'Welcome to the Eurovision Song Contest, from Baku in Europe!' greeted star-eyed host Eldar 'Ell' Gasimov, the 2011 contest in a duo with Nigar Jamal.
The flamboyant contest is being held in a fantastic newly erected Crystal Hall, a shimmering glass and steel building on the shores of the Caspian Sea. The atmosphere and festive mood of kitch glitz and glamour, with outlandish hair-does and exquisite dress codes more than match the glittery exterior of the venue.
During the televised semi-finals, short video clips introducing contending countries reveal amazing and breathtaking scenery, stunning architecture, both old and new, and portray the country as a modern multi-cultural state. That’s the image Azerbaijan’s government is keen to project to the world through hosting the Eurovision song contest – that the country is secular, progressive and part of Europe.
But behind the curtains of a carefully crafted image, away from the flaunty spectacle, the flashy and ostentatious Crystal Hall, life for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Azeris is far less dazzling as they live in the shadows of a brutal authoritarian regime.
The fairy-tale palace of an autocratic oligarch
Just a few miles away from the gleaming Crystal Palace lay the less than pretty endless fields of oil cranes both inland and in landlocked Caspian sea. The Azerbaijani government, drunk with the riches of oil and gas, splashed over $134 million (€107 million) to construct the venue that was completed only about a month ago. It was part of $800 million (€639 million) worth of investment projects around Baku designed to tart up the capital for the Eurovision Song Contest.
An investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty revealed that the presidential family personally profit from this massive construction project. Human Rights Watch last week slammed Azerbaijan for what it described as the forced evictions of hundreds of Baku residents.
'The event is overshadowed by the illegal evictions, expropriations, and demolitions for hundreds of local residents forced out of their homes,' stated the report.
Human Rights Watch also noted how other lucrative construction projects, largely run by the presidential family and their allies have forced evictions of an estimated 60,000 people from their homes near the downtown area since 2008.
Azerbaijan is ranked 134 in the Global Corruption Barometer right alongside notorious regimes such as Zimbabwe. Corruption and patronage dominate public life.
The country is run by Moscow educated President Ilham Aliyev, who took office in 2003 from his KGB general father, Heydar, who ran Azerbaijan also during Soviet times. He quickly crushed the opposition movements, reduced the parliament to a rubber-stamping body of a government headed by people with close business and political connections to the president.
In 2010 he managed to have presidential term limits abolished. The country is run in an authocratic way, where freedom of speech, press, and political association is crushed and a rigid oligarchy, much like in Russia, dominate most aspects economic life. Getting a good job, being promoted and protected depends on your connections and relationship with this top-down system of corrupt patronage.
Speaking with Gay Star News international LGBT rights advocate Peter Tatchell stated: 'Azerbaijan has a shocking human rights record. It restricts religious and media freedom, suppresses peaceful protests, tortures political prisoners and jails journalists and opposition activists on trumped up charges.'
No gay parade
If lifting the curtains of the kitsch Eurovision Song Contest reveals a repressive regime, the reality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is no better.
Homosexuality was illegal in the country until 2001, when Azerbaijan was forced to decriminalise the statue or not be accepted into the Council of Europe. Besides this the government has done little for LGBT people. A few years ago two members of the Azerbaijani delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), Gultekin Hajibeyli and Sabir Hajiyev, boycotted debates that were held on 27 January 2010 about discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and same-sex marriage.
‘I am not going to take part in these discussions and I think it wrong to raise this issue in PACE,’ Hajiyev said.
‘I have a very negative view of the debate. Yes, we have declared integration with European structures as our priority, but we must also protect our national and cultural values. This is unacceptable for us and we do not intend to copy everything that is adopted in Europe,’ said Hadi Rajabli, chairman of the Azerbaijani parliamentary committee on social policy.
‘What is the position of the Azerbaijani government regarding LGBT people?’ I ask Ruslan Balukhin (pictured above), a 22-year-old LGBT activist and founder of the gay.az support website. ‘Our government tries to ignore LGBT issues. I don't know a single politician here who supports LGBT people,’ he answers empathically.
According to Balukhin, harassment and discrimination is the daily reality for most of the Azerbaijani LGBT community.
Besides homosexuality being decriminalised they have no legal protection and such anti-discrimination measures that do exist play little part in civil society. Gay and lesbians can be thus unfairly dismissed from their jobs, and homophobia is common.
‘LGBT people here often may be met with aggression,' he added. But an even a bigger issue, according to him, is self-esteem influenced by cultural conservative traditions and values which lead many gay people to direct 'hatred against themselves'.
Azeris who try to come out or are outed can face rejection by their family and even violence: ‘My brother has vowed to kill me, and then kill himself,’ Azeri gay artist 'Badalov' told the BBC. He has recently been granted political asylum in France. He reported that many people would approve of such 'honor killings' in Azerbaijan and that the pressure from family members and society is immense to conform. He recounts how he got married and tried to hide his sexuality because of such unbearable repression and harassment.
