Power Ballad

What happens when you mix a trashy Europop spectacle with an oil-soaked Caspian dictator?

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.

The Azerbaijani government's disregard for local property rights was just one of several issues the European Parliament raised in its withering rebuke of Baku last May. Another major issue was Azerbaijan's unfortunate treatment of journalists, bloggers, Facebook activists, and opposition politicians, many of whom are spending Eurovision week behind bars. Amnesty International has called for the immediate release of 17 prisoners arrested for their participation in anti-government protests last year, including 30-year-old Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, a fresh faced graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, who ran as an opposition candidate in Azerbaijan's parliamentary elections in 2010. Earlier this year, Reporters Without Borders ranked Azerbaijan 162 of 179 countries in terms of press freedoms -- that's four spots below Saudi Arabia -- partly because of its insidious, "Soviet-style" methods of intimidation, as one young journalist described it to me.

In March, for instance, the well-known local investigative journalist Khadija Ismaylova received a letter informing her that if she continued her work, intimate photos of her would be published. When she refused to be blackmailed, a video of her having sex, apparently taken from a secret video camera installed in her bedroom, was released online. While the government has denied involvement, local journalists and opposition leaders I spoke with said it was a vintage government move.

"They use Soviet tactics like that," the young journalist said. He asked that I not use his name because he gets "enough attention" for his own writing. "If a young blogger writes something, they call him on the phone. If he does not take it down, they will show up and 'find' drugs in his bedroom," he said, citing the flimsy evidence around the arrest of Jabbar Savalan, a young man who tried to organize an anti-government protest via Facebook last February. Savalan was later charged with possession of drugs. After spending nearly 11 months in jail, he was released last December, and then almost immediately conscripted into the army in a move that Amnesty International says was politically motivated. "That is another of their tactics," the young journalist said. "They put you in the army because then the international media and NGOs can't say you are being held in prison."   

Azerbaijan was led from 1993 by Heydar Aliyev, an old Soviet Politburo official who in death became a national hero. In 2003, his son, Ilham Aliyev succeeded to the presidential throne. In his nearly a decade at the helm, Aliyev the Younger's policy often appears to be dictated by the fear that Azerbaijan, which is one of six former Soviet states with predominately Muslim populations, could get swept up in one of the public uprisings or pro-democracy movements that have seized its neighbors over the years, first with the "color revolutions" in the early part of last decade, and then with the Arab Spring last year.

The lack of freedom of speech in Azerbaijan first attracted widespread international attention a few years ago, when two young bloggers, quickly dubbed "the donkey bloggers," went to jail for 18 months after posting a satirical video making fun of government corruption, while one of them was dressed in a donkey suit. The histrionic absurdity of that video and the government's disproportionate response drew condemnations from everyone from Amnesty International to British Petroleum. Some local rights activists are hoping that the truly absurd pageant of Eurovision and the moment in the international spotlight will also illuminate their cause.

"Maybe the government will feel pressure to pass some human rights reform, something cosmetic," said Turgut Gambar, 23, a board member at Nida Civic Organization, an umbrella group of journalists, activists, and bloggers in Azerbaijan. "But the most important thing is for the international community to understand its role here. More attention must be paid to Azerbaijan."

That may be true, but local human rights activists probably shouldn't count on it. One of the reasons the Azerbaijani government has not been under extreme pressure to reform -- despite its membership in human rights and democracy building alliances like the Council of Europe -- is because Europe and the United States have political and economic interests in simply turning a blind eye. Azerbaijan exports on average one million barrels of oil a day, mostly through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and onto Europe. It's also wedged between Iran and Russia, with close diplomatic ties to Israel, making it a valuable strategic ally in a volatile part of the world. In addition to maintaining a nominal 90-troop presence in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan serves as one of the primary way stations for U.S. and NATO equipment, fuel, and personnel heading to and from the war zone, a relationship that may become even more crucial in recent months as U.S.-Pakistani relations fray. The U.S. returns the favor by granting Azerbaijan status as a "most favored nation," and providing "humanitarian, democracy and economic reform assistance" (some $22 million in 2010).

Not that Europe and the United States are blind to the problem. In a Wikileaked cable from September 2009, U.S. diplomatic staff compared Aliyev to two of Don Vito Corleone's sons from The Godfather trilogy. With regard to domestic affairs, Aliyev is Sonny -- impulsive, rash, and thin-skinned -- whereas in his foreign policy, he's Michael, "cool-headed" and "realistic." When it comes to Eurovision, Aliyev is evidently channeling Michael. He has not only seized this opportunity to market Azerbaijan on European stage, he has cast his family in leading roles. The president's wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, is the head of the organizational committee for the event, and his son-in-law, Emin Agalarov, an aspiring pop singer, will be performing as a guest act this weekend during the show. Aliyev himself closely monitored the construction progress at Crystal Hall and is expected to attend the finale Saturday.

