Another roundtable was held today

as part of the Sing for Democracy campaign at the press center of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety.


Leyla Yunus, the director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, spoke about the smear campaign launched by the pro-govertnmental media around the Sing for Democracy campaign. She called on the government to free the 60 prisoners of conscience  and guarantee the property rights of the population. Yunus said that as part of the campaign. They have appealed to singers and human rights defenders from the participating countries. The appeal asks them to address a letter to President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, calling on him to take necessary measures for the release of prisoners of conscience and the development of democracy.

Journalist Shahvalad Chobanoglu reportded that the political prisoners are experiencing physical and psychological harrassment. He believes that Elnur Israfilov’s letter saying that he will join the ruling party and serve the President Ilham Aliyev was written under psychological pressure.

Turan Information Agency director Mehman Aliyev supported the Sing for Democracy campaign, describing it as a brave step and called on the government to fulfill the proposals voiced by the campaign.

Human Rights Club chairman Rasul Jafarov says if the government does not seem to be willing to address proposals voiced in the framework of the campaign, articles critical of Azerbaijan will continue to appear on international media, particularly the European media.

IRFS chairman Emin Huseynov believes that there has been considerable regression in the fields of freedom of speech and press in Azerbaijan since the launch of the Sing for Democracy Campaign. One journalist was murdered, and four have been jailed within this period. “Rafig Tagi was murdered, the editor-in-chief of website Ramin Bayramov was arrested for drug possession and later arms possession. Xural newspaper regional correspondent Aydin Janiyev, who was supportive of our campaign, was arrested under hooliganism charges, Xural’s editor Avaz Zeynalli was arrested under an obscure charge and an Iranian TV channel’s reporter was arrested under a drug possession charge,” noted Huseynov and added that these persons must be freed and the European Broadcasting Union must show support.

Then Election Monitoring and Democracy Training Center Director Anar Mammadli, Doctrine Journalists’ Military Studies Center head Jasur Sumarinly, Committee to Defend the Oilmen’s Rights Mirvari Gahramanli, Democratic Journalism School head Rovshan Hajiyev, Media Rights Center head Matanat Muslumgizi, Human Rights and Democratic Institutions Public Union chairman Elchin Abdullayev and others also spoke.


The Sing for Democracy Campaign condemns the recent pressures on the NGOs involved in the campaign, and considers it an attempt to silence civil society.


The Campaign itself and its initiators, including the Institute for Peace and Democracy, the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), the Alliance to Protect Political Freedoms, and Human Rights Club have been victims of a targeted smear campaign. Starting on January 24th, state-sponsored media outlets including the ruling party newspaper “Yeni Azerbaycan” and Parliament’s “Azerbaycan” newspaper have published libellous articles[1]. In addition, a warning letter with no legal basis was sent to IRFS by the Ministry of Justice[2].


The Campaign states that these kind of measures are an indicator of intolerance and violate both local and international documents guaranteeing freedom of association. We once again state that the main goal of the Campaign is to use the international attention that is being brought by the Eurovision Song Contest to improve the human rights situation in Azerbaijan, including protection of fundamental freedoms, solving the criminal cases of murdered journalists, the release of prisoners of conscience, and freedom of assembly.


The campaign will continue operating in this direction and requests the Azerbaijani authorities to end these pressures. The Campaign also calls on the international community to not remain indifferent to this issue and to lend its support to the prevention of these pressures.





Smear campaign via newspapers against Sing for Democracy PDF Print E-mail



Some NGOs operating with the support of pro-Armenian foreign circles once again demonstrated their failure to digest the success of the Azerbaijani state and its people.

There is a certain number of persons in our country that is unhappy with the achievements of our state: they even hold a hostile position by trying to cast a shadow on this success, and mobilize all their forces to smear it. This group is uncomfortable with the economic development of our state, the fact that our state has become an important player on the world scene, and the fact that Azerbaijan has become a center of dialogue for the world’s tolerant and cultural civilizations …

Azerbaijan’s victory in the 2011 Eurovision song contest and organization of next year’s contest in Baku has made this traitorous portion of the population more active. Eurovision, which should make everyone happy, has for some reason became a target of people who don’t share national values and who have chosen blackmailing and slandering as their profession. Some made-up NGOs with no traces of national pride and who claim to be ‘an organization’, want to realize a new ‘project’. Of course, their identification makes it clear where and who this ‘activity’ comes from. However, it is also clear that these lies, slanders and smear campaign will result in fiasco as usual.

