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."