For many Azerbaijan will always remain only the lucky winner of one single edition of Eurovision
It was a bemused reaction that was repeated over and over in living rooms across Europe’s western seaboard during the voting of the recent final of the Eurovision – “where is Azerbaijan?” As the odd flag with the strange spelling refused to be shifted from the top of the leader board the questions continued. For many Azerbaijan will always remain the lucky winner of one single edition of Eurovision, but in reality the country has a long established relationship with Europe.
Azerbaijan is a central Asian ex-Soviet republic that lives in the shadows of a resurgent Russia and to a lesser extent, a rapidly expanding China. Their efforts at success in the Eurovision merely represent the tip of the ice berg of their own and their neighbours in the South Caucasus attempts to reorientate their foreign policy toward Europe.
While the country is clearly not eligible for EU membership under the 1992 Copenhagen criteria, it forms part of the EU’s “European Neighbourhood Policy” and as such receives generous amounts of aid from the European tax payer.
The Azeri position on Europe cannot however, be described as an impoverished nation in search of free lunch. Indeed, the region at large has a growing trade surplus with the Union. A shocking statistic that underly’s this is that just under 99% of Azeri exports into Europe are made up of oil and gas. In the light of an increasingly unstable energy market, the advantages of good trade relations for the EU are therefore quiet obvious to see. Furthermore, with the region’s share of EU trade standing at a mere 0.5% at the moment, the potential for growth cannot be understated.
Diplomatically, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia cannot be blamed for seeking European friendship. The events of the last few years show that the Russian Federation is still not shy about throwing it’s weight around in the region and the desire that is common in ex-Soviet republics to escape Russian influence is particularly strong here.
So in light of the fact that these republics are all ineligible for membership of the Union by virtue of their status as Asian countries, what is next for EU relations with the Caucasus? The strong will in this part of the world to trade with the west presents itself as an opportunity for Europe to expand the reach of it’s values. In the immediate future, the likely, though by no means certain, hosting of the Eurovision next year in Baku will invariably raise questions about the region’s lack lustre record on gay rights and civil liberties in general as it did in Moscow in 2009. Nominally speaking, the country is a functioning parliamentary democracy but international observers such as the European Parliament and the council of Europe frequently raise concerns about the legitimacy of these elections.
Future trade agreements, however lucrative for Europe should have some basic commitment, albeit token, to improve this. The country should be further exposed to European culture and ideas as undoubted they will be via their hosting of Eurovision next year.