BAKU, THE CAPITAL CITY OF AZERBAIJAN and a booming petro-city on the shore of the Caspian Sea, has long held an ambiguous position in Europe. Azerbaijan borders Georgia and Russia, which most people accept as part of Europe, but it also abuts Iran. The country is predominantly Muslim, and a dictatorship—two qualities that weaken Europe’s embrace. The world, too, seems unsure about where exactly to place Azerbaijan. The country is a member of the Asian Development Bank, but the World Bank and the Pentagon include it in their Europe departments. The New York Times places Azerbaijan news in its “Asia/Pacific” section, while articles from neighbouring Georgia, Armenia and Turkey are filed under “Europe”.
This May, however, Baku became the de facto cultural capital of Europe, as the host of the Eurovision Song Contest, a sort of American Idol crossed with the Olympics in which each member country in the European Broadcasting Union selects a song to be performed on live television and competes for Europe’s best tune of the year. Each year’s winner (chosen by the European public) hosts the following year’s contest, and the victory of Baku natives Ell and Nikki last year ensured that Azerbaijan’s capital would get to host in 2012. With an estimated 125 million viewers, Eurovision is the most-watched non-sports television event in the world.
Since gaining independence in 1991 upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan has seen a massive economic boom, fueled in large part by discoveries of oil and natural gas in the Caspian Sea. Its GDP per capita now stands at just over $10,000, on par with Thailand, Colombia and South Africa. As with many arrivistes, the country is eager to gain international prestige commensurate with its wealth, and so Azerbaijan’s government went all out in preparing for its moment in the European spotlight. It built a brand-new performance hall in Baku, imported 1,000 purple London-style taxis and brightly lit up the capital’s handsome 19th-century downtown.