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Analysis & Opinion
17.05.12 The Flak Strategy
By Dan Peleschuk

Throughout the former Soviet Union, international competitions are helping to shed light on autocrats’ dirty deeds. For Azerbaijan, the Eurovision song contest it prepares to host later this month has resulted in an uncomfortable spotlight cast on its poor human rights record. In Ukraine, meanwhile, the impending Euro 2012 soccer tournament has become the crux of the European Union’s battle with President Viktor Yanukovich over his imprisonment of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. So have global, non-political events become the new disciplinary tool for the international community?

First up in this year’s string of international competitions is Eurovision, set to take place in Baku later this month. The event has been welcomed by Azerbaijan and its strongman, Ilham Aliyev, president since 2003 and second in the Aliyev dynasty, as a prime opportunity to showcase just how far the oil-rich outpost on the Caspian Sea has come since independence. And the country has spent accordingly: hundreds of millions of dollars have gone into construction, from sprucing up local infrastructure to building the $134 million Crystal Hall, the site of the contest. The regime has even called on the infamous London Taxi Co., makers of the iconic British black taxi, to provide around 4,000 new cabs in time for the competition.

But such lofty spending has only made activists cry foul over what they allege to be the Aliyev regime’s attempt to distract observers from its unsavory rights record. Indeed, much of its rights abuse, activists say, has been a direct result of its preparation for Eurovision. For example, Azeri journalist Khadija Ismayilova recently documented for RFE/RL how the Aliyev clan has personally benefited from the Crystal Hall’s construction through its clandestine ownership of a construction company. What’s more, activists also claim nearly 300 families have been forcibly evicted, with barebones compensation, from the surrounding area to make way for contest-related construction.

And per the unfortunate norm in oppressive post-Soviet regimes, speaking out has only brought more trouble. Ismayilova’s investigations have earned her blackmail threats from the government, while another Baku activist, who uncovered the extent of the regime’s forcible evictions, recently told the UK daily The Independent that he was viciously beaten over his reporting. Meanwhile, international watchdogs have attempted to draw attention to the issue, with Human Rights Watch (HRW) urging the governments of participating countries to “speak out about Azerbaijan’s appalling record on freedom of expression in the lead-up to the Eurovision Song Contest,” according to recent HRW video report. The call was met with only limited success, as the European Parliament recently condemned Baku for its suppression of opposition protests and civil society – but failed to even suggest a Eurovision boycott.

Ukraine’s case is perhaps even more inflammatory. Yanukovich’s allegedly political jailing last year of Tymoshenko, his fiercest opponent, has galvanized international criticism of his authoritarian regime. The affair has time and again not only ruffled European feathers, but has thrown Ukraine’s European integration process into question. It wasn’t long before the EU turned its guns on Ukraine’s own European showcase: the latest response came when a slew of high-ranking European officials began announcing their boycotts of the Euro 2012 championship, with German Prime Minister Angela Merkel leading the charge and calling on her fellow ministers to join her. For their part, the Ukrainian authorities have fought back, claiming the EU has politicized the sporting event by “employing Cold War methods,” the BBC reported.

In both cases, entrenched autocrats have been thrust into uncomfortable positions. But judging by their reactions – or lack thereof – it’s unclear whether Aliyev or Yanukovich have in fact been shaken by the international spotlight cast over their records. Months ago, media speculation had swirled about how these post-Soviet autocrats would react to increasing outside pressure. Yanukovich had the chance to set Tymoshenko free through a legal loophole weeks after her sentencing; instead, he boggled observers by keeping her behind bars no matter how loud the calls from Europe and beyond. Aliyev, meanwhile, had a year to at least feign democracy before the estimated 150 million viewers tuned in to watch the music competition; instead, he has seemed intent on steamrolling those domestic actors, even weeks before the competition, who have turned to the West for help.

But experts say politics and diplomacy, at least from the EU’s side, help determine just how much flak these post-Soviet autocrats catch from abroad. According to Jana Kobzova, a foreign policy analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, Ukraine and Azerbaijan occupy different ends of the priority spectrum: while European leaders are keen to see Tymoshenko – a high-profile political prisoner in their own backyard – freed, they’re willing to largely turn a blind eye to Baku’s misdeeds, especially because of the Aliyev government’s energy cooperation with the European body and its own financial independence. “There is definitely a different approach to Azerbaijan than to Ukraine and Moldova, and on both sides,” she said. “The [Azerbaijani] government doesn’t care about the EU as much as Moldovans and Ukrainians do, and the government is really helpful in a number of things that the EU wants from them, and unfortunately, human rights are not one of them.”
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