There is no word other than ‘valuelessness’ to describe the passionate implementation of this work in Azerbaijan by the slave-traitorous helpers of those pro-Armenian and anti-Azerbaijani circles…

The servants of anti-Azerbaijani circles or ‘symbols of valuelessness’…

It is not accidental that some people unhappy with Azerbaijan’s success and ready to smear this success are using Eurovision as a target this time. The ugly intentions on which the blackmail and slander campaign of the Alliance to Protect Political Freedoms, Institute for Peace and Democracy, Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, and Human Rights Club is based, is seen in the names of these organizations. These organizations always lead the ugly plans of several interested circles against Azerbaijan and serve as mercenaries. The architect controlling those who would do anything for money, who easily betray their country and state, and who have launched a black smear campaign in an exchange for foreign donations (donations granted for meeting unkown interests), is in the hands of those who give the money as well.

Azerbaijan’s opposition is in opposition to its people and the state.

The group of persons with no national feelings, who describe themselves as ‘guerillas of democracy’, have deteriorated to such an extent that their activities are fenced off in an arena of slander. This attempt by those who want to politicize a cultural event once again reveals that those who call themselves opposition are in opposition to their people and state. Hence, being in opposition to political authorities is something different. Being in opposition is not the same as tainting an achievement of the national culture with a political nature. This has a single name – weakness and treachery!

The fact that these political games have been trusted to NGOs with no national values or pride again indicates that these people have no values. These NGOs are nothing but the helpers of certain Western circles willing to pressure Azerbaijan at every chance. For instance, in order to damage the determined political course pursued by  the Azerbaijani state to liberate our national problem, Nagorno Karabakh, those NGOs demonstrate a ‘pro-Armenian’ position, thus revealing their intentions, personality and wishes…We would like to once again note that the people realize that those who call themselves opposition and these NGOs are working to betray the interests of the state. So a fly is nothing. [Yet it creates loathsomeness]

Published in the January 24th edition of Yeni Azərbaycan.

Original link:

Translation link:




State interest


After gaining independence, Azerbaijan followed the path of global development. The necessary steps were taken; reforms were implemented to create conditions for a free market economy. Most importantly, a new Constitution, the chief author of which was national leader Heydar Aliyev, was adopted in 1995. The freedoms of opinion, speech, and press, as well as freedom of information, are enshrined therein. The Azerbaijani ruling establishment pays special attention to press freedom, which is one of the fundamental principles of democracy. The 6 August 1998 decree of national leader Heydar Aliyev removed state censorship on the press; mass media was no longer under state control. Independent press has already been formed in Azerbaijan. The state does not interfere with the work of newspapers (it actually has no such mechanism); also, the State Fund to Support Mass Media works to strengthen the press in terms of financial capacity. It is extremely easy to open a newspaper and do journalistic work in Azerbaijan. Every person has the opportunity to freely use the internet to collect information from all over the world or to post his opinions and thoughts.


Desire stemming from necessity


The state also desires the protection of national interests in the press. This desire is not only natural, but necessary! Because it stems from reality and necessity. Also, these interests are more important, more global. Sometimes they can be related to state security and international image, as well as the protection of national-moral values. But in every sense, these interests serve the wellbeing of the residents of the country.


Every state has two simple conditions to survive. The first one is the comprehensive development of the state in all sectors, the second one is preserving the success and achievement of this development. State development is ensured by the country’s natural and human resources, as well as by people shaping the directions of these resources and their projects. And preserving the achievements depends on the effectiveness of the foreign and domestic policy.


