Can Eurovision Succeed Where Diplomacy Has Failed?
Azerbaijan’s victory at this year’s annual Eurovision Song Contest in Dusseldorf, Germany, offers some activists reason for hope, but also raises concerns.
Love it or loathe it, the Eurovision Song Contest, an annual international music competition held with the participation of the member countries of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), is anything but boring. Since Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia entered what was often more memorable for its kitsch entries, political intrigues have often defined the event rather than its actual purpose of bringing nations together. True, it has always had its fair share of controversy, with Lebanon forced to pull out of the competition in 2005 after it refused to broadcast Israel’s entry, but regional rivalries in the South Caucasus have taken what must seem to an international television audience as nothing more than petty squabbling to new and higher levels.
In 2009, for example, Georgia had no choice but to pull out as well after its entry, a song seen by many to be mocking Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, was considered “too political,” but the main controversies have nearly always involved Armenia and Azerbaijan. Locked in a bitter conflict over the disputed territory of Karabakh, which saw over 25,000 killed and a million forced to flee from their homes, tensions remain high since the 1994 cease-fire. An arms build-up, tensions on the line of contact which often result in cross-border skirmishes, a peace process which has virtually stalled, and bellicose rhetoric even led the International Crisis Group earlier this year to warn of the danger of a new “accidental” war.
In such an environment, it is perhaps no wonder that the conflict has spilled over into Eurovision even if that is diametrically opposed to the competition’s actual purpose. Conceived in 1950s Europe, the idea was simple enough. In order to create a much-needed sense of unity, in addition to showcasing the possibility of live broadcasting, members of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) hoped that Eurovision could contribute to post-WWII reconstruction and reconciliation. Since then, the number of countries entering Eurovision has grown. In 1956 there were just 7 entries while in 1993, following the collapse of the former Soviet Union, there were 25. This year, 43 countries entered.
Armenia has participated since 2006, Georgia since 2007, and Azerbaijan since 2008.
In 2009, however, rivalries and conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan became increasingly noticeable. The presentation video for the Armenian entry, Jan Jan by Inga and Anush, displayed an image of We Are Our Mountains, a prominent statue situated in the disputed territory of Karabakh and also included on the self-declared republic’s official emblem. Azerbaijan complained and it was removed at the insistence of Eurovision. In response, Armenia’s presenter, singer Sirusho who entered in 2008, purposely displayed the offending statue on the back of a clipboard used to read out the results for the final. However, that wasn’t the only problem.
During the competition itself, the telephone number to send votes by SMS for Armenia was deliberately obscured in Azerbaijan although that didn’t stop some viewers on the other side of the line of contact from voting for its foe anyway. One of those was Rovshan Nasirli, an Azerbaijani refugee from Karabakh, who was called in for questioning by the National Security Service (NSS) in Baku. According to Nasirli, the NSS had the names and addresses of another 42 who voted the same way. In his defense, he said he voted for Armenia, which came in 10th, because it sounded “more Azeri” than Azerbaijan’s entry, which came in 3rd.
Azerbaijan was fined €2,700 for the incident.
In contrast, this year’s Eurovision held in Dusseldorf, Germany, was held largely without incident. Aside from controversy inside Armenia itself about the suitability of its own entry, the only real trouble occurred when in the first rehearsal its singer, Emmy [Emma Bejanyan], was joined on stage by Greek dancers who included the Kochari in their choreography. Even though the traditional dance is danced by many, including Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Turks, Greeks, and Kurds, some in Azerbaijan reacted harshly, believing like Armenians that it belongs only to them. Otherwise, the event might even have offered a glimmer of hope.
“We are always waiting for invitations from all countries,” Azerbaijan’s entry, Eldar Qasimov and Nigar Camal, performing under the stage name of Eli & Nikki, told a Russian journalist when asked if they would consider performing in Yerevan. “Music, art — it’s not a question of nationality. We will be happy to participate in concerts anywhere.”
Emmy was asked by News.am about performing in Baku soon after, but before Azerbaijan’s victory. “Nothing bothers me in this sense, because I’ve never been interested in politics,” she said. “If there’s an invitation from Azerbaijan’s Eurovision delegation to hold concerts, I won’t turn down the offer. That doesn’t mean I’m not patriotic, that I don’t love and respect my homeland, or that I hold it in contempt … In addition, I’ve repeatedly heard from my parents that in their time there were many instances of cooperation with Azerbaijani singers and artists. Nothing connected with politics bothered them at that time either.”
Now, however, time will tell if either position was more than simple lip service. In the Eurovision final held on May 14, Azerbaijan’s Eli & Nikki won the competition, meaning that the next will be held in Baku, Azerbaijan, setting off a whole stream of comments on Facebook and Twitter asking where the country was or even if it really existed. In Azerbaijan, however, the news was greeted by thousands taking to the streets in the early hours of the morning to celebrate. Some activists, however, were less than convinced. “Baku streets were overflowing with people celebrating … but for the majority it was another night of hunger,” wrote one Azerbaijani blogger.
