BY WALTER MAYR
On the eve of the Eurovision Song Contest, scrutiny of host Azerbaijan is increasing, particularly the country’s human rights record. A confidential German Foreign Ministry report, which SPIEGEL has seen, criticizes “state repression” in the country.
The confidential document from Berlin is about Azerbaijan, a Caucasus republic in which prisoners are mistreated, parliamentary debate is “nearly impossible” and the activities of the opposition are “noticeably restricted” through measures that even include “state repression.”
This is the exact wording used in the German Foreign Ministry’s latest situation report about Azerbaijan. The confidential report describes a country whose state organs have apparently “abused arrested individuals in police custody” in the past. It is the country where the finals of the Eurovision Song Contest — a pan-European pop music competition that is Europe’s largest television event — will nonetheless be held on May 26.
Rarely has the regime of Azerbaijan’s autocratic ruler Ilham Aliyev, the son of the longtime president and former KGB general Heydar Aliyev, enjoyed such international attention as now, as musicians from 42 countries prepare to head there for the competition. And rarely have opinions about the country on the Caspian Sea been as sharply divided.
In 2010, no less a figure than former Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Efraim Sneh declared Azerbaijan to be an “icon of progress and modernity” in the Caucasus. Since then, Israel, the second-largest importer of oil from the republic, has been granted access to air bases inside Azerbaijan, according to a recent report in the US journal Foreign Policy, which quoted senior US officials. Does Israel want to use the airfields as a base for a possible attack on Iran — for F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, as well as helicopters that would have to fly rescue missions into Iran in the event of war?
On Par with the Mafia
When Europeans turn their attention to Azerbaijan, their biggest complaint is alleged violations of human rights. American strategists take a more pragmatic approach. A February 2012 arms deal between Azerbaijan and Israel, worth $1.6 billion (€1.2 billion), apparently worries them more than the report of “seven prisoners who clearly have a political background” mentioned in the German Foreign Ministry’s situation report.
A 2009 telegram from the US Embassy in Baku to the State Department in Washington compared the Azerbaijani president to fictional mafia bosses from the “Godfather” films. Is it nevertheless possible to negotiate with someone like Aliyev, if only for the sake of a song contest?
The moral reprimands have their limits. Azerbaijan is Germany’s seventh-largest supplier of crude oil. The West obtains its lifeblood of Azerbaijani resources through pipelines in the Turkish cities of Ceyhan (oil) and Erzurum (natural gas). Aliyev is not the leader of some isolated, post-Soviet oil-rich republic. His country is a member of the Council of Europe and submits to the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights.
Because Aliyev is well connected throughout the continent, his opponents only have one stage to express their disapproval: the pop music festival in Baku. Volker Herres, the program director of Germany’s ARD television network, who has been accused of political naïveté, says that the ARD studio in Moscow, which is responsible for covering the festival, has the situation under control. The network, he says, will cover the abuses in Azerbaijan in the run-up to May 26, the day of the final.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan