My friend David was woken up at 3am this morning by cheering crowds in the streets of central Baku. At first he thought that maybe war had been declared against the old enemy Armenia, then as he turned on the TV the reason for the celebration became clear. Azerbaijan had won the Eurovision international song competition. For my American readers and those unacquainted with Eurovision, I had better give a quick bit of background to explain why a simple song competition holds such significance for Azerbaijan…
The contest began with the brainchild of Marcel Bezencon of the European Broadcasting Union back in May 1956, where seven nations participated. At that time, the objective was to test the limits of international broadcasting but over time, the competition has taken on iconic significance and provided an opportunity to demonstrate national prowess in a way usually associated with world sporting competitions.
As the contest progressed, the rules grew increasingly complex and participation levels rose to pass forty nations at the end of the 20th Century. In 2011, forty-three countries competed against each other, including many countries that lie outside of the European Union. These now include places like Georgia, Moldova and Azerbaijan.
It is also one of the most-watched competitions in the world, with audience figures estimated as high as 600 million. Superbowl 2010 by comparison, was watched by just 93 million viewers.
Eurovision has been broadcast outside Europe to such places as Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Egypt, India, Japan, Jordan, Mexico, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Uruguay despite the fact that they do not compete. This gives the competition a significance for a small, fairly obscure country like Azerbaijan that goes well beyond that of a simple song contest.
“It’s a great victory for Azerbaijani culture,” said a report by the public broadcaster after Ell and Nikki’s English-language love song “Running Scared” was voted the best of 25 competitors selected to perform at the final in Dusseldorf, Germany.
“Around 800 million people live in Europe; we were able to show them our culture and now we will be able to show them our traditions,” it continued.
The victory is even more stunning when you consider that Azerbaijan only entered the contest for the first time in 2008.
The competition will be significant for the winning duo Eldar Gasimov  and Nigar Jamal  who will no doubt seek to capitalize on their success by launching international singing careers. The win will though, have far greater importance for Azerbaijan.
For the first time since independence from the Soviet Union and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia in the early 1990’s, Azerbaijan have the spotlight of the world firmly focussed on the country.
Last year, when I told people that I was relocating to Azerbaijan the usual reaction was “Azerbaijan, is that a country?” That will change with this victory and even more so next year when Baku will host the 2012 competition.
Not only will Azerbaijan host delegations from forty-plus countries across Europe and accrue significant revenue from television advertising, it will more significantly raise its profile on the world stage as a major oil and gas supplier to Europe and beyond and as a potential tourist destination. Given that currently 95% of Azerbaijan’s GDP relates to the petrochemical industry and the oil and gas reserves have a life expectancy of only 20 to 40 years http://opennet.net/research/profiles/azerbaijan , this is increasingly important.
Let us hope that all this attention opens up Azerbaijan to the world and develops new social, political, economic and cultural links that will bring it into the mainstream of European life.