Azerbaijan evictions tarnish Eurovision glitz
In the shadow of an enormous Azerbaijani flag, a landmark concert hall is rising from the Caspian Sea shoreline as the oil-rich ex-Soviet state prepares to host the Eurovision song contest in May.
But a human rights dispute has marred Azerbaijan's preparations for the pop extravaganza as homes are demolished as part of an urban regeneration project which includes the ultramodern 'Crystal Hall' where Eurovision will be staged.
Pensioner Minara Iskenderova lives with her daughter and son in the last apartment block to remain standing near the construction site in Baku's National Flag Square.
Many of her neighbours have already moved out, leaving the block with its impressive sea views looking half-abandoned and on the verge of dereliction, with many doors and windows ripped out.
"I'm taking what is happening very painfully. Since this process started, my blood pressure has risen and I've started to get ill," Iskenderova said.
"I cannot get used to the thought that we will have to move away from here."
Natalia Alibekova, another pensioner still holding out against eviction from the condemned block, said she expected to be thrown out any day now when the demolition crew moves in.
"I will have memories of my home whenever Eurovision takes place," she said.
Rights activists allege that several hundred families have been evicted from the area so far under pressure from the Baku city authorities to accept what they claim is inadequate compensation that will not buy similar apartments in the centre of the capital.
"The pressure comes from various sides," said Zohrab Ismailov of the Public Association for Assistance to Free Economy campaign group, claiming that the authorities sometimes cut off gas, electricity and water to intimidate people into leaving.
The Baku mayor's press office said it could not comment on the issue, but officials have said that the compensation offered is fair.
Baku erupted into an all-night street party after singers Ell and Nikki won Eurovision in Duesseldorf in May 2011, giving Azerbaijan the right to host the contest this year.
Oil money has fueled construction boom
Often cringe-worthy but always watchable, Eurovision is a cherished institution, with 43 nations -- including some from outside Europe -- competing, then whittled down to 20 for the grand televised final.
The administration led by strongman President Ilham Aliyev sees Eurovision 2012 as a chance to boost the international profile of a country until now mainly known as an energy exporter on the fringe of Europe that went through war and political turmoil after the Soviet collapse.
"This event will positively affect Azerbaijan's overall image," Culture and Tourism Minister Abulfas Garayev told local media.
The authorities have rejected allegations of property rights abuses and official intimidation, saying that the redevelopment of National Flag Square is not connected to Eurovision but part of a citywide urban renewal scheme.
"Reconstruction works in Baku, and particularly in this area, are related to the upgrade of Baku's infrastructure, roads and other transportation projects," Ali Hasanov, a senior official at the presidential administration, told journalists.
"Certain groups are intentionally politicising unrelated issues and trying to link them to the Eurovision song contest," he said.
Flush with oil money, Baku has undergone a construction boom in recent years, with hundreds of new buildings transforming the skyline of the capital, while the once shabby downtown area has been turned into a upmarket shopping haven.
Campaigners estimate that thousands may have lost homes during the gentrification drive which also led to the controversial demolition last year of the offices of local rights advocates who were campaigning on behalf of those evicted.
"Since 2008, the Azerbaijani government has undertaken a sweeping campaign of urban renewal which has involved illegally expropriating apartments, forcibly evicting people -- sometimes without any warning -- and demolishing their homes," said Giorgi Gogia, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Campaigners hope that while Eurovision increases interest in Azerbaijan, it will also focus attention on alleged violations of democratic rights and freedom of expression.
"Azerbaijan is determined to boost its international image by holding mega events like Eurovision, but what it doesn't understand is that this will put the government's human rights record under a glaring spotlight," Gogia said.
A bloody local conflict could also be spotlighted because Azerbaijan's bitter enemy Armenia has agreed to compete in Baku after the authorities promised to ensure participants' safety.
Anger still simmers over the Armenian seizure of the disputed Nagorny Karabakh region during a war in the 1990s.
Follow Emirates 24|7 on Google News.