Preparations for the 57th Eurovision Song Contest have reached a fever pitch in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku.
Finishing touches are being put on the venue, local streets are undergoing a scrupulous cleanup, and the city has become the focus of numerous pop songs celebrating its charms
Azerbaijan has also crossed a critical milestone in the run-up to its hosting of the contest. In a high-wattage ceremony on January 25, Baku Mayor Hajibala Abutalibov accepted the symbolic key to the contest from last year's host, his Duesseldorf counterpart, Dirk Elsbers.
The country also unveiled the logo for this year's contest -- a flaming red flower accompanied by the slogan "Light Your Fire!"
Sietse Bakker, the event supervisor for the Eurovision competition who was in Baku for the unveiling, said the logo is "absolutely beautiful."
"I think this is a very modern representation of the Eurovision Song Contest," Bakker said. "And I actually think this may be the best theme arc, and the best slogan, that we've ever had for Eurovision."
New Arena, Visa Requirements
There is more to Azerbaijan's Eurovision requirements than logos and keys.
Bakker and other Eurovision authorities have also given the nod to the German-built Crystal Hall, the massive, 23,000-seat arena that will serve as the venue for the 43-country extravaganza. (Azerbaijan's historic neighbor-antagonist, Armenia, is among the contestants, Bakker said.)
And the Azerbaijani government has taken steps to streamline visa requirements in a bid to tempt more Eurovision fans to make the trip to their country. Bakker said the changes were due to be announced in a matter of weeks.
Ticket prices for the event also remain undecided. Such variables, together with visa and hotel logistics, may affect how many foreign Eurovision fans travel to Baku. Bakker said, however, that he is confident that "thousands" of people will travel to Azerbaijan for the event.
Oil-rich Azerbaijan is rumored to be spending upward of $1 billion on massive construction projects and PR campaigns ahead of the contest, which is seen as a golden opportunity to boost the country's standing on the world stage.
Bakker said talks are ongoing on the song contest's budget, which must be formally approved by Eurovision authorities. But he said lavish projects like the Crystal Hall are not considered a Eurovision-related expense.
"The construction work that is going on in Baku, including the construction of the Crystal Hall, is part of a much greater plan of improvement of the city, which is not connected at all to the Eurovision Song Contest," Bakker said.
Baku's high-profile role as Eurovision host has also raised questions about its human rights record, particularly President Ilham Aliyev's continuing crackdown on the media and public protests.
Bakker said Eurovision organizers "do not connect the contest to any political goals." But he hopes the international attention focused on Azerbaijan in the coming months will help local NGOs and journalists gain a stronger foothold at home.
"This is an opportunity for the people of Azerbaijan to show their country to the rest of Europe," Bakker said. "And if any media attention focused on Azerbaijani will contribute to improvements in Azerbaijan, that is, of course, very welcome. But that initiative is with the media, not with us."
written by Daisy Sindelar, based on reporting by Kenan Aliyev