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Story Publication logo May 29, 2012

Azerbaijan: From Baku, With Love (And Intolerance)


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Oil in the Caspian Sea is making Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan rich. But with Iran and...

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The Flame Towers, shown here under construction in Baku were finished quickly in time for Eurovision. Image by Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images.

Baku, the petrocapital on the shore of the Caspian Sea, has been designed under the principle that too much is never enough. Its newest monument is the Flame Towers, a set of three flame-shaped buildings on a hill overlooking the entire city, with LED lights that at night alternate between animations of a flickering fire and a figure waving an Azerbaijani flag. Close by is a TV tower bathed in iridescent purple light. Below that is what was, for a short time, the world's largest flagpole. Baku is kitschy, brash, and over the top.

In other words, it's the perfect place to host the Eurovision Song Contest.

For non-Europeans who might not be familiar with Eurovision: it's American Idol crossed with the Olympics, in which all the countries of Europe compete to determine who has the best song of the year. Each year's winner (chosen by the European public) gets to host the following year's contest, and the victory of Ell and Nikki last year ensured that Baku would get this year's honors. The finals are Saturday evening; an estimated 125 million people across Europe (it's the largest non-sports TV event in the world) are expected to watch favorites Sweden, Russia, and Italy duke it out.

Azerbaijan's government, relishing its moment in this spotlight, has gone all-out in getting ready for Eurovision. It's built a brand-new performance hall, imported 1,000 purple London-style taxis, and lit up its handsome 19th-century downtown. It wasn't always clear, though, that Azerbaijan would be a natural host for Eurovision. Eurovision is no stranger to politicization, but Azerbaijan's hosting has been especially fraught. The issues were probably best put by one of my colleagues, Giorgi Lomsadze: "the contest will bring along demographics that are not particularly popular in Baku—journalists, Armenians and gays."

Eurovision has a huge gay following; a piece in Pink News ("Europe's Largest Gay News Service") called it "the gay World Cup." Azerbaijan is a culturally conservative country, where gays have to keep their orientation well-hidden, which caused many to wonder if gay Eurovision fans would in fact feel comfortable in Baku. As Pink News put it, "Azerbaijan could be far from welcoming and many fans may decide not to go. People at a high level are worried about this." Azerbaijan government officials, though, have publicly stated that gays are welcome in Baku, and there is no indication that gays stayed away because of Azerbaijan's reputation.

The problem with Armenians was settled a bit more easily. Armenia and Azerbaijan are still in a state of war over Armenia's occupation of Azerbaijan's territory of Nagorno Karabakh. Armenians are now widely, and virulently, hated in Azerbaijan, and Azerbaijan has been spending billions on its military for what appears to be an inevitable war to take back Karabakh from the Armenians. So there was the potential for some awkwardness if Armenia's Eurovision competitors and fans came to Baku. But this crisis was averted by the Armenians themselves who, bowing to pressure from their own nationalists, dropped out of the contest. Prospects for better relations through song were dim, anyway: In 2009, Azerbaijani police actually called in for questioning locals who dared vote for Armenia's Eurovision entry, tracing the votes to their cell phone. (Azercell, the mobile-phone company implicated in that incident, is an official Eurovision sponsor this year.)

Perhaps most vexing of all, however, are the journalists. To say that Azerbaijan has a poor reputation internationally would be an understatement. Its treatment of its own citizens is frequently deplorable, and international and local human rights groups have used the occasion of Eurovision to draw attention to Azerbaijan's many shortcomings in the hopes that journalists visiting Baku to cover the song contest might also write about the grim political backdrop. At a hotel, I picked up what looked like a standard tourist map of Baku only to discover that it was a clever mockup by Human Rights Watch, featuring "sights" where local journalists and activists have been assaulted or killed. One local journalist, Khadija Ismailova, has done strong investigative reporting on how the Azerbaijani president's family has been profiting from Eurovision-related construction projects; for her troubles, she's been the target of a viciously personal smear campaign.