In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, I sat in the middle of Crystal Hall, perhaps a hundred yards from the Aliyev family's box seats, struggling to reconcile Azerbaijan's lamentable record of human rights with the howling, dewy-eyed, pyrotechnic spectacle unfolding before me. Luckily, Shohrat, my Azerbaijani seatmate, was there to guide me. When Greece's writhing, skimpily dressed lead singer took the stage, he leaned over and nodded happily. "Very nice," he said.  When the punked-out quartet from Switzerland took the stage, he gave me two thumbs up, "Very, very nice." And when Austria's triumvirate of pole-dancers decked out in black and lime green light-up tutus launched onto their poles as the Trackshittaz rappers took center stage, he leaned back and exhaled: "Oh. Wow."

A few minutes later, as two mohawked Irishmen in tin man suits performed a choreographed dance in a fountain, I leaned over and asked Shohrat what he thought of Azerbaijan -- of the treatment of journalists and the government's authoritarianism, of all that. He looked at me quizzically for a second and then held out his arms to encompass the whole stadium, the stage, and the shimmying Irishmen, who were presently giving each other high fives.

For a moment, I thought maybe he hadn't gotten my question and then, suddenly, I realized he'd gotten it perfectly. "It is all too crazy," he said. "You cannot understand."   



Sleepless in Jerusalem

Egypt's presidential elections are keeping Israeli officials awake at night. Will their most important Arab friend soon be an enemy?

JERUSALEM – Egypt's first round of presidential voting wrapped up on Thursday with the crop of viable candidates down to just a handful. Official results won't be ready until Tuesday, but next door in Israel, policymakers are already scrambling to sort the bad options from the worse.

For all his faults, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak was a reliable, if remote, Israeli ally for three decades until his ouster in a popular uprising last year. Subsequent parliamentary elections over the winter brought an Islamist rout, with the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood winning half of all seats and even harder-line Salafis taking another quarter. It's too early to tell if the next president will be an Islamist, but even if not, a new constitution could grant Egypt's formerly rubber-stamp parliament real powers (the panel tasked with writing the charter has been suspended amid bickering over its own Islamist-heavy composition).

"The changes in Israeli-Egyptian ties will be wide and deep," says Yoram Meital, chair of Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba. "Egypt is about to make a number of revisions to its security and foreign policies that many in Israel, particularly our decision makers, view with trepidation."

Mubarak's predecessor, Anwar Sadat, signed the Camp David Accords with Israel in 1978, followed a year later by a formal peace agreement -- the first ever by an Arab leader. The deal has never been popular among Egyptians (Sadat paid for it with his life), and in the presidential campaigns since Mubarak's ouster, Islamist and non-Islamist candidates alike have called for the treaty's revision or outright annulment.

Initial exit polls place the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi first, followed by former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq. Ex-Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, the former Brotherhood leader Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, and the leftist nationalist Hamdeen Sabahi round out the top five. The top two candidates -- likely Morsi and either Shafiq or Moussa -- will go to a run-off vote next month, with the interim military rulers transferring power by July 1.

Israel officials most dread the prospect of an Islamist president. Aboul Fotouh regularly refers to Egypt's neighbor as the "Zionist entity," and the mainstream Brothers can themselves match any other Islamists for pure anti-Zionist and Judeophobic bombast. Morsi sat front row at a recent stadium rally as a preacher pledged the candidate would revive the Islamic caliphate, this time in Jerusalem: "Banish the sleep from the eyes of the Jews," chanted an MC, "Come on, you lovers of martyrdom, you are all Hamas!" (In Arabic it rhymes.)

In Egypt, however, opposition to the peace pact extends far beyond Islamists. Polls show 85 percent of Egyptians view Israel negatively, 97 percent see it as one of their country's biggest threats  and 61 percent want to overturn the treaty entirely (32 percent want to keep it; 7 percent are undecided). Anti-Israel sentiment cuts across class lines: Over the last year, opposition to the peace deal rose most sharply among the college-educated (up 18 points to 58 percent) and those under 30 (up 14 points to 64 percent). In Egypt's first-ever presidential debate this month, Aboul Fotouh described the Jewish state as an "enemy," while Moussa settled on the more diplomatic "adversary." (The latter has a decades-long record of anti-Israel bona fides; the anthem "I Hate Israel, I Love Amr Moussa" topped the Egyptian charts in 2001.)

