Can Azerbaijan Buy Its Way Into Europe?

european orientWhat do you get the leader that has everything? Ilham Aliyev, the President-for-life of Azerbaijan, was lucky enough to inherit his post from his father, Heydar Aliyev, in 2003. The country sits on enormous Caspian Sea oil and natural gas reserves, and in an ostentatious display of autocratic petrostate pride, the world’s tallest flagpole was built in the capital, Baku, in 2010 (It was subsequently edged out by a 10’-taller pole in Dushanbe, Turkmenistan).

However, there’s one thing that could confer legitimacy and a certain je ne sais quoi that Azerbaijan doesn’t yet have—European respectability.

“East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.” –Rudyard Kipling

In 2011, Azerbaijan unveiled its new slogan: “European Charm of the Orient.” Replacing the less inviting motto “Land of Flames,” the slogan is part of a PR campaign to project a certain image. One typical tourism video opens with attractive people sitting poolside. A laughing couple races along a coastal highway in their Porsche, on their way to sheep-covered hills which give way to endless forests. The parts with the smiling, telegenic people bring to mind the French Riviera, and the verdant landscape looks like Ireland or Burgundy. The country is emphasizing its European charm, rather than situating itself in that space called the Orient. Besides a brief shot of a Mosque in a panoramic long shot of Baku (and an Azerbaijani rug on TV in a blonde woman’s hotel room), markers of Azerbaijan as “non-European” are conspicuously absent. The video signals to prospective visitors that Azerbaijan is European, like Amalfi or Barcelona; not “Oriental,” like Istanbul or Dubai.

Dividing Europe and Asia are the Caucasus mountains: home to Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. All three had been part of the Soviet Union, gaining their independence in the 1990s. Azerbaijan is a republic of 9.5 million people that borders Turkey, Russia, and Iran in addition to its Caucasian neighbors. Azerbaijan is physically located in a boundary space, and it’s trying to decisively mark itself as a member of Europe. The country has been “culturally” non-European; for centuries it’s been represented and described it as an Other.

What it has going for it, in addition to the European charm from the ads, is oil and gas. On Azerbaijan’s official tourism webpage, one of the tabs highlighted by the republic’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism is a page for the Naftalan medical resort. Alongside “national cuisine” and “top 10 reasons to visit Azerbaijan,” the Ministry sells the spa as one of the most compelling reasons to visit the country. The page exhorts you to book a trip to the spa for Naftalan oil treatments, and boasts of the countless health benefits from taking dip in the unique hydrocarbon.  The Caspian is estimated to hold as much as $5 trillion of oil reserves: Azerbaijan has so much oil that one of their main attractions is bathing tourists in it.

In 1998, Dick Cheney, then-CEO of Halliburton, said “I cannot think of a time when we have had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian.” Three years later, Azerbaijan had joined the Council of Europe. Their resources can pay the price of admission, but Azerbaijan is cementing its European aspirations with a grand, multi-billion dollar public relations project. The case of Azerbaijan says a lot about cultural borders, nationhood, and how far money can really take you.

“Europe is a cultural continent, not a geographical one. It is its culture that gives it a common identity. The roots that have formed it…are those of Christianity.” –Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

19th century German map of Europe in 1250 CE

19th century German map of Europe in 1250 CE

Most Americans associate European culture with white people who enjoy day-drinking, fütbol, and techno music. However, for most of its history and today, “Europe” has been used synonymously with “Christendom.” As with all identity, what Europe isn’t is as important as what it is. “Europe and Islam have been considered to be two terms with contrasting historical connotation,” says Dr. Ioannis Grigoriadis, “European and Islamic cultures were juxtaposed, with the borders of Europe contiguous with those of Christianity.” Europe hasn’t just staked its identity on Christianity. Equally important is that it be considered an entity contradistinct from the Muslim world.

In the Middle Ages, cartographers excluded Muslim Spain from the European land mass. Iberia was only returned to the map after the expulsion of the Moors in 1492. This identity isn’t a vestige of Europe’s unenlightened past, either, but a trope that remains deeply entrenched. The future Pope Benedict’s comments about Europe’s status as a “cultural continent” reflect this, as do racist fears of Muslim immigrants turning Europe into “Eurabia.” The portmanteau speaks to the perceived intrinsic Christianity of Europe—a continent not overwhelmingly Christian must be, in the reactionary imagination, something other than Europe.