The protection of national interests in the press has two aspects. One of these can be described as advocating. There is a subtle point here. Most of the newspapers operating in the country are independent. This also means that it is up to the newspapers to decide what and how to write. The main goal of the newspaper owner and the editor-in-chief is to sell the newspapers and publish a newspaper that makes more profit. It is natural that they first think about making a profit because they see it as their own business. As the Azerbaijani ruling establishment understands this subtlety, it has found an interesting and effective means of promoting issues of national interest in the mass media. On July 31, 2008, the president of Azerbaijan Mr Ilham Aliyev signed “Conception of State Support to Development of Mass Media in Azerbaijan”, which says: “The main goal of state support is develop the freedom of speech and press, support independence of mass media outlets, improve the mechanism of assistance for editorial offices, stimulate application of new Information-Communication Technologies in information technology, enhance cooperation between society and mass media outlets, create conditions for increasing journalistic proficiency and responsibility, strengthen their social security and effectively use the potential of mass media outlets to support the priorities of the state and society”.


The state’s view clearly encompasses the principles of cooperation. “The State Support to Mass Media in Azerbaijan is implemented based on the following principles:

-         lawfulness;

-         transparency;

-         cooperation;

-         mutual responsibility;

-         protection of mass media outlets, exclusion of any interference in their activity;

-         protection of the society from illegal information (i.e. information of which the dissemination is prohibited by law;

-         prevention of the monopolization of the mass media outlets;

-         preference for projects reflecting public interests

-         support for the development of regional mass media outlets.


National interest or inexperience?


The second way to protect national interests in the press is to prevent articles that are damaging to these interests. “Prevention” does not imply violence or pressures here. It implies the demonstration of a civil, patriotic position taking meaningful and elaborated steps. Unfortunately, it is not encouraging to see frequent articles in the press that do not coincide with the interests of the country. These facts prevail in politicized newspapers that claim to be independent, but are actually platforms for radical opposition parties!


There exists [in Azerbaijan] civil society, freedom of press, plurality of opinion, and a multi-party system. The opposition parties are freely publishing their newspapers, fighting for power, and running in elections with their own candidates. Unfortunately, sometimes national interests are forgotten in this fight. The opposition and pro-opposition newspapers and internet portals, which use only dark colors in their coverage of all the activities of the ruling authorities, easily sacrifice national interests. Reading these articles, it seems as if they were written by authors who have no relation to the Azerbaijani people, or who are journalists from a country that does not keep friendly relations with us. To note, these kind of articles are not written due to inexperience, but for private interest and profits.


Parties whose money comes from grants


It is possible to categorize the newspaper articles that conflict with state interest. Each of these topics is related to democracy development, global values – issues used as a means of pressure on our country by international organizations.


One of the important conditions of democracy is the holding of free, open and transparent elections. Within a short time period, the Azerbaijani ruling establishment did great work to improve the election process and adapt it to international standards, and made significant achievements. In fact, in a short period we did what it took Europe decades to achieve. However, double standards are applied in assessment of the election results. Once, the international organizations were promising that “We’ll settle Nagorno Karabakh once fair and objective elections are held in Azerbaijan”. Seemingly, they did not expect that we would improve election practices so quickly. That’s why they evade, and seek excuses. And these excuses are given voice by the politicized newspapers. With no false ballot paper, protocol or evidence of violation in hand, they speak about ‘election fraud’.

Another issue is ‘political prisoners’. Azerbaijan’s independent policy, use of rich natural resources for the welfare of the state and people are not favored by those who have their eyes on the country’s wealth. They want to see Azerbaijan as a dependent country. Under the mantle of democracy they want to influence and pressure the country. The ‘political prisoners’ issue is one of these attempts. Today, neither the Council of Europe, nor the OSCE or any other organization has been able to provide a definition of or criteria for the ‘political prisoners’ notion. It is absurd to say that political prisoners exist in Azerbaijan, when there is no definition of what a political prisoner is.  To recall, Azerbaijan long ago freed the persons who were in the CoE’s first list. However, because of our own enthusiasts, new ‘lists’ are being compiled, and the PACE appoints rapporteurs for our country on this issue. In our country, the news publishers, so-called human rights defenders, separate political figures whose money comes from ‘political prisoners’ issue make a lot of efforts.


No one in Azerbaijan is put into jail for [his/her] political beliefs or political activity! In no other country are those included in the ‘list’ compiled by ‘human rights defenders’ in Azerbaijan - for the sake of grant money - considered to be political prisoners, nor are they left unpunished!


