Eurovision 2012: ‘Expect the unexpected’
Yesterday I had my picture taken with Jedward, then Engelbert. Today I was punched to the floor by plain clothes police trying to stop a pro-democracy protest a stone’s throw from the brand new Eurovision Song Contest venue.
I saw some people watching the fracas as hundreds of police weighed in, rounding up demonstrators, dragging them off, thrashing batons.
Some of those watching were foreigners, who’d come to cover the Eurovision song contest. I could tell, because they had the big orange press cards round their necks. I went up to them.
“What’s that?” asked a German man with lots of earrings.
“That,” I said, with the smugness of a foreign correspondent who’s racked up a few years of demonstrations, “That is a pro-democracy protest. And they’re doing it just for you.”
I left the German guy and his Eurovision colleagues standing staring, wide-eyed, as I charged, with my Azerbaijani journalist friend, after yet another running flash protest to peel off. This was crazy. We were charging along a shopping thoroughfare in central Baku, among a phalanx of riot police chasing sprinting protestors.
I stood and talked for a few minutes to a young woman who told me in intense, broken English: “We have no democracy. We want freedom. This country: corruption. Bad corruption. President corrupt.” Five minutes later, I photographed the same young woman being literally dragged up a side street and slammed into a waiting police van.
In all, 45 people were arrested in Baku today. All have now been released, it’s reported. But this is not over. Expect these protestors to make hay while the sun shines: the Eurovision final is not until Saturday. They’ve got five days to ensure the world is aware of the repression they live under. After that, international media attention will move on. Now that’s a deadline.
Video map: Jonathan Miller’s alternative guide to Baku
Living in a ‘dictatorship’
Today I met four people who told me they’d been warned that the arrests would begin when the Eurovision is over.
I’d met one of the protest organisers a couple of days ago for breakfast. He’s a clever, articulate, 27-year-old lawyer called Rasul Jafarov, who’s set up a group called Sing for Democracy.
“We live in a dictatorship,” he told me. “Elections are falsified, the president can be president for life. Corruption is huge. They are stealing money from the state budget. There is human rights abuse. There is no media freedom. People are afraid.”
So bad is this “fear” that Azerbaijan’s leading rockstar, Jamal Ali, who was the first to sign up to Sing for Democracy, has had to flee the country, in fear of his life, just as all the Eurovision contestants were jetting into the capital.
Jamal Ali was beaten and abused in prison while serving a sentence this month for insulting the president’s dead mother. His riposte is as rude as it is profound: his band’s latest video single, uploaded to You Tube, the day Jamal left.
The regime of President Ilham Aliyev, who inherited power from his father – just like Bashar al-Assad in Syria – thought that by hosting the Eurovision, they’d be able to project a positive, modern image of the former Soviet Caucasian republic. But, like the buildings they’ve tried to beatify along the main roads of Baku, this is just a veneer.
And just like with Bahrain, which attempted to polish its image by staging the Formula 1 Grand Prix last month, this small, repressive regime will find that at least some of the 300-million people it hopes will watch the Eurovision extravaganza, will begin to feel very uncomfortable about the fact that it’s being held here at all.
“We are not a human rights organisation,” said Jon Ola, the Eurovision’s Executive Supervisor. “We have tried for 57 years to keep the Eurovision Song Contest free from politics and we don’t want to use the Eurovision Song Contest as a political tool.”
Mr Ola fails to distinguish between politics and human rights. In the days running up to Saturday’s final, he and his colleagues and Jedward and Englebert and all those other glitzy, schmaltzy contenders, may be surprised by the tenacity of Azerbaijan’s pro-democracy movement. As Human Rights Watch puts it: Expect the Unexpected in Baku this week.
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