Europe’s southern boundary is the Mediterranean Sea, its eastern boundary is Russia’s Ural mountain range, and southeastern border is somewhere the Caucasus. Though all three are in the same small neighborhood, Armenia and Georgia are both historically Christian and Azerbaijan is predominantly Muslim. Even the names of Armenia and Georgia end with a Slavic-sounding –ia, while Azerbaijan has that Z in the front, and ends with a Turkic –Ʒan. As a consequence, Azerbaijan is uniquely excluded from the European club.’s Geography page reflects the difficult geographic taxonomy. An editor’s post on whether the three are in Europe or Asia garnered almost 450 comments. Most commenters probably don’t know about Spain going missing from medieval maps, but they’ve internalized the core message:

only Armenia and Georgia r Europeans

Although territorially Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia fall into Asia, the culture and life style of countries, especially in Armenia and Georgia is more European

I think Armenia and Georgia are part of Europe , because of Religion and social-political ties with rest of the European countries as well as cultures and ways , Azerbaijan and Turkey should be considered Asians

One commenter links to’s Europe page in order to help clarify, but the page only confuses Azerbaijan’s case further. Among the maps of Europe that include the Caucasus at all, half include all three Caucasian countries and half leave Azerbaijan out.

From Top row: Europe with Azerbaijan Bottom row: Europe without Azerbaijan

(From Top row: Europe with Azerbaijan
Bottom row: Europe without Azerbaijan

“Is Europe a home for an alliance of civilizations or is it a Christian club?” –Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

The first country to discover how seriously Europe takes its Christian identity even in the modern day was Azerbaijan’s historic ally, Turkey. In 1987, when Turkey began its formal application to the European Economic Community (the EU’s predecessor), it was a much different country. Between the 1980s and today, Turkey liberalized its democratic process, transitioned from a more state-run economy to a neoliberal one, and went to great lengths to fit within the Washington consensus. Journalist Stephen Kinzer credits Turkey with an ability to transform itself that few other countries possess.

However, EU accession talks sputtered in the 21st Century before more or less coming to a halt in recent years. The majority of EU citizens opposed to Turkey’s membership cite its human rights record, but there are more dynamics at work. Though Turkey imprisons record numbers of journalists, far fewer people lament assaults on press freedom when it happens in Europe. The rhetoric about Turkey’s immigrant threat is racialized–as all xenophobic panics are–and inextricably linked to Turkey’s Muslim status. Even within the EU, countries close to Turkey—and with large Muslim and Roma communities—are used as rhetorical punching bags in much the same way.

The Islamic crescent moon and star on the flags of Turkey (l) and Azerbaijan (r) are the cause of a lot of European anxiety.

The Islamic crescent moon and star on the flags of Turkey (l) and Azerbaijan (r) are the cause of a lot of European anxiety.

By contrast, the flag of neighboring Georgia has not 1, nor 2, but 5 crosses!

By contrast, the flag of neighboring Georgia has not 1, nor 2, but 5 crosses!

Centuries ago, “Turk” supplanted “Saracen” as the European epithet of choice to describe Muslims, or even dark-skinned immigrants in general. So though Turkey’s political situation may be singled out as disqualifying it from European status, the rhetoric towards it is unmistakably Othering. The religious component of Turkey’s rejection has lead Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to repeatedly accuse the EU of trying to remain a “Christian club.”

“There are still prejudiced people, [European] parliamentarians who do not accept Azerbaijan’s success.” –Heydar Aliyev

Azerbaijan remains an overtly totalitarian dictatorship under the Aliyev dynasty. International news got a good laugh in 2013 over Azerbaijan’s accidentally releasing presidential election results before voting had started, but the country’s repression is no laughing matter. For his part, Aliyev grumbles about politicians unjustly attacking his country—the classic internet-era tactic of blaming a cadre of one’s haters.

Europe is very effective at playing the enlightened bastion of pluralist democracy, but friction over Azerbaijan’s record gives the EU more credit than it deserves. In 2014, Azerbaijan is chairing the Council of Europe despite its human rights record. To say nothing of the European right, the European center counts Christian-supremacist war criminals and warmongering neoliberal creeps among its most celebrated leaders. Autocrats in the classic totalitarian style just don’t sell well at home, they make for bad optics. They’re detrimental to Europe’s branding—after all, this is a continent that sells itself on having only one remaining dictatorship.

oil derrickHowever, they’re great for business. In a continent where tens of thousands of people freeze to death each winter, one of the biggest businesses is oil and gas. Consequently, some of Europe’s coziest foreign relations are with autocrats who keep the taps open. Americans think of Europe as a bastion of enlightenment values and full-frontal nudity, but tell that to the house of Saud, or Gerbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan, current owner of the world’s tallest flagpole. Even Aleksander Lukashenko, Europe’s last dictator himself, enjoys EU support because of his good terms with the continent’s oligarchs. So if Azerbaijan is looking to eke its way into Europe, it stands a decent chance. Fortunately for Azerbaijan—and the EU—it’s flush with oil and wealth and looking for its ticket in.

