Azerbaijan is in the running to host an event called the World Expo in 2025. In competition with Yekaterinburg and Osaka, this spring Baku will try to demonstrate to an international delegation why it’s the ideal setting for the international gathering. Set to last six months, requiring massive construction and investment in infrastructure, the Expo is likely to cost billions. As the campaign heats up, Meydan TV asked the question, what exactly is EXPO 2025, and how will it affect Azerbaijanis if Baku triumphs?
The World Expo is organized by a Paris-based intergovernmental organization called the Bureau International des Expositions, or BIE, which counts 170 countries as members (Azerbaijan has been a member since 2008). The most recent World Expos were in Hannover in 2000, Shanghai in 2010, and Milan in 2015, and preparations have long been underway for the next one in Dubai in 2020.
Baku is in the running to host World Expo 2025, in competition with cities in Japan and Russia. The original front-runner, Paris, seems to have dropped out due to financial concerns about the project. Now most observers predict that Osaka will be the winner, but anything could happen. After an evaluation process carried out this year, the BIE will meet to vote in November 2018.
Baku has served as the site of a string of international gatherings in recent years, mostly sporting events (the European Games and Formula 1, for example) as well as Eurovision in 2012. The Expo is not really a competition, though, and it is not so easily defined. This is how BIE’s official website describes the events:
An Expo is a global event that aims at educating the public, sharing innovation, promoting progress and fostering cooperation. It is organized by a host country that invites other countries, companies, international organisations, the private sector, the civil society and the general public to participate. Due to the diversity of its participants, from top decision makers to children, Expos offer a multifaceted event where extraordinary exhibitions, diplomatic encounters, business meetings, public debates and live shows take place at the same time.
Should you peruse the BIE’s site, you will find additional characterizations, each more ambitious than the last. World Expos, we are told, “have become discussion platforms aimed at finding solutions to universal challenges of our time,” while Specialised Expos “are global events dedicated to finding solutions to precise challenges of humanity.” If the mental image that such descriptions conjure is a bit hazy, one thing at least is clear: this is no Formula 1.
The concept of the Expos becomes immediately apparent, however, if you simply visit one. At EXPO 2017 in Astana, Azerbaijan’s pavilion, which took home the silver medal for design, featured installations dedicated to “the country's rich historical values, the rock paintings of Gobustan, masterpieces of the architecture of old and new Baku.” Despite another area of the pavilion with information about traditional and alternative energy sources, the overall impression was of a very elaborate tourism ad or, as yet another section of the BIE’s website puts it, “a tool for nation branding and development.”
"EXPO 2017 ASTANA" YouTube channel
Each city that wishes to participate first submits a bid, including a proposed theme and a site for the venue. Osaka, Japan has proposed an Expo focusing on “Designing Future Society for Our Lives” to be held on Yumeshima (“Dream”) Island, a man-made island which the city is looking to develop. Meanwhile, Yekaterinbug, Russia has chosen as its theme “Changing the World: Innovations and Better Life for Future Generations,” for which a venue is to be built three kilometers from the city center in the Ural Mountains.
Baku’s bid was first presented in May 2017 at BIE’s 161st General Assembly by Azerbaijan’s then Ambassador to France, Elchin Amirbayov. Under the overarching theme of “Developing Human Capital, Building a Better Future,” a Baku-hosted Expo will explore “how human ability, in all its forms, can be best applied across all aspects of society for the benefit of everyone.” To facilitate this exploration, Azerbaijan proposes to construct a venue on 250 hectares (2.5km2) of undeveloped land just east of Baku on the Absheron Peninsula. The venue’s design, based on traditional Azerbaijani carpet patterns, features a series of pavilions and parks with the Azerbaijan National Pavilion at the center. The site “will be transformed into a major extension of the city with a fully integrated transport infrastructure,” which “can be easily converted to a natural park at the end of the Expo.” The event is planned to run from 10 May-10 November, 2025.
"Expo 2025 Azerbaijan Baku" YouTube channel
Now with all the bids submitted, the Project Examination Phase has begun. This spring, a BIE delegation will arrive in Baku to evaluate Azerbaijan’s bid according to criteria such as the suitability of the proposed site, the project’s financial feasibility, its environmental impact, and public support. In response to a query from Meydan TV, the BIE Secretariat explained that, to determine the level of public support for the project, the evaluation will take into account “the attitude of citizens towards the project as well as special interest groups that have expressed opinions about the proposed Expo.” And while organizers have not published a budget proposal yet, the BIE will be considering “the different means of financing and the expected financial results.”
Azerbaijan launched its campaign in earnest in November, when First Lady and First Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva personally presented the bid at a gala reception in Paris. Vice President Aliyeva told the delegation that Azerbaijan is a secure and stable country with extensive experience in hosting high-caliber international events. She assured the BIE that Azerbaijan is “ready to allocate all the necessary funds for the site’s construction and operation as well as to support the participation of developing countries.” Should the BIE’s member states choose Baku as the location of EXPO 2025, it “would be another recognition of our achievements during the 26 years of independence.”
On 24 January, former Ambassador to France and now Head of Baku Expo 2025 Taskforce, Elchin Amirbayov, presented the bid again to a high-powered audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Meanwhile, Azerbaijani diplomats, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs himself, have been promoting Baku’s candidacy to the president of Croatia, the foreign ministers of Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Finland, and many others. In December, a special presentation of the bid was made to Azerbaijan’s diplomatic corps to coordinate lobbying efforts.
