The Eurovision Song Contest is by far the biggest entertainment event in the world. Up to 600 million people watch the annual contest, which has been held since 1956 and takes place this year on May 26.
Last year it was won by the former Soviet state of Azerbaijan and so this year’s contest is taking place in their capital Baku. For the Azerbaijanis, it’s a very big deal, a chance to put themselves on the international stage, and so they’ve built a special 23,000 seat venue just for Eurovision.
However, Azerbaijan is not a very democratic country. The country just freed one political prisoner in advance of the contest but many more are still being held and peaceful protest rallies continue to be broken up. Many people were forcibly evicted to build that new venue and surrounding ‘beautification.’
Although homosexuality is not criminalized, it is repressed in the mostly Muslim country, and there have always been fears that the contest, with its huge gay following and participation, would not be safe for gay people.
The government has been keen to allay concerns with a spokesman telling the BBC last year that it was “ill-informed speculation by some expatriates about how we treat our homosexual community.”
“We consider all this nothing more than an unsuccessful attempt by those naysayers to gain a better reputation in their respective countries in the light of the upcoming Eurovision song contest in Azerbaijan,” senior official Elnur Aslanov said.
However, false rumors that the song contest will be accompanied by a ‘gay parade’ have sparked outrage across the border in Iran — where a quarter of the population are ethnic Azeris — and now real threats from Islamists in the country. In Iran, massive crowds were whipped up by a prominent cleric in Tabriz and Astara.
A counter-protest was held outside the Iranian embassy in Baku, with people demanding Iran stop interfering in Azerbaijan’s affairs, saying ‘Iranian Islam is not Islam’ and ‘Iran sends terrorists to our country.’
Some have speculated that this is political due to the Azerbaijani government’s ties with Israel; a high ranking member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has said that “the May 26 gay parade in Baku is the result of the Zionists’ influence in Azerbaijan.”
But now Alchin Manafov, the acting leader of the Islamic Party in the Republic of Azerbaijan, who the government has jailed in the past, has been quoted in Iranian media saying:
They should know that they will have to walk over our bodies to have the Eurovision… They should know that if [gay pride] happens nothing else will matter to us. We will turn Azerbiajan into a burning hell and are not afraid of a possible civil war in the country.
His party is seen as tied to Iran and is underground in the staunchly secular country.
Last month The Irish Independent reported that an Islamic terrorist group had said they will target all the participants in the Eurovision song contest in Azerbaijan because they are ‘European scum.’ The group has also threatened the use of ‘knives and chemical weapons’ at the contest.
The country has seen a sharp international focus already because of the contest, not just on its growing wealth but also its treatment of both religious and secular political opposition. That will peak in two weeks time and the government is on the defensive.
“We have a young population, a young democracy, which is developing very quickly,” says Elmar Mammadyarov, Azerbaijan’s foreign minister.
We have to be tolerant of criticism, but sometimes it is overplayed. I cannot recognise criticism of free media and free expression when almost 100 per cent of our people have access to the internet and can look at any media they want. There is always room for increasing the fight against human-rights abuses and strengthening rule of law. But as our late leader Heydar Aliyev said, democracy isn’t an apple I can buy in a store. It is a day-by-day process.
Picture by banlon1964