Making room for Eurovision

Fans of the contest have descended in droves on Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, where 300 families were forcibly evicted to make way for the contest site.

It’s that time of the year again when Europeans descend into insults and accusations as well as threats of boycotts and copycat performances. 

Well, this year that’s not so far from wrong.

The Eurovision contest won by Azerbaijan last year in Dusseldorf gave this former Soviet republic the automatic right to host the event in 2012, and Armenia the excuse to withdraw. It is still officially at war with Azerbaijan over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

What a great start to winning the event in 2011! President Ilham Aliyev must have been rubbing his hands with glee.

On the other hand, some European capitals perhaps are wondering whether such an opportunity would be used wisely. It’s an opportunity for a country mired in accusations of corruption and human-rights abuses to prove its detractors wrong.

Since independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, there was great optimism in the country that a new generation would sweep aside the communist legacy and bring in new blood with fresh thinking and free thought.

Influence and power

It may have started off brightly but seven presidents later, enter Aliyev in 2003. Sworn in soon after the death of the incumbent, his father Heydar Aliyev, Ilham Aliyev is now a man of great influence and personal power.

Walking around the capital, Baku, posters of his father Heydar Aliyev adorn every street corner.

I expected a Eurovision host city to be buzzing with excitement, the streets, shops, buildings and buses are merchandised to the hilt. You’d have to be completely stupid to miss the fact that Baku is this year’s host city.

Yet having worked on several Eurovision Finals in my career, there is no buzz and certainly little excitement on the streets from the local people themselves.

Though the fans have descended on Azerbaijan like bees round a honey pot, locals are uncomfortable speaking about the event at all. They don’t want to be in front of the camera and they don’t want to say anything off-camera about the event.

They look suspicious and, in some cases, just scared to even be seen talking to a TV crew.

Positions of influence

Local journalists and human-rights activists I meet during my weeklong stay in Baku explained that since 2008, Aliyev has been consolidating his grip on power, placing his most trusted lieutenants in positions of influence.

So who’s in charge of Eurovision? Someone with vast event management experience, or a senior TV executive with decades of entertainment experience behind them?

Influence, yes but experience? That’s questionable.

It’s the First Lady, Mehriban Aliyeva.

Stunning and educationally smart, she is chairperson of this year’s organising committee and the personality to whom all must defer and obey.

The venue – Baku’s Crystal Hall, where the Eurovision will be held – is a controversial site.

Built alongside an area called Flag Square, the whole place was a residential site until 10 months ago.

Then the residents were kicked out of their homes to make way for Le Grand Prix de la Chanson!

With 300 families forcibly evicted, human-rights groups have been up in arms both domestically and internationally.

And the arguments continue.

I saw at first hand what happens if you speak up: you are arrested and thrown into a van.

No one will get in the way of the image of this country or the Eurovision from being tarnished.

Fund by oil wealth

For the Eurovision event in Baku, $800m is the total price tag, most of it funded by the vast oil wealth of Azerbaijan.

There is a downside to all this, however. Funding for projects such as water distribution and development has been redirected to the contest. Pension and government salary increases have either been put on hold or reduced.

Perhaps now you can see why the locals are disgruntled.

However, it’s not all bad.

On the surface, money has been spent on improving the city. It is evident in the roads, utilities and tourist attractions developed to attract foreign visitors and future cash.

It may not be mass tourist destination for the moment as the deputy tourism and culture minister told me, but they are working on it.

Like it or loathe it, Eurovision is here to stay, although a country’s problems will always be a matter of media interest. News is news, with bad news always being a top story for any editorial meeting be it print, online or TV.

So, the question you want me to answer after seeing some of the performances is who’s going to win.

Well, Russia and Sweden are well thought of. The Russians, always well prepared, have six grannies on stage and two spare, just in case.

I am not joking but the UK has Engelbert Humperdinck, one of the oldest contestants ever in the competition. The BBC has not thought of a back-up plan should he keel over. Dressed in my tux for the big night, I am willing to fill the breach in that case, though I fear my employers will not be amused.

So I will play it safe and just offer my humble opinion. Not that I’ve picked a winner since Sandra Kim represented Belgium in 1986.

Vote for Cyprus. I like their song and I always could do with a beach holiday when I report on the contest next year from Limassol.

More from Features
Most Read