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Dictatorships, like the Aliyev regime in Azerbaijan, don’t just rely on violence, intimidation and fossil fuels to secure their power. They also need a ‘social license to operate’, especially in other countries like the UK. Our government’s continued support for BP’s operations has been a key factor in ensuring Aliyev’s power remains unchallenged by the international community. Such support was highlighted this week when Hague flew to Baku to attend the signing ceremony of the final agreements for the Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline – a project that ensures BP continues to profit from its exploitation of the Shah Deniz gas field.
Groups like pro-Aliyev lobby group The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS) appreciate the importance of using soft power to create a favourable picture of both the country of Azerbaijan and it’s leader Aliyev. Luckily for TEAS, Azerbaijan has a rich cultural history they can use for just this purpose. In September TEAS appeared at the three main party conferences co-opting Azerbaijan’s fantastic jazz heritage by holding jazz receptions for delegates.
When it comes to determining which stories about Azerbaijan get told, art is a key site of struggle. But it’s a space TEAS should be wary of occupying. Citizens of Azerbaijan have been deprived freedom of expression for many years and this means there is a growing movement of Azerbaijani artists, musicians, writers, comedians, filmmakers, photographers, playwrights and poets who have a lot to say about the repression in their country.
One such person is Mehman Huseynov, a young photographer and filmmaker with a sharp satirical edge to his work. During the 2013 presidential election campaign his video went viral. It used audio from the farcical debates matched with footage from the film 300, with opposition candidate Camil Hasanli depicted as the Sparta leader shouting ‘This government must go!’. The Azerbaijani authorities were threatened by Huseynov’s satire and he was immediately taken into the Prosecutor’s Office and questioned for several hours. Huseynov already had criminal charges hanging over him: in June 2012 he was charged with disorderly conduct after he swore when a policeman smashed the camera he was using to document abuses in the run up to 2012 Eurovision Song contest.
Huseynov’s work has been supported by Art for Democracy – an Azerbaijani group that showcases artists and supports them should their work lead to persecution. Along with Index on Censorship they organised a recent photography exhibition at the Institute for Contemporary Arts which showcased the talent of Azerbaijani photojournalists. Art for Democracy are currently fundraising for a website so they have a space to promote Azerbaijani artists and, in the process, provide a direct challenge those who use Azeri culture to promote Aliyev.
This is Rebecca Vincent, who was expelled from Azerbaijan after helping launch the group in Baku last year, talking about the importance of the website for the group: – you have until 23 December to support Art for Democracy’s campaign so please chip in before Monday to ensure that we see a lot more of Azerbaijan’s artists in 2014.
Art for Democracy is a vibrant campaign using all forms of artistic expression to promote respect for human rights and democratic reform in Azerbaijan. Art is a powerful tool in fighting repression, particularly in countries like Azerbaijan, where the state controls the traditional media. Art circumvents traditional means of censorship, and ensures that messaging reaches a broad and diverse audience.
Art for Democracy needs your help, through support for its Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. The campaign is seeking to raise the remaining funds needed to develop a creative new website. The site will be a living,
collective art piece that will serve as a place for Azerbaijan’s alternative artists to share their work centring on human rights themes, and an interactive hub for Azerbaijanis to discuss important human rights
topics in the country.
The Indiegogo campaign ends on 23 December, so now is the crucial time to help. Every donation makes a big difference in supporting Art for Democracy’s work promoting human rights through art in Azerbaijan –
and as a bonus, there are some great rewards for donations as low as £5. Rebecca Vincent, Art for Democracy