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 awkardness 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.