The European song contest is a big and beautiful holiday for some people but for others an occasion to organise political provocation. One must be prepared.
Mehriban Aliyeva, First Lady of Azerbaijan.
So, they built the Baku Crystal Hall on time. This austere-looking grey edifice, comprised of interlacing mesh-clad hexagons and overlooking the Caspian Sea, is about to host Eurovision 2012 after the victory, last year, of Anglo-Azeri pop duo Eldar & Nigar, aka Ell & Nikki. (Eldar Gasimov is Azeri cultural royalty: his great-grandmother was the People’s Artist of the Soviet Union in 1949 and his grandmother was named the People’s Artist of Azerbaijan two decades later. Nigar Jamal is from…Enfield.)
A hitherto convoluted visa regime has been simplified to ease entry for thousands of Euro-visitors and the anticipated tourist spill-over. Hustlers and courtesans have flocked from across the ravaged Eurovision continent and rich associated regions, flanked by sensation-seeking, scandal-scouring television hacks. Baku has been cleaned up, decorated, gentrified; its taxis sprayed purple and daubed with the Eurovision logo. American and English PR companies have pimped the Palace of the Shirvanshahs and the Petroglyphs of Gobustan in exotic magazine profiles and glossy advertising campaigns. Twenty years after violent secession from the Soviet Union and now awash with oil money and pulling levers on globally significant pipelines, the Azeri resurgence will be marked by Europe’s great festival of pop kitsch. This is their Chinese Olympics. So what’s going wrong?
The ruling family of Azerbaijan has a problem, a rather big and basic one: the Azeri population. This is because of how they rule — partly the method, but also the structure. There are many ways to describe the present day Azeri state, all accurate to a degree but without quite containing or defining the condition of this ex-Communist colony. It resembles a medieval feudal domain, sliced up by a pseudo-monarchic dynasty, regional money-clans and a parasitic class of bureaucratic administrators. It functions as a post-Soviet oligarchy: a “sovereign democracy” managed along Russian lines, utilising all the covert techniques invented and refined by Vladimir Putin’s regional election fixers. A one-dimensional oil economy, selling deep but dwindling reserves and spending massive windfalls with astonishing pace and great gluttony, it is like a Gulf Emirate of the Caucasus, or a Caspian Libya. It is an (ultimately) unstable kleptocracy, both dependent upon and terrified of its powerful neighbours (Russia, Iran) and playing dangerous games of seduction with their enemies (Israel, the UK). Finally, it conforms to a regional autocratic model: a secular security state keeping violent ethnic and religious furies at bay through force and bribery, a sort of soft-core Uzbekistan. All of this sums something (or some things) up, but without actually getting to the essential core of this alluring, tethered, tedious country.
All of the potential and variety, the wealth of detail, sound and vision, as well as actual mineral and monetary wealth, is locked up and locked away by one family and its cronies and agents and district allies. Everything is crushed by a flat and artificial personality cult that nobody believes in. As in North Korea, state ideology is an exercise in patriarchal necrophilia: the nation is dedicated, in servitude and as a sacral offering, to its former leader and alleged saviour, the current head of state’s dead Dad. This manifests itself, physically, as a soul-crushing and essentially silly routine of kitsch pageantry, enforced deification and camp authoritarianism. In a way, this makes Azerbaijan the perfect location for the Eurovision Song Contest.
Vast portraits and statues of Heydar Aliyev – the post-Soviet Azeri leader who rescued a ruined economy from warlords and gangsters and a vicious territorial scrap with Armenia – festoon street billboards, local shops, business offices and private homes. Avenues and museums, parks and transport terminals bear his name, resulting in endless duplication and constant confusion. In Baku region, it is a criminal offence to criticize Heydar or his descendants, a transgression that carries a stiff penal sentence (visitors are solemnly advised to stay off the subject). The anniversary of Heydar’s ascension is celebrated as a ‘National Day of Salvation’ and his birthday is a public holiday, marked by a blossom-strewn, firework-studded Flower Festival. The cult is mawkish, and compulsory: it defines political space and discourse and provides a central, artificial cultural identity, almost in opposition to art, ethnicity and religion.
There is an essential difference between the old reign of Heydar and the successor regime of Ilham, his son. Oil exports and pipeline realpolitik have given Aliyev Jr. a measure of power and prestige that would have sounded like rash fantasy to his father. The opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline in 2006 consolidated his power base, providing leverage and cover to curb opposition ambition and amass dizzying wealth. Whereas Heydar relied upon traditional clan networks, Ilham has cultivated the post-Communist Baku business class. This rising elite, brash but also urbane, has pioneered a new style of power in Azerbaijan: a sophisticated and ruthless mix of politics, industry, culture, commerce and crime. The woman Ilham chose to marry and her close relatives exemplify this new mode.
