BAKU, Azerbaijan – I had trouble shaking the feeling in Baku this week that I'd stumbled into the prettier side of a nation-sized Potemkin village.
From the moment my plane touched down on Monday afternoon, everything was eerily perfect: the sculpted topiaries on the side of the highway, the immaculate white stone boardwalk, the freshly planted geraniums in flower boxes, the ubiquitous London-style cabs with paisley-shaped flames -- part of Azerbaijan's official branding campaign -- licking up the sides.
Even the newly constructed Crystal Hall, a glittering purple-lit building that calls to mind a bejeweled crown on Baku's Caspian shoreline, was somehow perfect in its architectural homage to the occasion: the Eurovision Song Contest, the Old World's annual bacchanal of campy, tacky pop.
Having won Eurovision 2011 with Eldar and Nigar's treacly duet, "Running Scared,"Azerbaijan is this year's official host country. The week-long competition, which began officially with the first semi-final on Tuesday, has drawn performers, along with handfuls of their more adventurous fans, from 43 countries around Europe. All told, it's expected to attract only about 20,000 visitors to Baku, but Eurovision has always been more of a long-distance spectator sport. An additional 125 million television viewers -- that's about 10 million more people than watched the Super Bowl this year -- are expected to tune in to the show this week and, by extension, get what will likely be their first glimpse of Azerbaijan. Eurovision is, in other words, this small South Caucasus country's chance to strut its stuff on the European stage or, as one official put it to me, "to show people we are an actual European nation."
Perhaps with that in mind, Azerbaijan pulled out all the stops. Its oil-rich government hasn't revealed the official amount it spent prettying up the place for this week's festivities, but it's expected to be the most expensive Eurovision on record by a factor of nearly 20. Local NGOs estimated the final bill will hover around $700 million -- a figure that includes the construction of Crystal Hall, which is the venue for the competition, the outfitting of a back-up auditorium in case the hall wasn't completed in time, the purchase of that fleet of London-style cabs, and sundry "beautification" efforts in downtown Baku.
To be fair, it does look pretty impressive. An Azerbaijani man, Shohrat, who sat next to me on Monday night at the dress rehearsal for Tuesday's semi-final commented with awe about the dancing light show above the hall, the newly refurbished tourism site nearby, and the brand new, space-age white buses that shuttled us around. Gesturing at the stage itself, a Las Vegas-style affair outfitted with geysers of fire and a working fountain, Shohrat utilized what I would later come to understand was his favorite English phrase: "Very nice," he said solemnly. "Very, very nice."
The only problem is that the Azerbaijani government's goal of appearing to be an "actual European nation" ends with the appearance part. Sure, it's got the credentials: Azerbaijan was admitted to the Council of Europe in 2001, and its gross domestic product has been growing at an average of 10 percent for the past five years (a fantasy for many in the European Union) but it's also got this nasty habit of brutally silencing its press, jailing its dissidents, and arbitrarily confiscating land from its people.
Take the glitzy new Crystal Hall, for example. According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of homes were razed to pave the way for that twinkling venue. Homeowners were often not consulted about the plans, rousted by bulldozers without warning, and then given piddling sums in compensation. Local rights organizations say the same thing has been happening routinely since 2009, with the government intent on building a Dubai-style skyline virtually overnight.