With the Eurovision Song Contest just two months away, the pace of construction in host city Baku, Azerbaijan, has reached its red-hot apex. Caspian shore roads are being extended, glorious marble parks are being laid, and the city's signature downtown concert venue is gasping toward completion.
The government has invested millions in a frenzied city makeover, an effort to put Baku on the luxury tourism map. Not so long ago, Baku was best known, if it was known at all, for being home to the world's largest flagpole (a superlative that was recently snatched away by Tajikistan). Now, city officials have plans for a fancy man-made island, a Frank Gehry-designed modern art museum, and the next world's tallest building.
Courtesy: Human Rights Watch
But as is so often the case, there's a human toll to the mania that can surround televised international events. In this case, it's the thousands of Baku families who've been evicted from their homes to make way for the flash and sparkle of a newly metropolitan city. Human Rights Watch has just released a new report detailing the systemic removal of middle class families from Baku's city center. An estimated 60,000 people have been evicted from their homes near the downtown area since 2008.
The pace of the evictions sped up last August, after the city scored the opportunity to host Eurovision in May 2012.
That a city would relocate its citizens to make way for a big redevelopment push is not unusual. What's striking in this case is the Azerbaijan government's apparent ruthlessness. Families have reportedly been forcibly evicted, sometimes without warning and in the middle of the night. And some aren't even offered compensation. According to the HRW report:
In some cases, the authorities have forcibly evicted remaining residents with little or no notice and then immediately demolished their houses or apartment buildings. Large numbers of police and other government officials surrounded the buildings and filled the stairwells in some instances, then forcibly entered apartments and removed residents. In at least three cases police detained residents in police stations while workers demolished the buildings. The homeowners returned to find their possessions buried in a pile of rubble.
In other cases government officials have arrived without warning with a bulldozer and other machinery at night or in pre-dawn hours, ordered home owners to vacate immediately, and then began demolishing their homes.
Homeowners in several buildings told Human Rights Watch that workers removed roofs and windows, exposing them to rain, snow, and cold. When the authorities cut electricity and water in one building in the National Flag Square area in January 2012, residents resorted to melting snow for water.
The report also includes disturbing anecdotal stories of pretty ghastly abuses. Arzu Adigezalova, 41, for example, a math teacher and a single mother of two children, lost her two-room apartment in October 2011. She told HRW that she woke up in the middle of the night to a bulldozer outside her front door. "I had to leave behind mattresses, linens, tables, the gas stove," she said. "That same official had promised us some money so that we could rent an apartment until I could find one to buy, but I got nothing."
Eurovision's fans (and they are myriad) celebrate the festival as an opportunity, albeit a cheesy one, for the continent to come together. But when the host is an autocratic country with something to prove, the city's powerless may well bear the cost.