Gold, both the traditional and black varieties, can buy a country anything. Azerbaijan found this out once already, after a diplomatic incident that sounds like something dreamt up by Robert Rodriguez. In 2004, at a NATO “Partnership for Peace” course in Hungary, an Azeri army lieutenant named Ramil Safarov was taking part in a course alongside several Armenian classmates. After enduring days of what he later told police were taunts from the Armenian servicemembers, Safarov bought an axe and beheaded Lt. Gurgen Makarian as the Armenian slept.

The incident so inflamed tensions between the two rivals that the Armenian president declared that “we don’t want a war, but if we have to, we’ll fight and we’ll win.” However, in Washington and Brussels’ eyes, Azerbaijan has more going for it than Armenia. In addition to the $35 billion in gas contracts with Anglo-American corporations, its hydrocarbon wealth provides a means for the West to undercut Russia and Iran. Based on this, a cabal of PNAC Neocons and old-school liberal hawk Russophobes spent the 2000s lustily building up up Azerbaijan–like so many of the 21st century’s problems, it’s largely Dick Cheney’s fault.

Eight years after his imprisonment, Safarov was released and repatriated on the promise that he would serve out the remaining 25 more years of his sentence–and a rumored Azeri deal to buy billions in Hungarian government bonds. Upon his return, he was promoted, awarded eight years of back pay, and celebrated as a national hero.

“Clearly what we are trying to achieve is…a country perceived as European.” –Andrew Craig

Beyond ingratiating itself in the stodgy, beige councils of Brussels or the sexier endeavor of beheading with impunity, Azerbaijan has devoted a lot of resources to host Europe’s biggest events. The most lavish spending has gone to conquering the quintessential European institution: the Eurovision song contest.

Eurovision’s entrants also reflect the continent’s unspoken “cultural” boundaries. Israel has won the Eurovision contest three times, and Australia competed for the first time in 2014. To be fair, Morocco competed in 1980—but maybe, coming 5 years after the Kingdom’s invasion and annexation of Western Sahara, Europe saw a kindred spirit in the putative African colonial power.

Since joining the annual, four-day long contest to discover Europe’s kitschiest pop song in 2008, Azerbaijan has become Eurovision’s most zealous participant. The country outspends every other participant, millions of which go to hiring professional musicians to ensure pop music glory. Baku gets a good return on their investment: their contestants have cracked the final four every year between 2008 and 2014. After Azerbaijan’s Eli & Nikki won in 2011, the two singers were immortalized on stamps. The next year, having received hosting duties, they spent over €120 million constructing Baku’s Crystal Hall. Construction of the arena, by Presidential decree, appropriated tens of millions of Manat from ongoing water purification efforts.


Inside Baku’s Crystal Hall for Eurovision 2012. Courtesy Zeljko Joksimovic Flickr CC

With all this money being spent, the Aliyev administration leaves nothing to chance. In 2014, Azerbaijan was threatened with a three-year ban on suspicion of vote-rigging. The year that Bulgaria and Cyprus couldn’t afford to enter the contest at all, suspicious voting behavior indicated that Azerbaijan’s multi-million Eurovision budget wasn’t going entirely to hiring Scandinavian songwriters. Buying votes to win Eurovision is considered relatively unusual. The last country to be accused of the illicit practice was Francisco Franco’s Spain in 1968. As the European Economic Community and NATO expanded across the continent, El Caudillo sought to burnish his country’s reputation with a Eurovision win.

Baku is currently gearing up to host the first European games—a new, transcontinental sporting event for which the country is building a $640 million “Olympic stadium.” An Azeri banking coalition says that the country will spend at least US $1.25 billion to host the 2015 games. To be held every 5 years, Azerbaijan is buying itself a place in European history—all the statements from both Aliyev and European Olympic officials herald the event’s historic nature. One of Azerbaijan’s advisors explained as much during a panel on European sports, saying “It was very important for Baku and Azerbaijan to position themselves as part of Europe, and there’s probably not a finer way of doing that than by hosting the European Games.”

For a country spending so much to be perceived as European, it’s remarkable how cool they’re playing it. Azerbaijani politicians talk about relationships, partnerships, and bilateral ties, but don’t protest too much about how European they are. Typical regime decrees about the nation’s glory and progress call it a regional leader in Transcaucasia, rather than make a lot of noise about a European future.

In Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality, Eco describes the unique tourist attractions of New Orleans. Where other cities affect a tone of breathless enthusiasm to hype their local history, New Orleans is relatively subdued. With a surfeit of real history, the city doesn’t need to sell itself with Barnum-esque zeal. Azerbaijan is in a similar position of not having to manufacture the element it needs. On the level of public perception, the country is engaged in a grand project to reshape its image. On the level of international relations, though, the republic doesn’t have to pursue anything. As long as they keep the pumps going, Europe will come to them.


One response to “Can Azerbaijan Buy Its Way Into Europe?

  1. “Azerbaijan has so much oil that one of their main attractions is bathing tourists in it.” nice.

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