The world is watching: human rights behind the Azerbaijani scenes

Azerbaijan, often translated from Persian as “the land of fire”, probably in reference to the famed Zoroastrian temples, erected around burning gas vents in the ground, is the largest state in the Caucasus region of Eurasia, with an area of 86,600 sq km. The country is mainly known for its oil springs, natural gas sources and, this year, for hosting the Eurovision Song Contest 2012. But what do we really know about the Republic of Azerbaijan?

At the crossroads

Azerbaijan, also spelled Azerbaidzhan, officially Azerbaijani Republic, is a nation of approximately 9 million, consisting of a majority of Turkic-speaking Azerbaijanis (Azeris) and a Muslim population, which is mainly shia. This oil-rich state  is located in the Southwestern Asia, on the southern flanks of the Caucasus mountains, and borders Russia, the Caspian Sea, Iran, Armenia and Georgia. The exclave of Naxçıvan (Nakhichevan) is located southwest of Azerbaijan proper, bounded by Armenia, Iran, and Turkey.

The origins of Azerbaijan can be traced back to the 4th century BC. In the 19th century, still as a part of the Russian empire, the country experienced an unprecedented oil boom, attracting international investment. By the beginning of the 20th century, almost 50% of the world’s oil was supplied by Azerbaijan (an estimate of 11.4 million tons of oil), the birthplace of oil-refining industry. Currently, Caspian oil is supplied through a pipeline running from Baku, the country’s capital, through Georgia to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. Azerbaijan also has large gas reserves.

The country was briefly independent from 1918 to 1920, following the collapse of the Russian Empire, and was subsequently incorporated into the Soviet Union for 70 years, finally gaining independence from the USSR in 1991. However, territorial disputes are still rife in the country, the most notorious being the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

The Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (province) (within the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR)), a region acquired by Russia in 1813, was established as an Armenian-majority autonomous oblast on 7 July 1923. Detached from the Armenian SSR by the Karabakh mountain range, Nagorno-Karabakh thus became a minority enclave within Azerbaijan.

Nationalism arose in both Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh, resulting in ethnic antagonisms between Armenians and Azerbaijanis growing inflamed over the issue. The tensions came to a head in 1988, when the soviet of Nagorno Karabakh attempted to secede from Azerbaijan and  requested it be reassigned under the Armenian SSR. Again, this aggravated tensions between the two countries, leading to the ethnic cleansing of Azerbaijani villages in Armenia. The violence persisted, and an increasing number of people fled from both countries.

Thereafter, inspired by the independence declarations of several union republics, the Karabakh Soviet proclaimed independence on 2 September 1991, which led to more violence, while Azerbaijan gradually lost military and political control over the region. Total war broke out in February 1992, with a ceasefire eventually being announced on 16 May 1994. This ceasefire has largely held, despite periodical violations. The self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakhhas has held several independent elections; however Azerbaijan has declared these actions illegal under international law. At the beginning of the 21st century, the independence of the self-proclaimed enclave nation was not recognized internationally. In 2008, UN General Assembly Resolution 62/243 reaffirmed “continued respect and support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Azerbaijan “within its internationally recognized borders”. To this day, the conflict remains unresolved, and Armenians still occupy about one-seventh of Azerbaijan’s territory, where only a few Azerbaijanis remain. There are still 800,000 refugees and internally displaced persons scattered around the country.  The crisis has the potential to flare up again, since many fear that Azerbaijan may use its revenues from oil to build up a strong army and take the region back by force.

Modern-day Azerbaijan

In March 1992, Azerbaijan became a member of the United Nations, and in 2001, a member of the Council of Europe. In that same year, the country officially replaced the Cyrillic with the Latin alphabet, an example of how Azerbaijan gradually seeks to approach the West.

Economically, oil remains crucial to the country. In 1994, Azerbaijan signed an oil contract worth $7.4bn with a Western consortium. The country witnessed high economic growth between 2006 and 2008, largely attributable to oil exports, but also traceable in some non-oil sectors, including construction, banking, and real estate. However, the economy as a whole has not benefited as much as it might have done. The current global economic slowdown presents some challenges for the Azerbaijani economy, and there is still a striking contrast between the nation’s cosmopolitan capital Baku, which has rapidly transformed itself into a highly developed modern city, and the rest of the country.

The country staged a big comeback in the news last year, when the Azerbaijanis Eldar & Nigar won the 56th Eurovision Song Contest, held in Germany in May 2011.

The world is watching…Eurovision puts spotlight on Azerbaijan human rights. 

Eurovision is the most popular non-sporting event in the world and will be watched by about 125 million viewers from 42 countries. The contest, therefore, is a chance for the country’s rulers to show the progress this nation has made. But human rights activists claim that the government, led by authoritarian president Ilham Aliyev, is using the event to deflect criticism from the country’s seriously damaged/deteriorated human rights record.

Several independent bodies, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have denounced violations of democratic and personal rights committed by the government, which has severely restricted freedom of assembly. Officials forbid any kind of demonstrations, fearing that the revolutions in Central Asia will spread to Azerbaijani turf, and police forcibly detain demonstrators and constantly prosecute dozens on misdemeanour charges. In January 2011, several Azerbaijani opposition groups that were excluded from the new parliament elected in November 2010 formed an opposition alliance called the Public Chamber. That body organized demonstrations in Baku in March, April, and May to demand democratic reforms and measures to eradicate corruption.

Electoral rights, access to water, state-authorized violence, freedom of religion, political prisoners and freedom of the media, are just some of the rights violated by the government. Illegal evictions. Furthermore, an estimated 4000 houses have been demolished in Baku alone over the past three years, and international media show general concern for the increasing number of incidents of harassment, attacks and violence against civil society and social network activists and journalists in the country.

Freedom of Media

 As the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety reports, violence against journalists has not abated, and the media is harassed with impunity. With internet media gaining prominence, the government has turned its attention to prominent bloggers. The authorities continue to imprison journalists and bloggers who express dissenting opinions, and defamation is a criminal offense, which the government frequently uses for political gain. So far, Azerbaijan is ranked ‘Not Free’ by Freedom House in its annual Freedom of the Press survey, with a score of 79 out of 100.

Indeed, on May 12 2011, the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning Azerbaijani “human rights violations” and “oppression of opposition forces”. In the meantime,  Azerbaijan continues to deny access to the country for the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly Rapporteur on political prisoners in Azerbaijan.

The multitude of human rights abuses have sparked demands to boycott Eurovision in Azerbaijan. However, a spokeswoman of the European Broadcasting Union has insisted that the contest is not political. Azerbaijan has spent about 566.6 million manats ($721 million) on construction for the event; it seems there is no way back. The show must go on.

Will the Song Contest change the situation at all? 

This is a non-profit explanation.

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