Sharing the vision

Image: Vugar Ibadov

THE EUROVISION final was broadcast to a global viewing audience last weekend. All eyes were on Azerbaijan and many observers were suitably impressed by Baku’s “Dubai-on-the-Caspian” boomtown persona. Its combination of belle-époque architecture, the remains of the Shirvanshah’s palace complex and futuristic new constructions is certainly one out of the box. A neon-lit promenade, fireworks displays and the specially built Eurovision venue, Crystal Hall, hovering on land reclaimed from the Caspian, were undoubtedly breath taking. Get ready for an Azerbaijani post-Eurovision tourism bounce. Perhaps…

When you think about it, Crystal Hall shimmering out in the inky Caspian is about as far as you can possibly travel on the Continent and still claim to be in Europe. Across the water is Turkmenistan, and just south is Iran, hardly anyone’s conception of Europe…

It was Azerbaijan’s human rights record, however, that drew more commentary. The Aliyev regime, in power since just after the country wriggled free of the Soviet embrace, has long been accused of cronyism, corruption, suppression of civil and democratic rights and curtailing press freedoms.

Notable too, although little commented upon in the Western media, was the withdrawal of the Armenian contingent from the Eurovision contest. Armenia and Azerbaijan, of course, were at loggerheads during the war for Nagorno-Karabagh at the end of the Soviet era, and although a peace agreement was signed tensions between the two remain palpable. While the premise of this blog is to highlight instances where different peoples come together to create heady bricolages of culture/art/imagination/communal endeavour, it is sometimes the case that the figurative Gypsy wants to have nothing to do with the figurative Kurd, that all they have in common is bad blood. Nationalistic invective on both sides of this Caucasian conundrum continues to be the norm, which is hardly the stuff of the fraternal relations that are supposed to lie at the core of the Eurovision enterprise.

But nor is it necessarily proof of any so-called ‘ancient hatreds’. Armenians and Azeris have lived together for nigh on a millennia, since the time when the first Turkic groups arrived in this corner of Eurasia. In fact the Caucasus has seen communal commingling since the year dot, and aside from repeated imperial expansions and contractions which have seen considerable bloodshed amongst military combatants, there has been remarkably little inter-ethnic strife at a community level… all things considered. The classic novel Ali & Nino details a fictional love story between an Azeri and a Georgian in early-20th century Baku, painting a picture, based on the author’s first-hand experience, of a cosmopolitan city without any signs of ethnic tension.

Molla Nasreddin, the great satirical magazine created in Azerbaijan at the turn of the 20th century, addressed concerns of Armenian-Azeri tension even in those days, but its position was clear. In a florid cartoon for which the periodical was famed, identically clad and indistinguishable Armenian and Azeri villagers are at each other’s throats at the instigation of a red-horned devil, but soon realise their similarities and collapse into a brotherly embrace. There’s little hope of that these days, of course.

The very existence of Molla Nasreddin from 1906 until 1930 was indicative of a very different political and cultural milieu in Azerbaijan at that time. Then an outspoken Azeri intelligentsia was at the forefront of reformist movements in the then-Russian empire. The magazine was satirical in bent, addressing issues such as social inequalities, the emancipation of women, the prevalence of superstition and religious conservatism throughout Eurasia, the need for educational reform, the need for a free press, and the struggle against European and Russian hegemony. In some regards this was a forward-looking era, one of optimism, when the educated classes were advocating change and highlighting the opportunities that social and political reform would bring. (You can read my review of a recent compilation of the artistic works from Molla Nasreddin here.)

Not much came of all this high-minded satire, then. A friend, a regular visitor to Azerbaijan, tells me that local wags say that Molla Nasreddin would still be highly pertinent – not to say contentious – reading in modern Baku, but that in the current political climate there’s no way the government would allow it to be published. Eurovision, with its glitz and neon and hedonism, is one of the trappings of modernity that the current regime will allow, but social openness and political pluralism are something different entirely.