But despite energetic diplomacy from official Baku, Azerbaijan is seen by most as the underdog. At the outset, the strongest candidate was Paris, home of the BIE itself. Paris submitted a bid last year with a proposed budget of 3.5 billion euros and launched a major lobbying campaign. In November 2017, France brought 100 young people from 70 countries to Paris for five days to make them official ambassadors of France’s World Expo bid. Pascal Lamy, former head of the World Trade Organization, traveled to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Qatar, and beyond, drumming up support. All that changed, however, on 21 January, when the French press reported that Prime Minister Edouard Philippe wrote a letter to the French Expo committee withdrawing Paris’s bid due to financial concerns. The president of the committee, Jean-Christophe Fromantin, said he learned of the decision from a tweet, and accused the Prime Minister of “cowardice” and “disloyalty.” Despite an ongoing campaign to reinstate France’s bid, as it stands now, Paris is no longer in the running.
With Paris’s exit, Osaka became the favorite, but organizers are leaving nothing to chance. The Kansai Economic Federation (Osaka is part of Japan’s Kansai region - Meydan TV) plans to open an office in Paris to lobby BIE member states in the organization’s backyard. Osaka governor Ichiro Matsui is counting on “the influence of Japan’s corporate world” to attract votes from developing countries in Africa, a continent which accounts for 49 votes. On 29 November, the Japanese foreign minister appointed well-known cartoon characters Pikachu and Hello Kitty as Osaka’s official Expo ambassadors.
Like Baku, Yekaterinburg is thought to be unlikely to win. Although both Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and even President Vladimir Putin himself have reportedly been talking up Russia’s bid with their foreign counterparts, the campaign is not on the same scale as Osaka’s.
The winner will be chosen by a majority vote of member states at a General Assembly of the BIE on 15 November. Although Baku is not currently expected to take the prize, it is still in the game and anything could happen. Osaka could simply exit the competition as suddenly as Paris has done already. And even if Baku loses the campaign to host the World Expo, it may be granted one of the somewhat smaller Specialized Expos as consolation, like the one held last year in Astana. Bakuvians will have to wait until November to find out.
EXPO 2025 Baku
2025 is still a long way away, and Baku’s bid is not a sure thing, but it is worthwhile for Azerbaijanis to begin to consider the possibility of hosting the Expo during the evaluation phase of the candidacies. The BIE has stated that it will consider “the attitude of citizens towards the project as well as special interest groups that have expressed opinions about the proposed Expo.” That means that the public needs to be informed and special interest groups from civil society must begin to formulate opinions.
Hosting a World Expo is a very expensive endeavor. As First Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva stated in her speech in November, if Baku’s bid is successful, Azerbaijan is “ready to allocate all the necessary funds for the site’s construction and operation as well as to support the participation of developing countries.” Paris’s proposed budget was 3.5 billion euros, which would have actually made it much more economical than other recent World Expos. The total budget of EXPO 2015 in Milan was 14 billion euros, and EXPO 2010 in Shanghai set an all-time record, with organizers spending $60 billion on the event. Even EXPO 2017 in Astana, a “smaller” Specialized Expo, cost by the lowest estimates at least $1.3 billion, and perhaps well over $3 billion. Meydan TV asked economist Toghrul Mashalli why, in his opinion, Azerbaijani authorities are bidding to host such an expensive event.
According to Mashalli, the Expo is "it's a chance for a year at least to grab the international spotlight."
"One could assume that this is some kind of an attempt at self-affirmation," Mashalli said. "After all, the crisis [in 2015 Azerbaijan’s currency lost half its value - Meydan TV] and a lot of other things have seriously damaged Azerbaijan’s image and the overall state of the government. They couldn't host the Olympic games. They established the European Games, but they were not the thundering success [organizers] had expected them to be, but were overshadowed by a profound economic crisis, the discontent of the population and many other things."
"At the same time, there is purportedly an economic incentive involved here," the economist continued. "After all, EXPO attracts fairly many people and investments. The construction of the site itself and its operation can bring at least some revival to the country. The so-called strategy for the creation of different road maps has not lived up to expectations simply because nobody implements them, while hosting an EXPO will bring revival for at least a whole year to many sectors of the economy and will make it possible to increase the number of real jobs. And, as the government usually hopes, attract tourists."
The proposed Expo venue in Absheron is intended to become “a major extension of the city,” and possibly a “natural park.” Based on the experience of previous Expo hosts, we asked Toghrul Mashalli what the site could offer for Baku’s residents after the tourists leave.
"The area used for an EXPO will be hard to use for anything else," Mashalli told Meydan TV. "Both in Milan and Astana, they couldn’t think of anything better than to plan the creation of different parks in those areas. In Astana, they plan different centers, technoparks, etc, while in Milan, along with a recreation and entertainment center, the organizers are working on individual areas to make them suitable for research centers. In Milan, that's somewhat promising but things will be more difficult in Azerbaijan, where science does not actually develop that much while techno- and other parks created are technoparks in name only and have nothing to do with their intended purpose. Therefore, I believe that the results of this project will be the same as all the rest."
In addition, Azerbaijani Expo organizers promise a major transportation infrastructure project connecting the Expo site to Baku. According to Mashalli, “there still remain large parts of Baku that are not very well connected to the center of the city by transport", and investments in transportation infrastructure made in preparation for previous international events brought minimal benefits to Baku’s residents. “The transport infrastructure built (new exits, expanded roads) have not facilitated economic development in any way, because they were mostly aimed at providing a convenient way of getting athletes to sports facilities which are not connected to the city's economic regions. Even the development of the railway transport within the city is going at a fairly slow pace and it is still impossible to make it a kind of transport that people living in the suburbs would be able to use.”
Azerbaijan’s Expo committee has not responded to Meydan TV’s requests for comment.
As the campaign continues, Meydan TV will be following.