Freedoms of press and speech are another requirement of democracy. The Azerbaijani ruling establishment has taken all steps to ensure it. National leader Heydar Aliyev removed state censorship on press; the Ministry of Press and Information was annulled and the press was taken out of state control; laws regulating this sphere and meeting international requirements were adopted. Not a single journalist has been jailed within past 7 years for professional work; the courts did not force the newspapers pay the fines that had been issued. But for some reason, some independent newspapers operating in Azerbaijan are insisting on ‘proving’ that freedom of press is being strangled in Azerbaijan. With no evidence or proof in hand, they want to attribute the murder of Elmar Huseynov to the ruling establishment. When the law-enforcement bodies invite such persons to provide evidence, they launch new campaigns claiming that they face pressures. The law is equal for everyone and those engaging in journalism are not exempted from responsibility when the commit a crime. This is what the rule of law requires! ‘Producing facts’ for the reports to be published by the international organizations that are hostile towards Azerbaijan is another issue!


Another crucial component of democracy is human rights defence. Do the leading countries that give us ‘lessons in democracy’ always hold such high levels of relations with journalists, free opinion and free thought?


During the US war in Iraq, a video scene that shocked the whole world went viral on the internet and television. A military helicopter was hunting a journalist who was doing his professional work. What happened next? Did the US newspaper launch a campaign to find and punish the criminal soldiers?  Or did they require the Supreme Commander-in-Chief - the head of state – to resign? None of these happened. What would have happened if an American journalist was killed in other country?


The French senate adopted a law stipulating punishment for denying the made-up Armenian genocide. But the French press is silent. This issue does not appear as a lead article in the newspapers, nor is the ruling establishment being blamed. There is an Azerbaijani journalist and a journalist’s family in France. They should either accept the made-up Armenian genocide or pay the 45,000 EUR fine. No doubt, they will do the same as they did when they were here. They will sacrifice Azerbaijan’s state interests. Otherwise how could they enjoy ‘French Democracy’? But neither American, nor French journalists oppose state interests. Even if they sacrifice democracy and professional standards, they do not oppose their authorities when it comes to national and state interests.



Another interesting point: several international organizations, who consider themselves to be international ‘guards of democracy’ – Freedom House, Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders unveiled their reports on conclusions of 2011. Though I didn’t read the reports I know that Azerbaijan was described in dark colors. The ‘guards of democracy’ do not campaign against or condemn the initiator of the law on the made-up Armenian genocide, Nicholas Sarkozy, for this shame that occurred in France. Another interesting point: Human Rights Watch stated that the information for the ‘facts’ in its last report was provided by the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety. If we believe the information of this Institute, the nationality and citizenship of which is not known, you gain the impression that journalists cannot go out in Azerbaijan, that they will be kidnapped! See how the motherland is smeared for the sake of grant money! Now, how to believe in the objectivity, fairness and impartiality of such organizations!



By Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, prisoner of conscience



I have listened Eurovision -2011 Song Contest Final in the cell number 32 of Ganja custody. As a person who always was glad with recognition of Azerbaijan by its international successes and who has a part in these successes at least with science Olympiads, different youth activities, I was delighted with our victory.


In general, I had sympathy for several persons related this contest and my attitude did not change, after their transition to ruling party. I thought about getting ready for Eurovision Song Contest held this year in Azerbaijan by positive emotions. But, it seems like I should do otherwise.


It is true that, pro-government media considers politicizing contest, bringing international media attention to other law violations as immorality. Politicians, who want to benefit from opportunities brought by “Eurovision” maximally for propaganda, try to avoid its responsibilities.  In this case, accusation raises questions.


If it is immorality to politicize the song contest, what is the name of politicizing courts for decades?


If person is obliged to undertake alternative ways whose rights are violated and she/he was not given opportunity to get/justify her/his rights with legal ways and it is blame, what is the name of these violations?


If talking about corruption strikes our country reputation blow, what is name of creating and benefiting from corruption, dropping Azerbaijan at the bottom of list in all international reports?


If it is pleasant to hear compliments for building parks and construction of artificial islands, then what is name of not hearing and paying attention to the scream of people who were evicted from their homes?


I wonder if the government who opposed to politicizing Eurovision will be against our youth for delivering their political messages to our citizens, the world by art?


