Eurovision is Still Just a Song Contest
It’s been a few days now that Azerbaijan has been basking in the glory of its champion Eurovision performance. My heartfelt congratulations go to all of those Azerbaijanis who are proud of and inspired by their Eurovision representatives, Ell & Nikki. My sympathy for those in Baku at the time who had to endure probably endless hours of the song “Running Scared” at 3 or 4am. Thankfully, I think the excitement is starting to pass. Fewer people now dancing on top of cars and the like.
This also means that a lot of people are looking forward to next year: Eurovision in Baku! As per Eurovision rules, the winner’s country hosts the next Eurovision, so 2012 is all about Baku, Azerbaijan. And it couldn’t come at a better time: major construction projects, like the Baku White City project, should be hurried along in order to showcase Baku to its European (if not global) audience. As many commentators have pointed out, Azerbaijan will now be a place people can locate on a map. It’s too bad that the Year of Tourism isn’t 2012, but maybe we can extend it and call it Two-rism Years 2011 and 2012 (no? Really bad joke? Yes…really bad joke).
There are also a number of commentators expressing that they see this as an opportunity for Azerbaijan to make progress on human rights issues. The New York Times‘ Ellen Barry writes:
This means President Ilham H. Aliyev, who succeeded his father, “feels less incentive to pretend that Azerbaijan is a progressing democracy,” the International Crisis Group wrote last year in a report. Small antigovernment demonstrations inspired by the Arab revolutions were met with a harsh response, and many young people say they are now too afraid to participate in public dissent. But ordinary citizens do not hide their complaints about corruption and disparities in wealth.
“I don’t need Eurovision; I need money,” said Arif, 23, who did not give his last name for fear of government retribution. He said he earned about $190 a month working at a grocery.
Aslan Amani at The Guardian hopes that the international focus on Azerbaijan will lead to greater political openness:
…there is a possibility that Eurovision will not only halt this wave of repression fuelled by petrodollars and Ilham Aliyev’s anxiety over the Arab spring, but also usher in a little bit of political openness. This could happen in five different ways.
Click the link if you’d like to read Alsan’s five-step plan.
While I’m not naive to the effects of international focus on any given country, I think the hopes that people are expressing about changes they’d like to see through the focus of Eurovision are perhaps a bit of a stretch. The biggest limiting factor, in my estimation, is that Eurovision will be almost exclusively focused on Baku. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with drawing attention and an international crowd to Baku. Yet, most of the really struggling population of Azerbaijan is going to be on the sidelines when it comes to economic ripples emanating out from hosting a Eurovision Song Contest. Most Azerbaijanis will be staying home and not reaping many benefits from Eurovision’s presence in the country’s capital. The money brought to Azerbaijan by the Eurovision visitors is not likely to make it to the regions of Azerbaijan, where investment and capital are really needed. Beyond that, Eurovision will only be here for a short time. If Azerbaijan wants to reap real benefits, they’ll have to set themselves up over the next year to carry out a high degree of service for prospective tourists (and hope that with this initial influx, they can make a really great impression).
Politically, again, Eurovision is only here for a short time. The international pressure to improve government operations and work towards openness won’t be a pressing priority. Russia hosted Eurovision a few years ago, and things there seem to have gotten worse. If we want a really extreme example that is not really applicable at all, we could look at 1990, when then-Yugoslavia hosted the contest and we can see how that only led up to one of the worst human tragedies of the 90s decade. Azerbaijan is a country that is stable and economically viable for the foreseeable future, so I don’t think we’ll see Azerbaijan trending that way.
Obviously, I would like to see more transparency in any country, including my own. Yet, I also don’t think it’s reasonable to expect that an international song contest will bring more transparency and openness to a country. I know that really I’m just lowering expectations here (and also raining on the parade of the hopeful), but if we want the Baku version of the Eurovision Song Contest to be seen as a success, we should understand that it’s really just a song contest and, now, an opportunity for Azerbaijan to become more well-known worldwide. Baku will have the hotels and the venues to make a Eurovision splash. However, if you expect to see a song contest bring world peace, that’s great, but let’s hope you have a contingency plan.