Last May, Ell & Nikki, an obscure duo from Azerbaijan, won the 2011 Eurovision Song Contest. The country's President, Ilham Aliyev, treated the musical win like a military triumph, describing it as "a victory for the people of Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijani state." By winning the pan-European singing contest which, kitschy as it is, unites the region like little else Azerbaijan's capital city, Baku, earned the right to host this year's show, which will be broadcast to more than 100 million people at the end of May.
Hosting Eurovision is a big deal for Azerbaijan, a sleepy ex Soviet republic of 9.5 million that sits on the geographic and political outskirts of Europe. So Aliyev entrusted his glamorous wife Mehriban Aliyeva, who is also a member of parliament, to organize the event. She's overseen an infrastructure upgrade, beautification projects around the city and the rapid construction of the 23,000-seat Baku Crystal Hall, the Eurovision venue that will feature 45,000 LEDs onstage and views of the Caspian Sea. Like an insecure adolescent trying to get the cool kids to come to his party, Baku is sparing no expense on Eurovision. Governments frequently spend around $30 million to host the contest, but Azerbaijan has officially budgeted $64 million, while journalists estimate the real figure is at least $277 million. "We are very proud that we won Eurovision and are honored that we have the chance to host this year," says Fakhraddin Gurbanov, Azerbaijan's ambassador to Britain. "It's not only an advertisement. It's the introduction of our country to the world."
For Azerbaijan, a small country keen to distract the world from its poor human-rights record, Eurovision represents the culmination of a global charm offensive. Although most people would struggle to find it on a map, Azerbaijan has amassed impressive wealth in the 20 years since it obtained independence from the Soviet Union. Its vast oil and gas reserves helped push its real GDP up by 35% in 2006 making it the fastest-growing country in the world for a time. Since then, the economy has nearly tripled, to $62 billion, putting it on par with countries like Oman.
Despite Azerbaijan's post-Soviet economic success, international critics say the country remains an autocracy with little respect for human rights. Heydar Aliyev, the current President's father, controlled Soviet Azerbaijan as leader of the Communist Party, beginning in 1969, and assumed the presidency in 1993 after a bloodless coup. He stood down in October 2003, and two weeks later the younger Aliyev won a stacked election in a landslide.
The new President abolished term limits via a widely disputed referendum in 2009. The Human Rights House Foundation described the country's most recent elections in 2010 as a farce. Azeri citizens who criticize the political elite face reprisal. According to Amnesty International, police beat and imprisoned two musicians after they insulted the President's mother during their performance at a peaceful protest on March 17. Azeri authorities have ignored dozens of assaults on journalists in recent years, including two murders. According to the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a human-rights NGO, about 70 people are in jail for political reasons where many are allegedly tortured. Transparency International ranked Azerbaijan No. 143 out of 183 countries on its most recent Corruption Perceptions Index.
Azerbaijan disputes these charges, claiming the country's democracy is still developing. Nonetheless, Aliyev is spending good money to ensure that corruption, repression and autocracy aren't the first words that come to mind when you think about Azerbaijan. According to Budget.az an Azeri website run by a group of independent economic analysts the government of Azerbaijan spent at least $38 million promoting the country abroad in 2011. That promotion includes passing out books on Azeri carpets along with Azeri-branded USB drives to delegates at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland; opening Azeri Friendship Parks in Mexico and Bosnia; and erecting a 220-ton, 162-m flagpole in Baku in May 2010. There are also commercials on CNN that show fashionable young women shopping in Baku, and the official Eurovision website now includes a video explaining Nowruz, the Azeri New Year celebration.
Azerbaijan isn't the only country that spends liberally around the globe to polish its international image. Belarus which currently faces E.U. sanctions over its human-rights abuses previously paid the London public relations firm Bell Pottinger to perform advocacy work and image counseling. Kazakhstan, which led the U.S. State Department to express concern over the arbitrary arrests and torture of prisoners, paid the consulting firm BGR Gabara $45,000 a month for "outreach to government officials, news outlets and other individuals in the United States."
Azerbaijan, though, has been particularly eager to tap the expertise of international p.r. firms. In September 2007, "the Presidency of Azerbaijan" paid Jefferson Waterman International (JWI), a Washington-based political- and business-consulting firm, $25,000 per month plus expenses for "professional services." That contract has ended, but JWI still represents the International Bank of Azerbaijan for the same fee for services that include "consultations with members of the Executive Branch and U.S. Congress."
In Europe, the particulars of such deals are hazier, but there's little doubt that Azerbaijan is riding a wave of good press. "Its wealth has encouraged the international community to buy into the myth of a young democracy making slow and steady progress," says John Dalhuisen, the director of Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia program. Baku has stronger support among politicians across Europe than its Central Asian neighbors do, and the World Economic Forum recently ranked it as the most competitive economy in the region. Last September, the acting U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan praised Baku for sharing "the benefits of oil and gas ... throughout society." According to the World Bank, Azerbaijan has cut poverty from 50% in 2001 to just 7.6% last year.