From Baku, With Love (And Intolerance)
This year’s Eurovision is in Azerbaijan. Can the conservative country be a good host for Europe’s wildest party?
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.
This reporting was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Joshua Kucera is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.