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.
As I point out in my story “Selling Azerbaijan,” which was printed in the May 14 international editions of TIME, Eurovision presents a massive opportunity for Azerbaijan to showcase itself to the world. Despite Azerbaijan’s post-Soviet economic success — it has reduced poverty from 50% in 2001 to just 7.6% today — international critics remain wary of trumpeting its achievements. Instead, they describe it as an autocracy with little respect for human rights. Its President, whose father was also 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. 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. And the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a human-rights NGO, says about 70 people are in jail for political reasons — where many are allegedly tortured.
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Azerbaijan, which only obtained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, disputes these charges. Officials say that as a young country Azerbaijan is still developing its democracy. 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. 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; erecting a 220-ton, 162-m flagpole in Baku in May 2010 — the world’s tallest at the time; and, according to investigative journalists, budgeting at least $277 million to host Eurovision 2012. Azerbaijan is also bidding for the 2020 Olympic Games, it has plans to build the world’s tallest skyscraper, tentatively named the Azerbaijan Tower, and it works with lobbyists and consulting firms around Europe to help build support among foreign governments. “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.
Fakhraddin Gurbanov, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the U.K., believes that many commentators resent Azerbaijan because of its economic success and its vast oil and gas revenues. He says that they, in conjunction with some mass-media outlets, want to create a negative image of Azerbaijan to mar its moment in the sun. “Maybe we shall meet after Eurovision. Will there be the same [negative] attention towards Azerbaijan? I doubt it,” he says. Gurbanov remains confident that those who attend Eurovision will see the country in a whole new light. “There is a very good saying: it is better to see something once than to hear about it a hundred times.”
MORE: Selling Azerbaijan
Adams is a staff writer at the London bureau of TIME. Find him on Twitter at @willyleeadams or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.