Azerbaijan – a Potemkin Backdrop?

On May 10th, Stockholm Free World Forum and the Swedish International Liberal Centre organized a seminar on political situation in Azerbaijan. The panel consisted of Svante Cornell, Research Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, and a co-founder of the Institue for Security and Development Policy; Peter Semneby, Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund and former  EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus and Amanda Lövkvist, Deputy Director of the Swedish International Liberal Centre.

Svante Cornell initiated the discussion by putting Azerbaijan in a geo-political an historical context. The current political situation can be explained by the country’s historical heritage squeezed in between historical empires: Russia, Turkey and Iran. But on the other hand, there is a strong feeling of beiong European in Azerbaijan, that partly can explain the country’s urge of buying itself into the European consciousness by not only participate in but also put in enough effort and money to actually win and host the Eurovision Song Contest. And the oil money is, off course, crucial for the possibility to do so.

Peter Semneby pointed out three major challenges for the Azeri regime. First of all, the situation for journalists must be improved. Second, the general elections can hardly be classified as fair, and third, the right to private property is substandard.  One example of this is the countless expropriations of property, not least in the preparations for the ESC.

Amanda Lövkvist gave an image of what it is like to visit Baku for the first time. “The city is beautiful even when you enter it from the airport”, she pointed out. “The buildings are beautiful and the streets are clean.” But this can be compared to a Potemkin backdrop. Baku, and especially its most visible parts, is a façade, hiding a terrible Human Rights situation, lack of democracy and a poor media situation. The question is how deep under the surface a journalist is able to dive on a four or five day trip to cover the ESC. “Even the entertainment reporters has to take their responsibility as journalists and report back home about democracy and human rights” she said.