Up to a year ago, Azerbaijan, an oil-and-gas powerhouse about the size of the state of Maine, was a little-known former Soviet republic on the Caspian Sea just north of Iran. Soon, however, the eyes of more than a half billion people will be watching live as it hosts the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest. But Azerbaijan is finding out it can't hide behind its billions and official statements against Western critics about alleged violence and harassment against Azeri journalists and opponents of President Ilham Aliyev.
While a Fulbright Scholar teaching college journalism in Azerbaijan last May, I saw firsthand the late-night, public celebration in the capital city of Baku when the country's entry in the 2011 Eurovision contest, Eli and Nikki, won the multinational popular-vote competition, almost out of nowhere.
The win, treated like a major sports championship there, immediately meant the next Eurovision would be held in Baku, giving the small country the chance to show off its intriguing, medieval Old City fortress, its expanding, remarkable modern side, and resourceful, attractive and pleasant people to a world that few outsiders know much about. For a country on the move -- it won a non-permanent seat on the U.N.'s Security Council this year -- with pains to impress the West and lure business and tourism, the Eurovision triumph was a gift of enormous publicity. The pop music contest involving Europe's best performers will have an estimated 600 million TV viewers.
Azerbaijan's leaders did not take the opportunity lightly. The country is reportedly spending an estimated $1 billion to prepare for the Eurovision broadcast from Baku, May 22-26. It's put the finishing touches on a 23,000-seat stadium, Baku Crystal Hall, which it started planning on the Caspian shore weeks after last year's victory. Azerbaijan can easily afford it, thanks to its $65 billion gross domestic product, mostly from petroleum and natural gas exports to Western Europe and Russia. Not bad for a country of only about 9 million people.
Try as it may, Azerbaijan is far less successful at constructing a positive image compared to its strong economy and Baku's burgeoning development projects. It can't and won't win over the free democratic nations of Europe and the rest of the world. Its current war of words with the West is beside the point -- it's simply this year's glittering, opulent venue for a pop music spectacle.
But it's also meant that Azerbaijan -- freed from the former USSR in 1991 but retaining a Soviet-style authoritarianism -- would face unprecedented scrutiny into its alleged severe campaigns of repression against journalists, opposition leaders and ordinary citizens who speak out about President Aliyev and his government.
The Aliyev regime has been openly hostile to the news media and his political opponents in the years since he took power following the death of his father, Heydar, the former KGB-head of Azerbaijan, in 2003. As Azerbaijan's energy riches and international influence have increased, so have accusations of ruthless treatment of journalists.
In 2005, in a still-unsolved murder, someone fired eight shots from a pistol with a silencer and killed investigative reporter Elmar Huseynov, who had written articles on alleged corruption among Azeri officials and Aliyev's wealthy family members. Human Rights House has accused the government of being responsible for offenses against more than 50 journalists who were harassed or attacked in 2011.
Other journalists are silenced on trumped-up legal charges. In 2007, the government sentenced Eynulla Fatullayev, a news editor who investigated Huseynov's death, to eight years in prison for libel, defamation, "terrorism" and "inciting racial hatred," according to the free press group, Pan American Center. Early in 2011, Jabbar Savalan, who wrote an article critical of Aliyev's insider-elite family, was arrested and sentenced to three years on claims he possessed heroin. He was released later last year following pressure by Amnesty International and others.
In recent weeks leading to Eurovision, criticism has mounted from Europe about Azerbaijan's alleged actions against news writers that include some nasty smear campaigns. The German magazine Der Spiegel wrote about a female journalist who was taped having sex with her boyfriend at her home by a hidden camera installed in her home. The tape was played on the Internet in March. The incident was similar to secret sex videos made of an opposition newspaper editor in 2010 and two opposition activists in May 2011, all of which were broadcast on Azeri TV stations.
Early this month, two European officials, both German, called for a boycott of Eurovision in protest of Azerbaijan, which is a member of the Council of Europe. Azerbaijan's government reacted by fighting back. It denied one official a visa to enter the country.
Then, Fuad Alasgarov, Aliyev's chief of law enforcement, blasted Germany for arrests and injuries he said leftist rioters suffered in Berlin on May 1.
The rise of nationalism and xenophobia is being observed in Germany today. Regional and federal bodies do not resist this process. Today, it is unsafe for a foreigner who does not look like European to walk along Berlin streets.
Azerbaijan is ready to host Eurovision song contest and show the world that despite the continued occupation of our lands by Armenia, a large number of refugees and internally displaced people, political games around the country, we go forward and join the number of leading countries in all areas of development in the foreseeable future.
Government leaders spoke as if repression did not exist in Azerbaijan. Ali Hasanov, Aliyev's social and political affairs head, insisted that Azerbaijan has enjoyed press freedoms since then-President Heydar Aliyev instituted them in the 1990s.
The main artificial barriers that limited pluralism, freedom of speech and information have been eliminated over the year. The censorship in the press was abolished by (Heydar Aliyev's) decree on August 6, 1998. Then, the practical activity began to ensure the development of mass media, international rights and civil norms, freedom of speech, information and thought.
As this year's host of Eurovision, Azerbaijan may well impress visitors with its beautiful, entertaining capital city of Baku and friendly, considerate people, but not with how its government treats the people, their journalists and government dissidents behind the scenes. In that competition, it has already lost.
Eurovision 2012 will come and go, a new winning country crowned. But unfortunately -- aside from economically, and mostly for Baku's top elites -- little will change for freedom-seeking Azeris for the foreseeable future.
Follow Jeff Burbank on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JHuntB