A glossy new airport terminal. A so-called White City, a neighborhood revamp that will reinvent major parts of the city center, displacing residents in favor of white marble sidewalks, glittering skyscrapers and a concrete park. Six fancy new hotels, including a ritzy Four Seasons, and a Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre. designed to look like rippling waves.
Such are the projects currently on the docket in Baku, Azerbaijan, the capital of this small, recently oil-rich country nestled between Iran and Russia. Workers have been imported from the countryside and Central Asia in a mad dash to spruce up the city before May, when the annual Eurovision song contest is set to arrive in town.
Most Europeans treat Eurovision as a two-day exercise in camp. For the uninitiated: each country in the contest submits a single musical act to represent them, the more over-the-top, the better. Last year, for example, Ireland's competitors (twins) wore bleached-blond mohawks and red blazers with enormous dice-shaped shoulder pads. France's entry (an opera singer) performed in front of a film strip of vibrant night skies while a smoke machine covered his lower half in vapor. Moldova’s performers (costumed in hot purple pants and long black and white pointed hats) cycled around the stage on unicycles, neon lights flashing in the background.
Audience members vote on their favorites via text message. Since its entry into the contest five years ago, Azerbaijan has pursued Eurovision victory with a single-minded intensity. Some economists estimate that the government poured millions into its acts. One year, they hired Swedish back-up dancers and a famous Iranian songwriter. The president's wife was tapped to lead the country’s Eurovision committee.
Last year, finally, it all paid off. Azerbaijan’s Ell and Nikki walked away with the top prize and the privilege of hosting the contest in Baku for their duet of "Running Scared."
Celebrations erupted throughout Baku celebrating the Eurovision win.
Revamping a city for what amounts, essentially, to a television special might seem a bit crazy. But for Azerbaijan, hosting Eurovision is a coming out party, a chance to show off Baku as an untapped luxury tourism hot spot. More than 30,000 people are expected to fly in to watch the show in person. Almost 125 million will tune on television. It’s an incredible influx of attention for a country that is known, if at all, as Europe’s backwater.
As such, Baku isn't leaving any city street untouched. Even the Caspian Sea is in line for a make-over, in the form of a promenade dotted by works from Jeff Koons and Anish Kapoor, with a Gehry-designed art museum for good measure.
Not bad for a city that, not too long ago, didn't even have any gas stations (men would sell gas out of pickle jars on the side of the road). Azerbaijan was one of the poorest countries in the Soviet Union. “In the early 1990s, there was nothing in Baku,” says Thomas Goltz, a journalist who has covered Azerbajian for the last three decades. He remembers asking friends to bring peanut butter, coffee, and telephones with them when they visited from Istanbul.
Like a lot of post-Soviet cities, Baku offered little besides crumbling sidewalks and side streets jammed with fruit and vegetable vendors.
That begin to change in the late 1990s. At first, the changes to the city were gradual. Department stores began to open. In Baku’s bars, expats swapped stories about the first time they found meat for sale packaged in supermarket-style styrofoam and plastic (most natives buy their chickens from car trunks or bazaars); the real restaurant they just ate in; the first ATM they were able to find.
The city’s transition from functional to luxurious happened much faster, spurred by the completion of a pipeline that brings oil from the Caspian Sea to Turkey. In the last couple of years, Fountain Square, the city’s main boulevard, has been transformed. What was once a dingy concrete square where women from Azerbaijan’s countryside peddled their socks and fruit snacks is now a sleek marble space, compete with a merry-go-round and a McDonalds.
Luxury brands like Gucci and Bentley crowd the waterfront shops. There are too many new building projects to name (my favorites include a three-pronged flame tower, where wavy copper buildings dot the skyline like the prongs of a trident).
Baku's Flame Tower, as seen from the Old City.
And the pace has only picked up since Eurovision. “They’re going all out,” Goltz says. “It is their moment to showcase, I hope.”
Eurovision as urban boosterism is not unique to Baku. One Eurovision expert (yes, there is such a thing) estimates that some countries spend upwards of $30 million to host the contest.
The countries that tend to invest are the ones that feel like they have the most to prove (not coincidentally, these tend to mostly be Eastern European, former Soviet States, where people still take the singing contest very seriously).
When Moscow won, the government spent millions to plant flowers and get rid of the city’s impossibly large stray dog population. Homeless people were relocated.
Estonia launched an entire tourism campaign on the back of their Eurovision win. In between song acts, the country produced and showcased commercials highlighting its “fairy tale” qualities.
“There are a lot of expectations about what Eurovision can do for a country’s brand,” says Paul Jordan, a professor and member of the Eurovision Research Network. “Whether they live up to the expectations is a different story.”
It's a big gamble for the Baku, which has already set its sights on hosting the 2020 Olympics. And, I admit, for me, it's hard to imagine. I recently spent a year living in Baku. When friends came to visit, I ran out of obvious tourist attractions (the Old City! the Caspian Sea! Maybe the world's oldest cave drawings!) within a matter of days. For the rest of their stay, we ambled around rusty shipwrecks, rotting oil derricks (our travel book had whole sections dedicated to Baku's Soviet-era ruin porn, complete with tips for what to say when policemen try to shoo you away) and the world's only miniature book museum.
But I also saw the city evolve faster than anywhere else I've been. In a matter of weeks, entire run-down blocks were reduced to rubble and rebuilt into gleaming concrete parks, complete with fountains and benches. I’ve been gone about six months. In Baku, that’s almost enough time for a complete make-over.