This past May, Azerbaijan attained a fundamental symbol of national progress: It won its first ever Eurovision Song Contest, the wildly popular annual televised event in which European nations compete to produce the catchiest (or kitschiest) pop tune. Its entry was a saccharine, synthesizer-heavy number called “Running Scared,” sung by Ell & Nikki, a photogenic duo clothed in billowy white garb who share a fondness for gazing earnestly into the camera.
On the night of the victory, Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, erupted in celebration. Mercedes-Benzes circled the city, with scantily clad women leaning out of car windows and waving flags. On a main drag, Oilmen’s Avenue, hundreds of people danced in the street. “This is what Azerbaijan has been waiting for,” a 25-year-old named Samir yelled to me over the din in a nightclub.
He wasn’t exaggerating. Over the last four years, Azerbaijan’s government has made the Eurovision title something of a foreign policy priority. It recruited internationally renowned artists, such as Beyoncé’s choreographer, to advise its entrants in 2010. It brought in Swedish backup dancers to writhe against a constellation of sparkling lights for the 2011 live performance. According to media reports, the government spent millions to ensure Azerbaijan’s victory—and, along with it, the automatic hosting rights for next year’s event. Eurovision “is the government’s coming-out party,” Shahin Abbasov, an Azeri journalist, told me later. “There’s a sense that Baku has a chance to really make an impression.”
NOT LONG AGO, Azeris bought gasoline in large pickle jars by the side of the road. Teachers, engineers, and lawyers took to the city’s dingy main square to sell knick-knacks at flea markets, and ex-pats celebrated the proliferation of ATMs and modern grocery stores.
All that changed in 2005, with the opening of a pipeline from Baku to Ceyhan, a port city in Turkey. Now, oil from Azerbaijan can be transported speedily to Turkey and from there to Europe. In the last ten years, the country’s GDP has at least tripled. Twentysomething “oil babies” live in glitzy high-rises, party at glamorous nightclubs, and pay for purchases at Cartier and Chopard with wads of U.S. cash. Their families are building luminous second homes outside of town or purchasing penthouses in glassy new shore-side buildings. According to Azeri news sources, one oligarch’s son spent $1 million to buy a bear so he could slaughter and eat it with his friends.
The government has also been on a spending spree: a 532-foot flagpole (once the world’s tallest), which rises over the Caspian; a birthday celebration for the country’s deceased president, featuring hot air balloons and one million flowers; a fleet of purple London taxicabs, at a cost of $27 million, according to local news outlets. And, of course, Eurovision.
So far, however, Azerbaijan’s victory has brought attention not to the country’s newfound prosperity, but to its human rights failures. The government is essentially a dictatorship led by Ilham Aliyev, himself the son of the previous president. More than 30 Azeri human rights activists, journalists, and political analysts have signed “EUROVISION WITHOUT POLITICAL PRISONERS,” an appeal to Aliyev calling for the release of journalists, youth, and opposition figures jailed for dissent. LGBT activists are calling on Eurovision organizers to guarantee protections for gay attendees; a spate of articles in international outlets quote gay Azeris who say they’ve suffered police brutality and blackmail. The European Broadcasting Union has asked the government to guarantee free expression and to ease visa requirements for reporters. Azeri journalists are routinely harassed and sometimes beaten or jailed; in recent months, foreign correspondents have struggled to get credentials.
Meanwhile, in August, the United Nations voiced concerns about the oil-financed construction projects that evict families in order to erect luxury condos or marble parks named after the president. Activist Leyla Yunus, one of the country’s few outspoken critics, organized rallies outside of her office to protest the government’s seizure of homes—until her own office was demolished without warning in August.
Yet, despite all of this, a show-biz buzz is in the air. In September, a high-quality, homemade video produced by two Peace Corps volunteers went viral among Azeris online, but also on TV screens in cafés and clubs. The two amateur singers re-mixed Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind,” adding lyrics that referenced Baku’s hottest brands—Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, Prada, Fendi, Gucci. “Where oil falls like honey,” the pair sings, “nothing’s sweeter than my money.”
Amanda Erickson is an associate editor at The Atlantic’s “Cities” website. This article appeared in the December 15, 2011, issue of the magazine.