BAKU - Everyone knows the Eurovision Song Contest: improbable artists and cheesy folklore. But in 2012, the musical competition, watched by an average 125 million people, will also have an unprecedented political dimension. All because of Ell & Nikki: By winning Eurovision in May 2011, the Azerbaijani pop duo provided the capital Baku with the opportunity to organize the 2012 edition.
On May 26, the spotlight will be on Azerbaijan, giving the country a chance to show how modern it has become. Among other things, a magnificent crystal palace that will welcome the contestants and 25,000 spectators was built in record time in the heart of the capital.
But behind the glitz lies a darker reality. Azerbaijan is ruled with an iron fist by President Ilham Aliyev, who took over after his father Heydars death in October 2003. Since then, hopes of liberalization have been dashed. Human rights organizations want to make the most of Eurovision to attract international attention to the degradation of individual liberties in the country.
In recent months, Amnesty International has taken numerous initiatives to bring attention to the situation although it did not ask for a boycott of the Eurovision Contest. Armenia is the only country that called for such a measure, notably because of clashes with Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
The revolutions of the Arab Spring have made the authorities nervous in Azerbaijan but also in neighboring countries. "The situation is much worse than it was three or five years ago," says Leila Yunus, President of the Institute for Peace and Democracy. "We are confronted with Soviet and mafia-like attitudes." On April 8, thousands of protesters answered the call of the opposition and took to the streets in Baku.
The most sensitive issue concerns housing. In order to carry out Bakus extravagant facelift, national and municipal authorities have neglected the rights of small owners.
Leila Yunus was one of the first to report such abuse, back in July 2011. She paid a heavy price for blowing the whistle: In August 10, her apartment was demolished without notice. "The demolition program began in 2009, but is accelerating as Eurovision approaches," she says. "For people who live in the city center, this contest is a tragedy, which will yield nearly 60,000 victims."
Read more from Le Monde in French. Original story by Piotr Smollar.
*Newsbites are digest items, not direct translations