On January 30, 2012 Sabail district court held the final meeting under the chairmanship of judge Elnur Hasanov against respondent citizen of Military Naval Forces Emil Azizov with the demand of “removing respondents from administrative building of the military unit”. We have to mention that by claiming from respondent representative, they demanded to provide the respondent with apartment in new military town, to pay them compensation relevant with market prices and payment of rental fee of the apartment by the Ministry of Defense until the respondent will be provided with apartment. At the same time the Court offered the parties to conclude an agreement, the parties were given 3 days for that reason. But respondent E. Azizov refused to conclude an agreement. The court declared its final decision on January 30, 2012. According to the decision, the claim of plaintiff has been fully, but E. Azizov’s claim has been partially provided. The Court made a resolution to remove respondent from the apartment, to provide plaintiff with apartment in new constructed military town, to pay compensation of 10 thousand manat and payment of rental fee of the apartment to the respondent until he will be provided with an apartment. E. Azizov intends to appeal this decision.

The claim of removing citizen of Military Naval Forces from his apartment is that his apartment in A. Guliyev 4A address is in the territory of newly constructed highway near Flag Square. Although 65 million manat was allocated just only in 2011 for construction of highway combining Azneft square with “Crystal Hall” where Eurovision song contest will be held, but Azeryolservis JSC did not pay any compensation to 27 military families living in A. Guliyev 4A Street. MNF leadership could move 25 military families out of their houses instead of 10 thousand manat. The rest 2 militaries did not agree with that.

Public Association for Assistance to Free Economy defends the rights of militaries.

Baku 2012: Between Pop and Propaganda PDF Print E-mail

Before the Song Contest a debate on human rights and press freedom begins in Azerbaijan.


They sprayed bright green color of dried grass. They managed the homeless out of town and pulled up billion-dollar prestige. They put men in diapers, so that they did not during the hour-long opening ceremonies to the toilet. You could move a young girl about two billion television viewers to playback the mouth, because they are the real singer was not pretty enough. They made the biggest sporting event in the world a stunning propaganda show. Just four years ago was that - 2008 Olympics in Beijing.


Now, Europe is a similar media-political-cultural experiment in the house: In May, the iridescent lands Grand Prix spaceship in Azerbaijan, that forgotten country on the Caspian Sea. And for the government of authoritarian ruling head of state Ilham Aliyev the Eurovision Song Contest 2012 is the most important event in recent history.


For a few days the capital, Baku, the hub of European pop world will be. The German construction company Alpine Bau currently attracts up in just eight months a brand new arena in place of the flag square, funded with millions from the oil production. In the "Baku Crystal Hall" will find 23 000 spectators. Six days before the presidential couple visited the site with large vermilion. Mehriban Aliyeva, the president's wife ever painted anything offensively, was pleased. She is chair of the Organizing Committee. Around one billion euros will be cost the country the ESC.


There will be a balancing act: Gives the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and ESC-organizer of the autocrat Aliyev with colorful show in May, a welcome stage for the refurbishment of the image? Or it might even succeed the country through the show a little closer to Western political standards? The headlights of the media world now circling somewhere left of center on the world map, they are still looking. Western journalists are approaching the most mysterious country with a mixture of condescending indulgence, and helplessness. Thus writes the German Press Agency: "Many of the approximately nine million Azerbaijanis have maintained a certain rural innocence. Friend’s sumptuous meat dishes and excellent spirits fired will enjoy a trip into the country anyway. "What does that mean please? They're all a little weird, but it's neat to drink?


The problem is: The ESC gives himself apolitical, but this time it does not work. Aliyev and his clique are accused of serious human rights violations. The state controls the media, the opposition is suppressed. Only a handful of bloggers and journalists dared to oppose the regime, it is said Reporters without Borders. There prevails a "climate of fear". Azerbaijan leads the organization in its ranking of press freedom at number 152 - far behind Angola, Cambodia, Iraq or Afghanistan. In 2011, police beat the protesters, tried to demonstrate against the Aliyev regime.


"The host country of the ESC tries to bring to silence any critical voice," said Tim Schroeder of Amnesty International. Volker Beck, a human rights expert for the Greens in the Bundestag, called Azerbaijan "a dictatorship, be pursued relentlessly in the opposition and critical journalists, and suffer severe discrimination against homosexuals." Conclusion: "Baku is actually the wrong place for a carefree party."