Jerusalem has legitimate cause for concern -- of the five frontrunners, four have called for an overhaul of Camp David. Moussa has eulogized the peace accord as "dead and buried," Morsi urged it be put to referendum, Aboul Fotouh called it a "national security threat," and Sabahi warned that under his leadership, Egypt would no longer be Israel's "godfather" in the region. Shafiq, too, has begun burnishing his anti-Israel credentials: when an Islamist lawmaker recently accused him of Mubarak-era corruption, the former Air Force chief shot back that as a pilot in the 1960s he had downed two Israeli planes while the MP was still in his Nile cotton nappies.

In the 15 months since the start of the anti-Mubarak revolution, Egypt's political landscape has transformed, its economy entered a freefall, and tourism all but evaporated. The most dramatic change of all, however, has been the utter breakdown of government authority in the Sinai Peninsula separating mainland Egypt from Israel. There, local Bedouins run one of the world's briskest smuggling rackets: drugs and Libyan weapons to Gaza, Sudanese and Eritrean migrants to Israel (the prevalence of organ harvesting en route is one of the underreported stories of post-revolution Egypt). This month, the Knesset called up six reserve battalions and authorized an additional 16 amid ongoing instability on Israel's frontiers.

The breakdown in Sinai has already led to the shelving of the 2005 Egypt-Israel natural gas deal, a 15-year agreement whose terms many Egyptians viewed as too generous to Israel. The energy pipeline running through the peninsula has been sabotaged 14 times in as many months, and in April, the gas consortium's Egyptian partners severed the agreement outright, claiming their Israeli counterparts had welched on payment.

Armed extremists -- some linked to al Qaeda -- have also set up shop. Last summer, a dozen gunmen wearing Egyptian army uniforms waged a sophisticated multi-stage terror attack in southern Israel that left six civilians and two security personnel dead. The perpetrators -- most from Sinai, some from Gaza -- retreated to Egyptian territory, and in the ensuing chase Israeli forces killed 10 of the terrorists and, by mistake, five Egyptian troops.

Egypt demanded an apology; Israel refused. Weeks later, thousands of soccer hooligans ransacked the Israeli embassy in Cairo, prompting Jerusalem to recall all but one of its diplomatic staff home (footage later emerged of fans at a Cairo stadium raising the banner "One nation for a new Holocaust").

To many Egyptians, Camp David's most irksome terms are those stipulating the Sinai's demilitarization. The treaty allows Cairo to deploy only a single army division in the peninsula, the battleground for four Egyptian-Israeli wars over less than two decades. Closer to the frontier, only Egyptian police are allowed -- no troops. "It is a treaty that forbids Egypt from exercising full sovereignty," Aboul Fotouh said in the presidential debate. But Zvi Mazel, a former Israeli ambassador to Cairo, said altering the terms for Sinai troop deployments is not up for debate. "That's basis of the treaty," he said. "Without that, there's no peace."

Top-level Israeli security officials told me ties with their Egyptian equivalents remain largely unchanged since the Mubarak era. Still, further down the ranks, enmity boils: On a recent border tour with Israeli colleagues, more than one Egyptian policeman greeted us across the electrified fence with a one-finger salute.

"Sinai today is a powder keg. There is chaos there," said Benjamin Ben-Eliezer -- an Iraqi-born Labor Party lawmaker, ex-defense minister, and decades-long friend of Mubarak. Losing Egypt, he sighed, "will be a very big blow to us ... [We] must be prepared for the possibility of a confrontation."

I asked Prof. Meital of Ben-Gurion University if he thinks such fatalism is warranted. He said that while the last year's events do justify a certain apprehension, Israelis shouldn't let the doomsayers get the better of them just yet. "Much of Israel's public, and of course its decision makers, believe the Mubarak regime's fall has led to utter chaos. To me that's a simplistic understanding of the revolutionary transition that Egyptian society is undergoing," he said. "History shows such stages do lead at first to instability, but success must be judged with the perspective of years, not months. It's just a year after the regime's fall, after all, and free elections are already being held."

For many in Israel, nonetheless, the view across the border could hardly be bleaker. "It's hard to know whether we should talk about Egypt-Israel relations or the absence thereof," said former ambassador Mazel. "Whomever is elected president, the feeling is whatever comes next won't be good."

Note: this piece has been updated to reflect late-breaking exit polls from the presidential election on Thursday, May 24.