Eurovision: Azerbaijan Backs Down

Embarrassed government says Armenia song votes probe was a mistake.

Eurovision: Azerbaijan Backs Down

Embarrassed government says Armenia song votes probe was a mistake.

The Azerbaijan security services’ interrogation of people who voted for Armenia in the Eurovision Song Contest was “a mistake by one official”, the government says, while commentators said the probe humiliated the whole country.

In a move that got the country some unwelcome publicity, all 43 Azerbaijanis who sent a text message voting for the Armenian entry in the continent-wide music contest in May were summoned to the Ministry of National Security, MNS.

“When I was called to the MNS, I thought they were arresting me for the strong criticism of President Ilham Aliyev I’d written on Facebook. I had even forgotten that I’d voted for Armenia. When in the MNS they started to interrogate me about this, I almost burst out laughing,” said Rovshan Nasirli, who was called to the ministry on August 12.

Relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan are very tense. The two countries have never signed a peace treaty to end their 1991 war over Nagorny-Karabakh, although a ceasefire was signed 15 years ago. Armenian troops still occupy swathes of western Azerbaijan.

Nasirli described a scene reminiscent of the inquisition of a serious criminal and said the interrogators tried to intimidate him.

“After they kept me for two hours in an empty room, two men came to me, saying they worked for the main department of the MNS. One had a list in his hand of all the people who voted for the Armenian entry, and their addresses. They said that people like me should be sent to prison. They said, ‘Today you vote for an Armenian, tomorrow you will go to blow up the metro for them.’”

The MNS refused to comment on the reasons for the campaign, but Novruz Mamedov, head of the international department at the presidential administration, said the affair had been whipped up out of all proportion.

“Nothing special happened. There was no pressure applied to them. You just have to bear in mind that Azerbaijan is still a very young state. We have only been independent for 18 years, and not all our officials have the required experience,” he said in a statement issued to the APA news agency, in which he blamed the Armenians for stoking hatred against his country.

“For hundreds of years many peoples have lived in peace in Azerbaijan, including 20,000 Armenians. Why does no one talk about this? And a mistake by one official is presented like a deliberate act by the national government. This is just part of a negative campaign which has been conducted against Azerbaijan for many years, and which is encouraged by Armenia.”

But his attempts to calm the furore failed, with gossip about the arrests appearing on Azeri blogs and web sites.

“I am sure this mistake was made by just one low-ranking official. And harm was done to the whole country,” said Togrul Juvarli, a political analyst.

“The political weight of this incident has been great. When it is important to show the world that we are a civilised country, we behave like this.”

Nasirli said he was shocked by how little public protest there had been over the affair, and how the government was prepared to dismiss as a “mistake” the summoning of dozens of young people.

“Every citizen should ask the question why illegal interrogation and investigation are allowed in Azerbaijan. This could happen to everyone because the officials do not respect the law,” he said.

“The MNS should occupy itself with more serious issues. I liked the song, so I sent a text message. This is not betraying my homeland. If only we could solve Karabakh with text messages.”

But he should not count on everyone defending him. Karabakh is a very emotive issue in Azerbaijan, which is home to hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced by the conflict, and Akif Nagi, chairman of the organisation for the liberation of Karabakh, said Azeris should not even send text messages in favour of their enemy.

“This is immoral. There is no place for tolerance in this question. The position of the MNS is correct. However, the MNS officials made a mistake in how they investigated the situation. They acted very crudely, asking those who voted for the Armenians to come in and putting pressure on them. Such people should have been investigated and kept under surveillance so they didn’t even suspect it,” he said.

Elshan Mammadaliyev is a freelance journalist in Baku.
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