Think something like that a lot of ESC fans. In the scene will violently wrestled to the pros and cons of a trip to Baku, says Klaus Woryna, president of OGAE Germany ESC fan. "It is an intense debate. Many do not want to drive in such a country, others say now even more so. "And Markus Loening, human rights commissioner of the Federal Government, says:" I can not imagine that you can sing songs, while a few miles away people are in jail for no reason." Although homosexuality is officially around since 2000, allows the social climate certainly looks different: zero tolerance. "It can not be excluded that the police sets a homosexual couple and only upon payment of a cash amount is re-released," the Foreign Office warns officially in Berlin.


What is the consequence? Absenteeism? To boycott thinks none of the 43 participants. Protest actions on stage? Not excluded. The governance of the EBU has assured that foreign media could report freely during the ESC in Baku. In general, the country sends signals of appeasement: How was the blogger Eynulla Fatullayev after four years in prison released. He was convicted in 2007 for "incitement to national hatred" and a half to eight years in prison.


The ESC is the only chance to make the country known, it said in the Azerbaijani Embassy in Berlin. And it goes for the country to more than the ESC: Baku bidding to host the Summer Olympic Games 2020th On 23 May, three days before the final ESC wants to tell the International Olympic Committee, if the city is officially inducted into the ranks of the candidate cities. Since you are happy times for a few days a little looser. "The real question is not: What happened during those two weeks," says ESC Fanpräsident Woryna. "The question is: What happens after that?"


The preparations have begun. Animal rights activists complain that currently shooting in Baku stray dogs and would be disposed of. Still four months. (in German language)

Eurovision organisers deny warning the BBC over Azerbaijan PDF Print E-mail

The European Broadcasting Union says it hasn't sent a letter accusing the BBC of orchestrating a campaign against the Eurovision song contest in Baku.

The organisers of the Eurovision Song Contest have strongly denied reports that they'd accused the BBC of orchestrating a campaign against Azerbaijan which is hosting the Contest in May.

"We absolutely deny that we'd written such letter to the BBC", an official at the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) told the BBC's Azeri Service.

The official, who wanted to remain anonymous, also said there hadn't been discussions within the EBU about a letter to the BBC.

Reports in state media in Azerbaijan said there was a concern at the EBU about a "large campaign" by the BBC "against the Azerbaijani government and the Eurovision Song Contest"

They specifically referred to an article on BBC online about the planned demolition of an apartment block, in central Baku, where the venue for the contest is under construction.


Residents of the block, near the State Flag Square, describe themselves as "Victims of the Eurovision" because they say the compensation they've been offered is considerably smaller than the market value of their properties.

Following the article on BBC online, a pro-government website in Azerbaijan accused the BBC of leading a "black PR against Azerbaijan".

A BBC spokesperson said the company "had no record" of any warning from the EBU about its coverage of Azerbaijan.


Demolition and Eurovision

The EBU representative said the organisation wasn't concerned that the Eurovision brand could be damaged because of the allegations that human rights are being violated in Baku, as part of the city's preparations to host the Song contest.


"We have inquired with the Azerbaijani authorities, who told us that the new Crystal Hall in central Baku, where they want to stage the contest, is being built on a previously undeveloped site", she said, adding that the construction of the Crystal Hall does not appear to be the main reason for the proposed demolition of the apartment block.

"From what we hear from the local authorities, the demolition seems to be part of an extensive programme of redevelopment to upgrade Baku's infrastructure" said the EBU official.

She emphasised that the European Broadcasting Union had not asked the Azerbaijani authorities to build a new venue for the song contest.

The official said that hosting Eurovision always "puts a spotlight" on the country, encouraging non-governmental organisations and campaign groups to become more vocal in their criticism of particular problems.

According to her the Eurovision Song Contest is, in that sense, helpful because it highlights the issues and creates pressure for their resolution.

However, the official said the EBU was weary of commenting on what governments do because it didn't want to interfere with politics.

"If we interfere with what the Azerbaijani government does, then the Eurovision Song Contest will stop being an entertainment, and become a political event, and that would really damage our brand", said the EBU official, adding that the contest "should remain a friendly competition".