Mehriban Pashayeva – a qualified eye doctor, couture addict and Azeri parliamentarian — is an exquisite product of the Baku intelligentsia. Borne to a family of writers, diplomats and academics, she absorbed the unique ethnic clash and mix of Baku from a young age; she also obtained the patrician bearing of her wealthy and respected family name. In the immediate post-Soviet Heydar era, the Pashayev colonised construction, tourism, insurance and banking, but stayed out of the energy sector and heavy industry. This was not simply a question of scale, but social style and regional demarcation: power and capital carefully partitioned between ruling families; state apparatus and infrastructure codified by clan. The Pashayev combined money with social and cultural prestige and looked, in this context, like liberals. Ilham Aliyev, in a strange way, married well.
Azerbaijan’s sumptuous First Lady is a complex, seductive, slightly deceptive, almost absurd figurine. Her constituency incorporates Heydar Aliyev International Airport and an enormous, deluxe shopping centre which sits alongside festering and destitute residential slums. The Heydar Aliyev Fund, which she runs, churns money into local charity and infrastructure projects, although the financial trail is hazy and the books are closed. UNESCO, perpetually up for sale, has designated her Goodwill Ambassador for Oral and Musical Traditions and awarded her the Mozart Medal “for strengthening Intercultural Dialogue.” She donated Fund money (rather stylishly) to renovation projects at Versailles and the Louvre, generosity that inspired Nicolas Sarkozy to award her the Legion d’Honneur for “outstanding service and loyalty to France.” Her own art collection forms the spine of the Baku Museum of Modern Art and she bank-rolled an expensive attempt to lure the Guggenheim Museum to the Caspian shore. In the lovely, verdant, lazy Canadian town of Niagra-on-the-Lake, there stands a Omar Eldarov bronze bust of the Aliyeva visage that bears the legend: “Divine Muse.” The Eurovision triumph was, itself, orchestrated through her wiles: having selected and promoted the winning entry, she then took executive control of the Baku 2012 organising committee. (Official Azeri culture, meanwhile, brooks no dissent.)
Mehriban’s extracurricular junkets and peripatetic activities are not incidental, but strategically central to Aliyev’s Western tilt. They burnish reputation and build prestige which, in turn, helps lure petrochemical investors and international financiers. It is not mere vanity and it is not (merely) politics, but big business. The building contract for the Crystal Hall, nominally awarded to a German construction firm, was subcontracted to a series of companies owned by Azenco, whose major share holders include Mehriban and her glorious daughters, Leyla and Arzu. The supposedly liberal, European, cosmopolitan wing of the regime is up to its neck in corruption, nepotism, money-laundering and embezzlement. Mehriban, so careful to publicise the schools she builds in rural slums, had no compunction in ordering the demolition of an entire neighbourhood (without compensation) to clear space for the ephemeral Eurovision spectacle.
The daughters, meanwhile, do their bit. Leyla is the family’s unofficial, roving cultural attaché, peddling their wares in Western Europe. A London-based associate of mixed Kensington fauna including Nat Rothschild, Giles Coren, Lord Mandelson and Prince Andrew, she prowls the gaudy Euro-elite interior, a doll-like Russian pop-star husband hanging onto her fragrant arm. A minor GONGO queen and sporadic Huffington Post scribe, she is full-time editor of Baku International, a fashion and lifestyle magazine funded by her father-in-law, the Russian retail mogul Aras Agalarov. This plushly-produced Condé Nast title features exotic fashion shoots and exclusive interviews with A-listers like Tom Ford and Bryan Ferry (the latter adorns the cover of the latest edition, looking windswept and debonair beneath a rippling Azeri flag).
Her young sister Arzu is comparatively low-key, like a lynx next to a panther; Moscow-based and married to a minor oligarch, her business interests are less ostentatious, but as convoluted and as consequential. Both sisters (and their teenage brother) are partners in a holding company which owns every aspect of Azerbaijan Airlines. They possess multi-million dollar property portfolios in Dubai, major shares in Azeri telecom companies and co-own national banks.
This is raw accumulation — what we, outside Italy, call theft. Ferry flirting with Aliyeva fille or Prince Andrew lobbying British firms on behalf of the regime provides cover for a grand extortion racket in total control of a territory of such mineral wealth and geopolitical import that it triggered the Cold War. Azeris know (with clarity and a sense of urgency) that they are ruled by thieves, and the kitsch trappings and the glossy gifts cannot cover it. They will tell you, it cannot go on.