This month Azerbaijan is hosting the Eurovision Song Contest 2012 under the motto ‘Light Your Fire!’ in Baku, its capital city. The victory by Azerbaijan’s duo, Ell and Nikki, in last year’s Eurovision Song Contest has helped put the country on map. This outstanding result was followed by wide spread national pride and excitement, and indeed, the people of Azerbaijan are looking forward to this year’s great festival of culture.
The Eurovision Song Contest was created as a cultural instrument to reunite the European people after the end of World War Two. The notion of the universality of music can be seen throughout the history of the Eurovision Song Contest. In fact, over the years it has served as an arena above politics, attracting millions of viewers from both sides of the Iron Wall. Therefore, last year’s Eurovision win helped Azerbaijan to reconnect culturally with Europe after 70 years of disconnection. As I always say, culture and face-to-face interaction can often contribute more to bringing people together than just political ties. Azerbaijan’s victory and hosting of Eurovision will undoubtedly help us to increase awareness about my country, but it will also strengthen our commitment to being a valuable member of the European family of nations.
However, the Eurovision win was international recognition of Azerbaijan’s rich music traditions. Alongside its traditional music called Mugham, Azerbaijan has also developed strong traditions of classical, pop and jazz music over the years. It is home to the first opera house and the first symphonic orchestra in the Muslim world. Azerbaijani music has also achieved further international recognition with legendary Mugham singer, Alim Gasimov, who has performed all over the world, including numerous times in London.
Azerbaijan also takes pride in being the first country in the Muslim world to establish democracy back in 1918. Though it was a short-lived experience, the foundation it established helped Azerbaijan to proceed down a democratic path after regaining its independence in 1991.
Azerbaijan is also known for its centuries-old tradition of multi-faith communities co-existing; Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities have all lived together in peace and friendship for centuries. Following our independence, my country further invested in this by hosting international conferences on intercultural awareness and dialogue. Indeed, Azerbaijan has both the potential and ambition to become a cultural hub for intercultural dialogue and cooperation.
So what kind of country will tourists find when they travel to Baku this month? Since 1991, much has changed in Azerbaijan: it has successfully transformed itself from a post-Soviet country to a fast-paced, modern and vibrant society. Its capital is probably one of the fastest-transforming cities in the world. It is safe, clean and beautiful and its people are well-known for their hospitality. Often hosting international sporting and cultural events, the World Wrestling Championships, Gabala International Music Festival (where London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performed in 2010) and Baku International Jazz Festival are just few on an ever-increasing list of international events held in Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan has been actively preparing to host 2012’s Eurovision Song Contest since last May. Following Azerbaijan’s victory, an Organising Committee was established and various arrangements have been put in place in order to facilitate the hosting of the event in close coordination with the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). This year’s Eurovision will be held in the newly built Baku Crystal Hall. Built specifically as a venue for the contest, once completed, the Crystal Hall will be the biggest sports and concert venue in the whole South Caucasus. (It is also among the list of venues for Baku’s bid to host the Olympic Games in 2020.) In line with EBU requirements, a range of steps have been taken to upgrade the infrastructure, including communication technologies, accommodation of guests and participants and transport facilities. The visa procedures have also been simplified to ensure that all contestants and visitors get Azerbaijani visas easily and quickly.
I’d like to take this opportunity to invite Eurovision fans from the UK and Europe, along with tourists from all over the world, to come to Azerbaijan to see with their own eyes the transformation that has occurred in the country. Indeed, acting as the host of this great European festival provides my country with a unique opportunity to represent its values and culture to the outside world. I am sure that Eurovision fans and watchers will observe a truly fascinating and unforgettable experience. As the old expression says: better to see once than to hear a hundred times. And as we say in Azerbaijan: Azərbaycana xoş gəlmisiniz! Welcome to Azerbaijan!