BBC Azerbaijan Service

Azerbaijan Seeks to Burnish Image Ahead of Eurovision PDF Print E-mail

Azerbaijan will play host to this year's Eurovision Song Contest. In the run-up to Europe's largest television event, the authoritarian regime has launched a campaign to improve its image. German PR experts, lobbyists and politicians across the spectrum are playing a role in those efforts.

So what is Bettina Wulff, the wife of German President Christian Wulff, doing at a party hosted by an authoritarian regime in the Caucasus? She tours an exhibition and delivers a welcome address. Pictures from the event show her smiling next to Mehridan Aliyeva, the wife of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.

In the fall, Aliyev hosted a celebration at Berlin's German Historical Museum to fete the 20th anniversary of Azerbaijan's independence. The former Soviet republic has a reputation for not being a stickler for human rights. "I wouldn't have gone (to the event)," says Markus Löning, the German government's human rights commissioner.

The Office of the President has responded to such criticism by saying that Mrs. Wulff agreed to attend the party because it was a cultural event. After all, there were carpets on display. But the event was about something more than just carpets. The regime in Baku, Azerbaijan's capital, is intent on improving its image in the West -- and it is spending a lot of money to do so. Likewise, there are German politicians willing to help it orchestrate these efforts.

People around the globe will turn their eyes to the country on May 26 when Azerbaijan hosts the Eurovision Song Contest, the world's largest non-sporting television event, which brings singers from around Europe and farther afield together to compete for the title. Azerbaijan could definitely use an image makeover before they arrive.

Amnesty International accuses the regime of muting its critics. In its ranking of press freedom in 178 countries, the Paris-based organization Reporters Without Borders puts the country in 152nd place. In an internal report, Germany's Foreign Ministry says the human rights situation in the country remains problematic.

The image campaign is being orchestrated by PR professionals in Germany and other European countries and financed by the government in Baku as well as influential oligarchs. For its success, the campaign is banking on money and the tactlessness of German politicians. "Azerbaijan's behavior here borders on brazenness," argues Marina Schuster, a member of Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, with the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP). "This kind of lobbying work goes far beyond what is acceptable."


The German Lobbyists

Hans-Erich Bilges is sitting in his office with his legs crossed and his tie loosened. He can quickly transition between being kindhearted in a grandfatherly way and unpleasantly caustic. When he speaks about President Aliyev, Bilges is kind. But when the conversation turns to Aliyev's critics, he is harsh.

Bilges is a key figure in Azerbaijan's efforts to promote itself in Germany. Previously, he served as a high-ranking member of the editorial team at Germany's mass-circulation daily Bild. These days, however, he heads the Berlin-based Consultum Communications public relations agency. In this capacity, Bilges has also advised Belarus and Kazakhstan, which are ranked even lower than Azerbaijan when it comes to press freedom. That impressed the Azerbaijanis. Bilges says his job is to help Azerbaijan in the process of pursuing a more Western course. Part of this process is hosting events like the one in Berlin, which Bilges says he played a minor role in by helping make sure things "went as they should."

Still, it was probably more than that. Among the luminaries attending the Berlin gala were former Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher (1982-1992) and former Economics Minister Michael Glos (2005-2009). Although that caliber of guest was unusual for this kind of event, things start to make more sense when one peers behind the scenes. Genscher is the honorary chairman of the advisory board of Consultum Communications, and Glos holds a seat on its board. In this way, Bilges cooperates with politicians who go to celebrations hosted by his clients. While there is nothing illegal about this, it does leave an unpleasant aftertaste. Indeed, it leads one to wonder why well-respected politicians would be needlessly helping an authoritarian regime gain more respectability.

For his part, Bilges finds the situation in Azerbaijan better than the critics paint it. Michael-Andreas Butz, the person responsible for everyday business related to Azerbaijan at Consultum Communications, explains why. "Strictly speaking, there are also political prisoners in Germany," says Butz, who also served as the spokesman for the Berlin Senate, the official name for the capital city's government, for many years. "Of course, in a certain way, Horst Mahler is also a political prisoner," he adds, referring to the former far-left terrorist turned far-right activist who is serving a prison sentence after being convicted on charges of denying the Holocaust and incitement.


