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Azerbaijan: Douze points for its scenery, nul points for democracy

When it comes to dubious rezonings, Ireland's politicians can't hold a candle to the masterminds behind the Eurovision Song Contest, who have steadily expanded their patch of the Global Village to the most far-fetched corners of the world.

At the end of May the Eurovision circus will hoist its tent in Baku, capital of faraway Azerbaijan. Ireland's two-time contestants Jedward face a marathon trek of over 4,300km to a country which is proudly known to most of its mainly Muslim inhabitants as part of traditional Greater Iran.

But while the cultural gaze of rural Azerbaijan is south towards Tehran, the upwardly mobile youth of Baku and the oiligarchs who built the capital's space-age skyline are firmly focused on the West.

When Azerbaijan won Eurovision last year at only the fourth attempt, singers Eldar and Nigar insisted it was a childhood dream come true, however unlikely that may seem given the long-standing assumption that they lived in the heart of Persia.

Baku has seized on its prize as Eurovision host to put the city, the country and its ruling regime in the shop-window for Western investment and tourism. But should we buy the sales pitch?

European Credentials

To the untrained map-reading eye, it seems obvious that Azerbaijan, nuzzling the banks of the Caspian Sea, is a part of Europe in the sense that Boston is a part of Ireland. Only less so. It's so distant that Ireland's embassy is based in Turkey, roughly halfway there.

Score: Nul points.

Human Rights

In 2001 Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe, a body separate from the EU with a very permissive membership policy.

Dedicated to promoting human rights and democracy, the Council has had a severely limited impact on post-Soviet Azerbaijan which shares with North Korea features such as heavy media censorship and a strongman ruler who got his job from his dad.

Score: Nul points.

What's Another Year?

In the year since winning the right to host Eurovision, the authorities have been engaged in the forced 'beautification' of Baku.

While BBC radio is blocked, a thousand London black cabs have been imported for the influx of visitors, but behind the scenes hundreds of families have been ruthlessly uprooted to make way for a purpose-built 25,000-seater stadium.

The fast-tracked makeover of the city has caused other hardships such as regular power cuts in this oil and gas-rich state.

Score: Nul points.

Will Eurovision Help?

Before handing Baku the gig, Eurovision's promoters extracted a pledge that freedom of speech would be extended to all participants and visiting media.

Amnesty International pointed out that this didn't stretch to the native media, including bloggers who are routinely hauled in to 'help police with their inquiries'. However, human rights activists reject a boycott, arguing that the media glare will highlight the pressing need for regime reform.

Score: 6 points (maybe).

Following Jedward To The Ends Of The Earth

Walled in by gleaming modern Baku is an ancient city well worth exploring, as are the villages of the surrounding countryside which have remained largely untouched by the passing of millennia.

If the people seem cold initially, that's because smiling at strangers is considered bad manners. Smiles are reserved for family and friends, so officials, shop assistants and TV hosts can look unintentionally grim.

As un-European as the location, social etiquette dictates you don't blow your nose or pick your teeth while eating, you don't show the soles of your feet while sitting, and you never touch anyone without permission.

Remember above all else to never speak ill of President Ilham Aliyev and how he succeeded his all-powerful father through the pretence of democratic elections.

In fact, don't say anything negative about the entire Aliyev family as you could land in trouble. In 2009 two youngsters got four years in jail for depicting the ruler as a monkey on YouTube.

Score: 1 point (for the nose-blowing rule).

Indo Review