it is warm and friendly. Fire symbolizes our belonging to history”, says Ali Hasanov. Azerbaijan is called “Land of fire” and from the 400s, there are texts where Baku is mentioned as a place of “holy fire”. Visitors in ancient times could describe “a flame from a cliff ...”, which most likely was burning gas. In other words, a not uncommon occurrence in oil-and gas-rich country such as Azerbaijan. Fire was worshiped for many years particularly as part of Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrians are known for their devoting of fire and their fire temples. The most important rite is performed by priests in front of the sacred fire. Fikret Akcura, the UN and UNDP Representative in Azerbaijan, explains that the festival is important for the Azerbaijani Government as it would like to improve the country’s image abroad and also would like to show to prospective investors that such a large event as the Eurovision Song Contest can be handled in regard to management, logistics and security. “The successful carrying out of the Eurovision Song Contest will also boost the morale of all the Azerbaijani citizens since this will be a very momentous display of their country’s progress over the past 20 years – having come from the verge of break up in the early 1990s to being able to host a European event as an able member of the international community. Young nations need these instances of psychological uplift as part of their nation-building process… it is not only economic progress that is required,” said Fikret Akcura, adding that “they would like to show that, in many regards, Azerbaijan is as
European as all the other nations in this contest.” Etibar Mammadov, NIPA, believes that the festival offers a chance to “open a window to the West”. That this is a chance to showcase the good sides of Azerbaijan and its culture, “while everyone also will be able to see Azerbaijan’s problems.” He is hoping for a more accurate picture of his homeland. The same goes for Isa Gambar, leader of Musavat, who hope for a better image but at the same time says that the regime must release all political prisoners before the festival takes place: “We will do our best to make sure that all political prisoners are released and that freedom of assembly will apply to everyone in Azerbaijan. If the Government doesn’t follow through with these requirements, this means that the Eurovision Song Contest will only be a few days with singing and at the end a blow to democracy in
Traditional Azeri music is still often played. In the photo is a group of musicians at a restaurant in Baku, January 2012.
Azerbaijan. It would also mean that President Aliyev has successfully been able to imitate democracy! Xadica Ismayilova from Radio Liberty is on the same track: â€œThe Eurovision Song Contest will bring dancing in the streets. But where is the freedom of assembly when a group of young people who read books on the street, to motivate others to read, is dispersed by the police and told to stop reading because it is contrary to public policy!â€?
The arena where the Eurovision Song Contest is to be held is located on a peninsula in the Caspian Sea. It is seen on the far left in this photo and was still under construction in January/February 2012.
Elisabeth Precht, Head of information of the Jarl Hjalmarson Foundation, is the author of this report. During more than 30 years she has worked as a journalist in Sweden, Central Europe and the US. firstname.lastname@example.org
Jarl Hjalmarson Foundation was founded in 1994. The Foundation is promoting development and European co-operation/integration on the basis of freedom, democracy and market economy. This goal is achieved by activities such as lectures and seminars intended for political parties and organisations promoting the development of democracy. All projects are primarily funded through the Swedish International Development Authority (Sida) as a part of the Swedish government’s development aid. According to the government’s guidelines this aid will: “facilitate the materialization of a well functioning party structure in countries of Central and Eastern Europe as well as in the developing world. With the further aim of, promoting democratic and representative governments in those countries.”
Jarl Hjalmarson Foundation Box 2080 SE-10312 Stockholm phone +46-8-676 8000 www. hjalmarsonfoundation.se