Paid Trips to Baku

Bilges' activities are only part of Azerbaijan's lobbying efforts. The country likes to invite foreigners to Baku for conferences that have a "pseudo-academic character," according to Viola von Cramon-Taubadel, a member of the Bundestag with the opposition Green Party. As a critic of the regime, Cramon has stopped receiving its invitations.

On the other hand, a group of German politicians traveled to Baku in September to attend an independence celebration. The group included Glos, Karl-Georg Wellmann, a parliamentarian with Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and Stefan Liebich, a parliamentarian with the left-wing Left Party. The trip included business-class plane seats, lodging in a luxury hotel, a gala dinner and a speech delivered by President Aliyev. Liebich and Glos have acknowledged that the trip was paid for by the Azerbaijani side. But at least Liebich touched bases with Löning, the human rights commissioner, before the trip, asking which discussions it would be useful to have outside the official program.

Wellmann, on the other hand, has declined to respond to questions about the trip -- or, better yet, trips. In 2010, he had already traveled to Baku to attend a conference entitled "Media in Democratic Society."

United States diplomatic cables obtained by the whistleblower platform Wikileaks attest to the mafia-like tendencies of Aliyev's regime. In October, British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore wrote in a contribution to the New York Times on the "lives of tyrants" that Aliyev had achieved the "dictator's dream" by creating a new hereditary monarchy. Allowing this man's followers to pay for airplane trips and expensive hotels is a matter of sensitivity and tact.


Friends in Monitoring Positions

Azerbaijan also has friends in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the Strasbourg-based international body tasked with promoting such things as human rights, democratic development and the rule of law. Among them was Eduard Lintner, a former member of the Bundestag with the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU's Bavarian sister party. Between 2002 and 2005, Lintner was chairman of the Parliamentary Assembly's Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights and a member of the so-called Committee on Honoring Obligations and Commitments by Member States. As such, he was responsible for the Council of Europe's reports on the human rights situation in Azerbaijan.

Leaders in Baku were pleased with how Lintner took care of his task. Shortly before leaving the Council, Lintner became the executive director of a Berlin-based Society for the Promotion of German-Azerbaijani Relations, which is essentially a lobbying group funded by Azerbaijan. Lintner says that one of his reasons for stepping down from the human rights committee was the fact that there was a group within the Council of Europe that wanted to rigorously denounce alleged human rights violations. Unlike them, he says he would have preferred to "usher (Azerbaijan) along in a supportive way." It was a stance that has apparently paid off.


Leaks in Parliament


Of course, not everyone is so malleable. This year, Christoph Strässer, a Bundestag member with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), is supposed to write a report for the Council of Europe on the situation faced by political prisoners in Azerbaijan. For months, the regime in Baku refused to grant him a visa. In early November, the Bundestag's Committee on Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid responded by drafting a resolution demanding that the government in Baku grant Strässer free access to its detention centers. Interestingly enough, Strässer claims that Azerbaijan's ambassador to Germany already had a draft copy of the resolution before it was even decided upon. Indeed, whether it was for money or out of love for Azerbaijan, it would appear that someone from inside parliament leaked the document to the Azerbaijanis.

In response, the Azerbaijani ambassador wrote letters to all of the heads of the parliamentary groups in hopes of blocking the resolution. But it didn't do any good.

One of the people who helped the ambassador compose the letter was none other than Bilges. Although he was angered by the resolution, he hasn't allowed it to discourage him. On his desk, he has the letter that Jürgen Trittin, the parliamentary floor leader of the Green Party, had written in a response to the ambassador's letter. "Trittin will get a sharp response back," Bilges says. If one wants to improve the image of an authoritarian nation, one can't be squeamish.


By Ralf Neukirch, Spiegel Online International

"Sing for democracy" campaign web-site presented PDF Print E-mail

Presentation of a new site took place on Friday in the frameworks of the campaign "Eurovision-2012: Sing for Democracy."


On December 23th, at 2pm, at IRFS Press Center, a roundtable will be held in frames of Eurovision-2012 Sing for Democracy Campaign.  During the roundtable, the newly founded website will be presented and the participants of the campaign will reveal their position regarding human rights situation.

Joournalists, human rights defenders, experts, diplomatic corps representatives and all interested persons are invited to attend.

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