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International song contest shines light on changing Azerbaijan

Ambassador touts post-Soviet strides

- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 3, 2012

Azerbaijan's hosting of the Eurovision Song contest last month exemplified just how far the predominantly Muslim former Soviet republic has come since the days of communism, the Azerbaijani ambassador to Washington says.

But the arrival of singers from more than 40 European nations and Israel for the most-watched nonsporting television event in the world also served as a microcosm of the challenges facing his nation, Elin Suleymanov says.

In an interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times, Mr. Suleymanov noted how Azerbaijan sits at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and the Middle East, and is the only nation to border "both Russia and Iran."

Eurovision incited hysteria among the region's Islamists - 40 terror suspects were arrested for allegedly plotting an attack on the event. It also triggered negative Western European media attention.

"Amazingly, [it] became the one time when Islamophobes and anti-Semites got together and kind of agreed on something - on bashing Azerbaijan," Mr. Suleymanov said. "Some in Europe criticized Azerbaijan for not being gay-friendly enough ... [and] Iranian clerics kept accusing us of being a paradise for homosexuals because we organized Eurovision."

That the tiny nation on the shores of the oil-rich Caspian Sea pulled the whole thing off is something Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton likely will praise when she visits Azerbaijan during her tour of the region Wednesday.

Mrs. Clinton will push other issues as well, such as direct talks between the presidents of Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia on the long-disputed Nagorno-Karabakh area.

The region, which burst into conflict during the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, also has fueled tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran in recent years.

Iran has long supported the Armenian side, despite its being predominantly Christian, and Azerbaijan's alliance with Israel adds to the friction.

While Azerbaijan provides nearly 40 percent of Israel's oil, the relationship has prompted some Iranians to accuse it of "being the Trojan horse for Israel," Mr. Suleymanov said.

U.S.-Azerbaijani relations, however, reach beyond such issues. "Americans want to see a region that is free of terrorism and radicalism, they want to see nations which are able to cooperate in terms of religion and cultures, and that's what we want as well," Mr. Suleymanov said.

Azerbaijan's "objective," he added, is to "build an independent nation, which is committed to certain values, and stands as an example where East and West, Muslim civilization and other civilization, come together and work together and become an example of tolerance."

It also is committed to advancing U.S. energy interests. Mr. Suleymanov cited the 2005 completion of the Baku-Tiblisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline linking the Caspian and Mediterranean seas as "the biggest tangible success" of U.S. policy in the region since the Soviet Union's fall.

While Mrs. Clinton can be expected to praise the energy cooperation this week, she also may urge Azerbaijan to accelerate certain aspects of its democratic transition - namely, media freedoms. Cases of journalists claiming to have been beaten, arrested or smeared by the government have plagued Azerbaijan during the past year.

Mr. Suleymanov emphatically denied that the government targets journalists and asserted that the issue is often "blown out of proportion."

"You've got to look at the context, the majority of the Azerbaijani population lives better today than they lived yesterday," he said. "We have come from a society which, in the Soviet Union, was authoritarian, totalitarian and had no democratic traditions."

He did, however, acknowledge a government probe into one of the more salacious cases, involving Khadija Ismailova, a Radio Free Europe journalist who has reported on financial dealings of the Azerbaijani president.

A video of Ms. Ismailova engaging in sexual acts with an unidentified man appeared in March on a website purporting to be of the main Azerbaijani opposition party. The video was shot by a secret camera planted in Ms. Ismailova's apartment.

"What happened to Ms. Ismailova is disgusting, and it should never have happened," Mr. Suleymanov said. "We strongly condemn it."

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