Transgender people also face similar issues of transphobia and discrimination according to a report by the Institute of Peace And War.
In 2009 a novel about a gay love story between an Azeri and Armenian was ordered to be removed from sale by the police, and a panel discussion including the author was cancelled due to threats and intimidation.
According to Balukhin if you have money and are well connected nobody will dare to openly criticise you, whether gay or straight. So some celebrities, for example, can lead a good lifestyle and are well protected by bodyguards. But a connection with the corrupt and autocratic oligarchy is the only way to be protected from discrimination and harassment.
Baldov summarises the situation well in his interview to the BBC: ‘Everybody's rights are violated in Azerbaijan, and gays are no exception.’
Although Azerbaijan is a predominately Shi'ite Muslim, the country is secular and separates religion from state - indeed a majority of its citizen seems themselves as secular. In an interview published by ILGA, the international LGBT organization, a gay Azeri empathically rejected the premise that homophobia is due to religious values: ‘Oh no, I am sure it is not about religion, it’s about fear of shame, not fear of God.’
As a result of such a decidedly unfriendly climate for gays there is little visibility and openness in Azerbaijan and life remains firmly in the closet.
But according to Azerbaijani organization Gender and Development, which works on gay and trans issues, the situation for LGBT people is beginning to improve. Elhan Bagirov told Gay Star News that there is even a gay venue called Club 17, and he says his organisation is providing counselling and support as well safer-sex advice.
Summarising the situation above Tatchell told GSN: 'Eurovision is renowned for its glitz, camp and kitsch. It has a huge gay following, yet Azerbaijan is often not a welcoming or safe country for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.'
LGBT Azeris, like the rest of the country’s people are not sure how to proceed. Are they to look to the west, or find their own way in negotiating their sexualities in their country? One this is for certain, according to Balukhin, ‘among Baku’s gays and lesbians there is no one even dreaming of [LGBT] demonstrations or parades’.
Nevertheless, just before the semi-finals were aired this week, hackers calling themselves 'Cyberwarriors for Freedom' attacked the official Eurovision website and posted an Azeri-language message demanding Azerbaijan ‘stop carrying out Eurovision 2012 in Baku and not allow gay parades’. No-one knows who this hacker group were but some suspect they are connected with Iran.
Iran's gay weapon
In recent days Iranian clerics and politicians have attacked Azerbaijan for hosting a 'gay parade' which they said was inappropriate for the country, which is officially secular but has a Shi'ite Muslim majority.
Ayatollah Sobhani, a top Iranian cleric, said that this was anti-Islamic behaviour. Protests against the imaginary 'gay parade' have erupted across Iran and were met by a counter protest in Baku. On 22 May the Iranian ambassador to Azerbaijan was recalled back to Tehran for consultation as a reaction to the protests in Baku and to the alleged 'gay parade'.
While Azerbaijan has a population just over 9million Azeris, Iran has over a 30 million Azeri minority, making roughly 30% of the population of the country. The cultural and spiritual centre of Azeris is the Iranian city of Tabriz.
The recently found wealth and prosperity of Azerbaijan due to its oil and gas reserves, and the secular nature of the state, is thus a potential threat to the Iranian regime that is keen to keep total control of its significant Azeri population and the area they liven in which also contains rich oil and gas deposits.
Recent demonstrations by the Azeri diaspora in the USA, Sweden, Germany, UK and Denmark displaying slogans such as 'Azerbaijan will be united and Tabriz will be its capital' have thus alarmed the Iranian regime.
Meanwhile Azeri protesters within Iran demanded authorities pay attention to ecological issues and for rights for education in their native language. According to the media reports, more than 100 protestors were arrested in the subsequent clashes and an unknown number were injured.
The absurd allegations that led to this tense stand off between Iran and Azerbaijan show that Iran is happy to use the ‘gay-parade’ as a political weapon in order to legitimise and consolidate its role on its Azeri population.
Moreover the Iranian spiritual leaders talk about Islamic values is an attempt to both discredit the Azerbaijani regime in the eyes of the Azeri Iranians and also send a signal to its neighbour that religion can be used within their country against the government.
Speaking with Gay Star News Balukhin commented on this episode: ‘Iran is trying to interfere in the domestic affairs of Azerbaijan. I hope that officials in Baku will have enough political will to not to succumb to such threats made by the government whose stance is religious fanatism and obscurantism.’
While there are no plans to hold any gay parade in Azerbaijan, LGBT Azeris like the rest of the country’s population are at a cross-roads between their traditions, values, and ties to their brothers and sisters across the border, the oligarchic model of government prevalent in the CIS, and the glitzy glamorous consumer lifestyle of the West.