Eurovision challenges Baku’s vision

Azerbaijan has hosted a song contest of world-class proportions but the event has focused attention on the country’s internal issues.

The crowds descended on the Crystal Hall in Baku.

About 23,000 people filled one of the most spectacular venues I have ever seen host a Eurovision. I thought The Globen in Stockholm in 2000 was a great venue but this really was the business.

Despite offering some praise to the Azeris for their choice of concert hall it’s hard to fully support them knowing hundreds of people were forcibly evicted from the very spot where singers from 26 countries were performing. 

I wonder what those inhabitants, relocated to the outer suburbs of the city, are thinking of the new kids on the block performing to over 150m people worldwide on the site of their old living rooms.

We managed to see much of Baku and even some areas beyond the capital during a busy week here. Areas that could do with more than just a facelift. 

In the north, water availability remains a problem. Promises have been made, yet, due to rationing and limited availability – in some areas as little as two hours per day – people say they have seen little proof that anything has been done to help those in need.

Funds that were destined for those communities had been diverted to fund Eurovision, residents complained, leaving many feeling isolated and forgotten.

The problems for many here vary from water to the right of free speech. This is what the people here have to contend with. 

We were filmed. I’m sure the foreign ministry and secret service have some lovely shots of me running after protesters as they were getting arrested.

If I play my cards right they might mistake me for Bollywood heartthrob Shahrukh Kahn … trust me it’s happening more these days since I moved to India.

Yet, despite the image of this country, being viewed as authoritarian to the outside world, it has so many facilities: good buses, a metro, shops and supermarkets, great little family-run hotels and restaurants and a wide range of museums and sports facilities.

It’s still not enough for a community desperate for choices of both personal freedom and democratic process.

Beyond the capital, trekking, water sports, cycling and camping are huge activities if only foreigners could come and see.

Trying to visit this country is not easy, as the deputy tourism minister acknowledged when we met.

Complicated visa accreditation doesn’t make Azerbaijan feel like an especially welcoming place. This is still, after all, a country officially at war with neighbouring Armenia.

As thousands descended on the Crystal Hall, there was a subdued atmosphere, fewer fans than normal and fewer strange costumes and chanting than was customary for a Eurovision finals.

Eurovision fans are like football fans they descend in their masses and it’s all so good humoured. Well, it normally is.

Officials said fewer fans had travelledthsi year because of the cost of travelling to Azerbaijan and staying in a city as expensive as Baku.

And while Azerbaijan took advantage of its moment in the European limelight, the contest by hosting a song contest of world-class proportions, the event also served to focus attention on the country’s internal issues.

For me, it was no surprise that it was knocked out of the running to host the 2020 Olympics.

Azerbaijan has the potential for great things and the international community will consider it in the future but it has to look iinternally and find a way to live at peace with its own people.

Though oil wealth may be building a legacy that President Iham Aliyev hopes the people will appreciate, Azeris have told us they would appreciate having their voices heard in speech and in song.

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