On Monday, two top government spokesmen held a press conference for foreign reporters covering Eurovision, ostensibly to address those sorts of concerns. But it only served to reinforce the thuggish reputation of the government here. To relatively tame questions about Azerbaijan's human rights record, presidential spokesman Ali Hasanov offered improbable theories of anti-Azerbaijani propaganda conspiracies hatched by Germany and Armenia. (German NGOs and the German government have been especially active in criticizing Azerbaijan's human rights record; Baku, with characteristic subtlety, has in response invoked Hitler.) And the local press, far from holding him to account for these claims, only baited him further; one asked about "German neo-colonialism" and another about whether, as a result of anti-Eurovision propaganda, "we know who is our friend and who isn't our friend" and how that will affect Baku's foreign policy in the future.

All this has caused some to question whether Baku is "European" enough to be an appropriate host of Eurovision. Azerbaijanis have long debated whether they belong in Europe or Asia: In the classic novel of the Caucasus, Ali and Nino, Baku's old city—where "the houses were narrow and curved like oriental daggers" and "minarets pierced the mild moon"— was Asia, while the new city, home to the oil companies of czarist Russia, was Europe. "It is partly your responsibility as to whether our town should belong to progressive Europe or to reactionary Asia," Ali's teacher says. One impudent classmate responds, "Please, sir, we would rather stay in Asia."

Today, the government likes to use the line that it is a bridge between Europe and Asia, embodying both "European" values like tolerance and "Asian" ones like respect for elders. But with Eurovision coming to town, the government has tried to emphasize its European bona fides. "We are located at the crossroads of Asia and Europe. We could remain in Asia, but we have chosen the way of European development," Hasanov said at the press conference. In an earlier interview, he said of Eurovision fans: "Having seen with their own eyes the excellent culture of Azerbaijan, the hospitality of our people and our tolerance, they will of course see that the anti-Azerbaijan publications are deliberate provocations."

So is Hasanov right, that the only people who think ill of the government are foreign journalists and human rights activists criticizing from afar? I took a bus tour of Baku offered to Eurovision fans, and found the tourists surprisingly well-versed on Azerbaijan's dirty secrets. And it seems that the government's attempt to manage Eurovision so tightly may have in fact backfired.

Minutes into the tour, we passed a site where some old houses were being razed. Several of the tourists rushed to the side of the bus and snapped photos; it turns out they had all heard about how the government has illegally expropriated and torn down houses in the rush to modernize and beautify the city. They mockingly pointed out the ubiquitous billboards for Emin, the president's son-in-law who will perform at the Eurovision finals. (The president's wife is also the chairwoman of the event, suggesting an attempt to hijack the event for the personal glory of the first family.

One of the fans was Birgit, a young Swiss woman wearing a T-shirt declaring her allegiance to Jedward, the boy-band duo that is Ireland's entry in the contest. When we got to the Flame Towers, she grumbled, "I heard they spent $5 million just for the lights—it's so stupid."

I also met a group of five Spanish men, and asked them what they thought of Baku. "It's a very artificial city," said Pablo, the only English speaker of the group. "It's like you're in Eurodisney—it's very beautiful, but you know it's fake." He said that on the website of the Eurovision fan club they belong to there was extensive discussion of the land expropriation issue. "The people have no rights, it's terrible." He said he and other fans also were troubled by the first family's involvement in the contest. "The people here are very nice, but you get the idea that someone told them to be nice."

This is what happens when you create a Potemkin village: Everything in it, even the real things, seem fake. With a per-capita income of $450 a month, not many Azerbaijanis are participating in the country's wealth. Even casual visitors can see that, besides the fancy taxis, the streets are full of Ladas and decrepit buses; that just beyond the beautiful new buildings are crumbling apartment blocks that only have running water for a few hours a day. The Baku that the government is creating is a triumph of style over substance. Again, the perfect place for Eurovision.


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