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Saturday 24 February 2018

Flash cars, gleaming buildings -- but it's just an illusion

Ken Sweeney

Ken Sweeney

"IT'S not as good as it looks." This is what the Scottish oil worker told me when I met him in the lift at my hotel.

He was talking about Azerbaijan, the real country, which exists outside the capital Baku. He was right. Everywhere you look in the host city for the Eurovision, you see gleaming new buildings. But, look a little closer, and you notice many are just facades.

Things only started to unravel when I noticed my driver rolling down the window to ask strangers for directions.

"Oh that's because most of the taxi drivers don't know the place. They come from Georgia, not here. They've been brought in specially for Eurovision with the new taxis from London," one ex-pat said.

To most of Europe it's "only a singing contest", but the Azarbaijani government has let nothing get in its way to stage the competition after winning the contest in Dusseldorf, Germany, last year.

Bulldozed

The official Eurovision venue -- the Crystal Hall -- is at the centre of the controversy. Once a block of communist-era flats, they were bulldozed to make way for the new 23,000 capacity venue, with residents saying they only received a fraction of what their homes were worth.

In last night's first semi-final you would have heard the host calling Azerbaijan the "most Eastern part of Europe".

But located on the western shores of the Caspian Sea, not many European countries have Iran for a neighbour.

If anything, Azerbaijan more closely resembles North Korea than Europe, with huge squares and massive pictures of a former leader Heydar Aliyev on display everywhere.

But unlike North Korea, this former Soviet Republic is oil-rich and the roads are full of luxury cars.

Interviewed by local TV, I was asked would I return to Azerbaijan after Eurovision.

Locals fear that once Eurovision packs up, the lights over Baku will go out as quickly as they came on.

Irish Independent

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