Khadija Ismayilova: “Eurovision is an attempt to showcase our medieval Middle East monarchy as a modern European democracy”
To Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev and his administration, this is a chance to show off himself and his country to European guests and instil pride for the state and trust in the government among his crisis-stricken citizens
Expensive hotels, the glossy embankment in the capital, cafés and restaurants are all waiting for guests. “Baku Airport is emblazoned with advertisements for the competition… The gleaming, 25,000-seat concert hall, built especially for the contest, has been completed on time… But rights activists say that the government, led by the authoritarian president Ilham Aliyev, is using the contest to deflect criticism from the country’s appalling human rights record,” writes The Independent.
The Ukrainian Week spoke with opposition Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova who knows well what happens to those who stand in the way of the Aliyev family.
U.W.: The president of Azerbaijan is trying to get credit for hosting this year’s Eurovision Song Contest in Baku. Will the event turn into another PR campaign for his regime?
The Aliyevs' rule has been accompanied by numerous failures. After Heydar Aliyev (father of the current president) came to power, Armenia was able to occupy Nagorno-Karabakh and seven districts around it and set up a security zone there. That was a defeat in the fight for Karabakh; 750,000 refugees fled from there to Azerbaijan and still remain a problem for Baku. The country has also lost a chance to become a democracy with a market economy. The political system is still unstable and rests on the police force. And then, after these failures, the people were given Eurovision. Many forget that this is just a song contest, not a national accomplishment. A music show does not solve even one problem. In contrast, new problems arose due to high spending.
The regime is using the victory of one song for its propaganda. The administration is showing us off to the EU as a modern European country, but this has nothing to do with reality. In reality, there is a symbiosis of Soviet rudiments and ideology and a medieval Middle East monarchy. As in an autocracy, we have shah Aliyev and his family. Life in the contrary revolves around the Aliyev family, and power is inheritable.
U.W.: How do Azerbaijanis themselves view the fact that the Eurovision final will be hosted in their country?
A fest is a good thing, but people need to have something to eat every day. The inflation rate is high, while salaries have seen virtually no growth in the past two years. Citizens have few positive prospects for life. When the oil boom is over, the depression will be even more evident. So far propaganda and oil dollars have kept the negative attitudes in check. Part of the population was outraged over the demolition of buildings to build infrastructure for the contest. In the past three years, 4,000 objects were forcefully brought down in Baku and people received no adequate compensation. On the eve of Eurovision, 281 families were evicted. Thousands of families were affected. Journalist Idrak Abbasov was videotaping representatives of a state-owned oil company as they demolished his building together with all the possessions that were inside. They attacked him and broke his ribs. According to eyewitnesses, they continued to beat him for another 15 minutes after he fell and lost consciousness.
U.W.: How are these actions explained on the official level?
The government is trying to rationalise violence with a hunt for Islamists and claims that terrorist acts are being prepared in Baku. All investigations into the threat of terrorism raise many questions. Suspects are beaten into confessions and are sometimes simply killed. Of course, there are certain dangers because we are neighbours with Iran. But the picture is not as black as it is painted by the special services.
U.W.: Is the Aliyev family involved in organising the Eurovision final?
The Aliyevs run everything in the country. A company related to the family constructed buildings for the song contest. The first lady chaired the organising committee, while the president's son-in-law will sing during breaks in the contest. The Aliyevs laundered huge sums money in the preparations for the event. Meanwhile, average Azerbaijanis will be compensating for the money spent on Eurovision for a long time.
U.W.: But Azerbaijan has an image of a country rich in oil and gas. Aren't these resources sufficient to secure a decent standard of living?
Average citizens almost don’t feel it. The situation in Azerbaijan is difficult, because this year has been an expensive one; there has been a lot of spending. Baku is squandering a lot of money to host the event in a grand way: $800 million has been spent on the preparations for the Eurovision final. But Azerbaijanis themselves will be missing at this music celebration. The government is making it exclusively for itself and guests from the EU. The growth of the national GDP virtually came to a halt in 2012, so Baku is nervous. And now, on top of that, it is failing to make all critics of the regime shut up.
The government-declared GDP growth figures are higher than what they are in reality. The government says that a million jobs have been created, but this statistic is false. We have never had free elections, so it is hard to say how the public reacts to this.
There is also great fear in society. First, the system is built in such a way as to make citizens accomplices to a crime. For example, 400,000 families in Baku live in illicitly built houses. The government did that on purpose: in the 1990s, it did not set up a cadastre of land titles in the capital, and we still don’t have one today. Hence, no newcomers can build or buy anything legally here, so they settle illegally. They fear that they may be kicked out into the streets at any moment. Second, government employees, such as doctors and teachers, are paid ridiculously small salaries – around €130. The prices are about the same as in Ukraine. So bribery is rampant. The country is totally corrupt. Everyone prefers to not speak about it in order not to lose what they have. If people come out into the streets to protest, they and their relatives may be arrested. Eleven people are still behind bars because a year ago they participated in a peaceful rally, demanding free elections and freedom of assembly. The country has over 70 political prisoners, including eight journalists.
U.W.: What are journalists imprisoned for in Azerbaijan?
Primarily for asking the government awkward questions, such as where the Aliyev family gets its money and where countries oil dollars go to. They all risk ending up like Elmar Huseynov, the editor-in-chief of the Monitor magazine who was shot on the porch of his house in 2005. Journalists of the opposition periodical Azadliq were also beaten and stabbed with knives. In 2010, the commercial director of Azadliq was videoed having sex with a woman in a private apartment. The video was broadcast in an evening news programme by a state-owned TV channel (headed by the president’s cousin) at a time when children still watch the TV. Faces and genitals were left unobscured. The accompanying text exposed the opposition. That director had to resign.
U.W.: Something similar has happened to you, too…
Yes, hidden surveillance cameras were installed in my bedroom and bathroom by representatives of the state telephone company. I identified the person who installed the cable and appealed to the prosecutor’s office, but they only questioned my friends about my way of life and searched for the potentially dangerous (to the regime) among them. They did nothing regarding the essence of my complaint. Newspapers run by the ruling party are continuing a campaign to malign me.
U.W.: How much is this campaign efficient in a Muslim country?
This story of blackmailing showed that our society is much more liberal than portrayed by the government. The pro-government mass media write that a woman does not have the right to be in bed with a man she is not married to. But the public – from the most liberal to the most conservative circles – expressed its support for me. They understand the essence of the campaign and accuse the government of unfair play and exploiting Islam to suit its purposes.
But this doesn’t negate the fact that we have conservative groups, and as the situation deteriorates, religious sentiments grow. The population seeks protection in religion when it does not get it from public institutions. The reality is too horrible and ugly, so they need a different one.
U.W.: Do you see prospects for positive change in Azerbaijan?
Things will surely take a turn for the worse after the Eurovision Song Contest, because the government will not forgive us the criticism it is now being forced to tolerate. But we need to talk about problems, because the loner we are silent, the more freedoms we lose. But how can we escape from a submarine? Sooner or later we will change the country for the better.
The shambolic renovation of the Central Electoral Commission, which has been in progress for several years now, looks about to be finally concluded. On Feb. 5, the President submitted a list of candidates to the Verkhovna Rada and this suggests that the process is finally being unblocked