Azerbaijan | Serenading Europe

Host to this year’s Eurovision, Baku went face to face with its tenuous position on the edge of the continent

01 July, 2012

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.

Soon after Azerbaijan had won the 2011 contest, however, its approaching tenure as host was wrapped in controversy. The issues were perhaps best put by a regional commentator, Giorgi Lomsadze: “The contest will bring along demographics that are not particularly popular in Baku—journalists, Armenians and gays.”

Eurovision has a huge LGBT 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 LGBT people often 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, publicly stated that gays are welcome in Baku, and there was no indication that LGBT people stayed away because of the country’s reputation.

But, farcically, that alleged gay-friendly attitude was seized upon by Azerbaijan’s neighbour to the south, Iran. The two countries have strained relations on a number of issues, most recently Azerbaijan’s increasingly close ties with Israel. And in the weeks leading up to Eurovision, conservative clerics in Iran organised several demonstrations in front of Azerbaijan’s embassy in Tehran, protesting plans to hold a gay parade in Baku. Never mind that there wasn’t ever any plan to hold such a parade. “The Azerbaijan Republic has violated all the principles of neighbourliness and rules of Islamic solidarity and has become libertine in order to serve the Zionists,” thundered a report in the official Fars News Agency.

The problem with Armenians was settled a bit more easily. Armenia and Azerbaijan are still negotiating a ceasefire over Armenia’s occupation of Nagorno Karabakh, a disputed region of Azerbaijan now completely controlled by Armenian forces. Armenians are now widely, and virulently, hated in Azerbaijan, and the country has spent billions of dollars to expand its military might for what appears to be an inevitable war to take back Karabakh from the Armenians. So there was certainly potential for some awkwardness if Armenia’s Eurovision competitors and fans came to Baku. This crisis, however, 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 into questioning locals who dared vote for Armenia’s Eurovision entry, tracing the votes to their cellphones. (Azercell, the mobile phone company implicated in that incident, was an official Eurovision sponsor this year.)

Perhaps most vexing of all, however, were 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, and features “sights” where local journalists and activists have been assaulted or killed. One local investigative journalist, Khadija Ismailova, reported 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.

The week of the contest, two top government spokesmen held a press conference for foreign reporters covering Eurovision, ostensibly to address these 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 criticising Azerbaijan’s human rights record; the government, with characteristic subtlety, has in response invoked Hitler.) And the local press, far from holding Hasanov 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 prompted some in Europe to question whether Baku was “European” enough to be an appropriate host of Eurovision. One member of the European Parliament, Jo Leinen, criticising Azerbaijan’s human rights record ahead of Eurovision, said the country must “show that it respects European values”.

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 tsarist 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 in the novel. 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 tried to emphasise 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 the end, politics barely intruded on the contest itself. The eventual winner, Sweden’s Loreen, visited a local human rights group following her victory and was clearly sympathetic to their cause. But she never made a public comment criticising Azerbaijan, suggesting that she didn’t want her political beliefs to mix with her pop persona. The only discordant note during the event itself was from Germany. During the traditional call-in of votes from across Europe, the German representative added some additional commentary: “It is good to vote and it is good to have a choice. Good luck on your journey, Azerbaijan,” she said. “Europe is watching you.”

This reporting was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.