By Shahin Abbasov
With nine months to go before Baku hosts the Eurovision pop-music competition, transparency concerns are arising about Azerbaijani government expenditures on the event. Meanwhile, local civil society activists are trying to get an early jump on a campaign to raise international awareness about Azerbaijan’s lackluster democratization record.
The government expects some 60,000 tourists to visit Azerbaijan in connection with the May 2012 event, a prospect that promises to generate unprecedented international scrutiny of Azerbaijan’s social, economic and political systems.
Currently, officials are focusing on finding an event venue. In mid-July, President Ilham Aliyev allocated 6 million manats (about $7.6 million) from the presidential reserve fund for construction of a new sports-concert complex in Baku’s National Flag Square, which is home to the world’s biggest flag and tallest flagpole. The new facility will “meet international standards,” Azerbaijani authorities promised.
The stadium has not been announced as the official Eurovision competition site, but one government official, who asked not to be named, told EurasiaNet.org that “for 99.9 percent sure” the complex would host the event. The government official told EurasiaNet.org that a foreign firm was preparing a feasibility study for the stadium; if it confirms that National Flag Square can accommodate the complex, the government will make a formal announcement on the venue, he said.
Other cosmetic changes to Baku are in the offing. Over the next seven months, Baku Boulevard, a key traffic artery, will be lengthened by more than a kilometer to reach National Flag Square. All buildings along the route, including a large shipbuilding plant, will be demolished, said Israfil Kerimov, spokesperson for the affected Sabail District. The plant will be dismantled and relocated outside of Baku, he said.
But while officials eagerly discuss such construction plans, they are mum when it comes to the costs of the city’s make-over. “I do not have information about the amount of [the planned] expenditures,” Kerimov said. Members of First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva’s organizational committee for the Eurovision festivities also declined to discuss planned expenditures for the contest.
Expecting any transparency about Azerbaijan’s preparations for Eurovision is “naïve,” said local economic expert Natig Jafarly, head of the Society of Economic Bloggers. “As with most other large infrastructure projects, the whole process, from the selection of the construction companies to the budgets, will not be transparent for the public,” Jafarly predicted. “Only after Eurovision will the government announce that X amount of dollars was spent on the contest.”
Officials declined to respond to Jafarly’s comments.
Meanwhile, civil society activists are busy launching an awareness campaign dubbed “Freedom Songs in a Non-Free Country.” The initiative is designed to take advantage of the Eurovision-related rise in outside interest in Azerbaijan.
Activists aim to draw attention to the cases of individuals they assert are political prisoners, and, hopefully, help secure their release. The rights advocates also aim to encourage political pluralism on public television, liberalize visa regulations, guarantee freedom of assembly and promote greater official respect for property rights, one campaign organizer, Anar Mammadli, told RFE/RL.
“For us, Eurovision is not just a song contest. It is an historical chance to improve the situation in the area of human rights and democracy,” said Emin Huseynov, another campaign organizer.
In recent months, Azerbaijan has experienced a surge in the number of people using the Internet to join social networks and access news. The Eurovision contest is expected to tax Azerbaijan’s digital infrastructure, as many local news websites currently lack the server capacity to handle the high-volume of traffic that Eurovision is expected to create, according to Osman Gunduz, president of the Azerbaijan Internet Forum, a Baku-based non-governmental watchdog.
One of the largest news portals, Gun.az, plans to install new servers and has set up a special section on Eurovision in English and Russian for foreign readers, said Gun.az Editor Emil Guliyev.
The “Freedom Songs in a Non-Free Country” campaign similarly plans to set up a Eurovision website, but with a different focus – providing regular updates on rights-related developments in both Azerbaijani and English.
* This article was first published at Eurasianet.org. Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter based in Baku and a board member of the Open Society Assistance Foundation-Azerbaijan.