The best view of the arena that will host the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) is from the 9th floor of an apartment building at 5 Agil Guliyev Street. On the left is downtown Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, with the renovated old-city walls and glittering new skyscrapers. Next to it is the sweeping horizon of the Caspian Sea. National Flag Square, where a giant Azerbaijani flag flies atop a 162-meter (531-foot) flagpole, is directly in front of the building. The new arena, Baku Crystal Hall, is being built at the end of a peninsula on the other side of the square.
Still, there is no one to enjoy the view. It's a stormy day in Baku, nicknamed the "City of the Winds." All the windows have been removed from the walls on the building's 9th floor, and debris is lying everywhere. Small snowdrifts have formed in the corners. Families lived there until recently, but now the entire floor is deserted. A crane is standing next to the building, ready to be put to work. The roof will probably be torn off soon, and then it will rain into the apartments of the people living on the lower floors.
When residents walk up the stairs these days, they encounter smirking young people armed with saws and drills. After they leave, residents discover that something has changed. It might be a missing water pipe, a bare power cable hanging in a hallway or a demolished wall. Some residents suddenly find that their gas has been turned off. The residents say the young people work for the city.
For the authoritarian regime - which opposition members describe as a "mafia" - winning Eurovision is a coup that makes an impression on the Azerbaijani people and boosts national pride.
Indeed, it's gotten dangerous to live in this building -- but the dangers are intentional. The government wants the remaining residents to move out. In May, Baku expects thousands of visitors to attend the ESC, the world's largest non-sporting television even, which brings singers from around Europe and farther afield together to compete for the title. By then, a large thoroughfare and an elegant waterfront boulevard will lead to Crystal Hall.
A Symbol of Official Mistreatment
As the last building standing in this location, 5 Agil Guliyev Street has become a symbol. It embodies the ruthlessness with which the city, spurred on by an oil boom, is transforming itself into a grand metropolis modeled after cities in the West or, closer yet, Dubai. It also symbolizes the arbitrariness of a corrupt country in which rights often only exist on paper, as well as the ambivalent role that an event like the Grand Prix of pop music plays when it takes place under these conditions.
The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the organizer of the song contest, says that it isn't responsible for what happens to the apartment building. EBU officials insist that they didn't ask anyone to build new venues or to raze old buildings. In fact, they say, they have only now approved Crystal Hall, on a site that was previously wasteland, as the venue for the event. Besides, they add, the city has shown them that the redevelopment plans that require tearing down existing structures were made before Azerbaijan won the contest last May, thereby securing the right to host this year's contest.
Sietse Bakker, a 27-year-old Dutch entrepreneur and author of a motivational book, is the spokesman for the European organizers. Though he speaks with practiced composure and distances himself from the controversy, he also ends up sounding like somewhat of a spokesman for the Azerbaijani government when he says that the people being forced to relocate are being fairly compensated.
But not everyone shares this view. Granted, those who still live in the building say they aren't fighting to be able to stay there. But, says Zadir Gulamirov, a retired army captain, "We just want the compensation the law entitles us to." His wife, Kadiya, then adds, "For the money they're offering, we can't find an apartment we can live in."
The residents have copied documents that they say testify to their rights. They explain how the size of their apartments were incorrectly calculated. With anger and sometimes tears in their eyes, they describe their petitions, letters and complaints -- and the refusal of law-enforcement and court officials to do anything at all.
Of course, forced evictions under dubious circumstances are not a phenomenon that has only arrived in Baku with the ESC. But the event has further intensified the time pressure and the mistreatment of residents, says Rachel Denber, the deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "The EBU should be public about concerns about abuses relating to the evictions and get assurances from the Azerbaijani authorities that they will halt all further expropriations, evictions and demolitions in the vicinity until they can be carried out in a fair and transparent manner and are consistent with Azerbaijani national law and Azerbaijan's international commitments."
Jörg Grabosch, the head of Brainpool, the German company that will produce the giant television show for the Azerbaijanis, has nothing but praise for the speed at which the arena is being built. "The loss of the buildings isn't a tragedy," he says, suggesting that the gray apartment towers didn't look pretty anyway.
Winning the right to host the event was important to Azerbaijan. With the support of Mehridan Aliyeva, the wife of President Ilham Aliyev, the country took a professional approach to producing songs that would appeal to European audiences. For the authoritarian regime -- which opposition members describe as a "mafia" -- it is a coup that makes an impression on the Azerbaijani people and boosts national pride in a country that only regained its independence 20 years ago, after seven decades as a Soviet republic.
In describing the image Azerbaijan wants to project to the world, Mikhail Jabbarov, a former member of the government and current adviser to the pro-government television station Ictimai, which will broadcast this year's song contest, calls it "a modern, secular country that is proud of its roots."
Of course, whether this assessment holds true depends in large part on whether one defines modernity as not only involving Western-style urban development and consumption, but also the rights of free expression and free assembly.
The Paris-based organization Reporters Without Borders ranks Azerbaijan in 162nd place out of the 179 countries on its Press Freedom Index. Activists and independent journalists are subject to repression. Broadcasters, such as the BBC and Radio Liberty, were forced to give up their radio frequencies three years ago. Likewise, the government responded harshly to protests in the spring of 2011. In fact, according to Human Rights Watch, despite the country's efforts to burnish its international image, the human rights situation has deteriorated over the last year.
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