26 May 2012

Eurovision in Baku: two tales of one city

Is Baku a city rich in culture and heritage or a city at the centre of an oppressive regime? Ahead of Eurovision, Channel 4 News hears from two men with two very different tales of one city.

Eurovision in Baku: two tales of one city (Reuters)

For Azerbaijan’s ruling politicians Eurovision represents a chance to shine; a chance to project a positive, modern image to a television audience of millions. It should be the best of times.

For Azerbaijan’s political activists it is also a moment to shine – for very different reasons; they want to show the world the oppression they claim to live under. A chance to highlight the worst of times.

The country achieved independence 20 years ago after being part of the Soviet Union and while much of Europe is currently fighting a tide of financial turmoil, Azerbaijan’s capital Baku is booming thanks to oil.

Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Britain, Fakhraddin Gurbanov, told Channel 4 News Eurovision represents a “great chance to reconnect with Europe culturally and socially”.

He added: “You might have heard that Azerbaijani people are very famous for their hospitality. We treat our guests in a very special manner and it is an honour for us to host thousands of fans from all across Europe”.

Interactive map: Jonathan Miller's alternative tour of Baku

Political activist Emin Milli has a different tale to tell. In 2009 he posted a satirical video on the internet criticising the government. He was attacked by unknown men shortly after and ended up in prison charged with hooliganism.

Human rights ranking of past Eurovision winners

He cites the police’s dispersal of recent protests in Baku and the arrest of political activists as evidence of oppression: “What sort of European celebration of free expression can this song contest can claim to be in this environment?

“Can singers coming to Eurovision just have fun and close their eyes to what is happening around?”

A platform to protest?

Human rights groups are calling for performers to use the event as a platform to protest against alleged oppression in Azerbaijan.

They claim the country’s people don’t enjoy the same freedoms as other Eurovision countries and those watching the event should be aware of Azerbaijan’s controversial human rights record in comparison to other nations.

But Fakhraddin Gurbanov sees his country’s future as very much part of Europe: “Azerbaijan has come a long way in integrating into European structures politically and economically.

“I regard the hosting of Eurovision as a cultural milestone in strengthening cultural and people-to-people ties between Azerbaijan and Europe.”

According to the Eurovision rules any singer who sends a political message during the live show faces disqualification.

Activist Emin Milli told Channel 4 News it is a simple choice: “This one act of courage and defiance, an act of human solidarity would have powerful impact on the imaginations of millions of citizens in Azerbaijan who live in fear, and inspire millions around the world who would be part of this dramatic moment.”

That is a view rejected by Fakhraddin Gurbanov: “Obviously this is a platform for celebrating culture and music.

“I would be surprised to see attempts to hijack this for political or personal interests. It is up to the contestants to decide what to do or say but this song contest is not the right platform for raising these concerns.”