“Seeing interviews with people who took to the streets to celebrate these last couple of days confirmed that the more you belittle them, the more you insult them, the better it is,” it continued sarcastically. “There are some who say, ‘May we watch Eurovision in Shusha next year,’ those who say, ‘this is another step towards the liberation of Karabakh.’ And there are those who say that this is a result of Heydar and Ilham Aliyev’s successful domestic and foreign policy. I agree with the latter. Finally, our king managed to conquer Europe, too. The saddest thing is that democracy was beaten by dictatorship … By monarchy … ”
Nevertheless, others were more optimistic, hoping that Eurovision could bring about some positive change in Azerbaijan.
“Hopefully next year Armenians coming to Azerbaijan will be a big step towards peace in the Caucasus. I’m so done with fighting!” wrote one Azerbaijani on Twitter, the popular micro-blogging social network. “Armenia, welcome to Azerbaijan in 2012… #eurovision #peace #love,” tweeted another from Baku while Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Georgians also watched the competition together in Tbilisi, Georgia. “Glad to see music crosses borders and unites. Sometimes. Not often enough,” tweeted Jake Jones, an American who had previously worked in the area of democratic reform in Azerbaijan and who watched with them.
Although taken badly by some Armenians, others were also pleased by the news. “I hope Armenia will go to Baku in 2012. […] All talks of Armenia boycotting Eurovision in Baku I consider ridiculous and loser’s talk,” wrote well-known blogger and Eurovision fan Mika Artyan on Unzipped: Gay Armenia. “Let’s pass that psychological complex, and rather concentrate on the quality of performance and the act chosen. On the other hand, Azerbaijan must ensure that Armenian delegation and fans not only from Armenia but worldwide are able to attend the contest without having any problems with their yan/ian surname.”
“Perhaps the presence of the best of the worst (and sometimes worst of the worst) pop music Europe has to offer might start a thaw in relations and hasten diplomacy and dialogue between the two countries,” pondered Liana Aghajanian on Ianyan, an independent new outlet, as others also wondered how it would affect issues such as human rights concerns. On 17 May, the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia, both Armenia and Azerbaijan were among 14 countries singled out for the gross violation of human rights and discrimination against gays and lesbians by ILGA Europe, a LGBT rights and monitoring group.
Peter Tatchell, a prominent LGBT and political rights campaigner in the United Kingdom, linked the two together. “The gay community suffers police harassment and brutality, including bashings, blackmail, intimidation, bribery and invasions of privacy,” the former British parliamentarian told Britain’s Daily Star. “Eurovision is the gay World Cup. But Azerbaijan isn’t the most welcoming host for gays and lesbians so it’s a risk to go there,” the report also quoted one Eurovision fan as saying amidst speculation that LGBT Eurovision fans are considering boycotting the event even if others wondered whether this couldn’t be used to instead shine a spotlight on the problem.
“Gay activists in Azerbaijan and abroad could use the occasion to improve the situation … and target widespread homophobia in the country,” wrote blogger Artyan on Unzipped: Gay Armenia, leading others to contemplate whether it couldn’t result in change in other areas too. “ … there is a possibility that Eurovision will not only halt this wave of repression fueled by petrodollars and Ilham Aliyev’s anxiety over the Arab spring, but also usher in a little bit of political openness,” wrote Aslan Amani in the UK’s Guardian. “ …Eurovision has presented its 150-million-strong European audience an opportunity to help bring a little bit of openness to one of Europe’s two remaining dictatorships.”
The international community also recognizes the new opportunities the music competition offers. “Eurovision is not only a song contest, there are also the political aspects,” Rolan Kobia, Head of the European Union’s Delegation to Azerbaijan, said at a conference in Baku this week. “It is a golden chance because all attention will be directed to Azerbaijan and we hope that it will use this chance for modernization of the country.”
Critics of the regime in Baku, however, are more pessimistic and probably with good reason. Today, Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, one of the administrators of a Facebook group coordinating recent youth protests in Azerbaijan, was sentenced to two years in prison on charges of evading military service. Supporters of the Harvard graduate, supported by international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, consider the charges as politically motivated. The sentence follows the imprisonment last month of another youth activist, Jabbar Savalan, who also used Facebook to call for Arab-inspired pro-democracy demonstrations in Azerbaijan.
International human rights groups are already concerned by the continued imprisonment of others, such as journalist and prisoner of conscience Eynulla Fatullayev.
Meanwhile, still reeling from being knocked out in the first semi-final of last week’s competition, Armenia has not announced whether it will participate in next year’s Eurovision in Baku, but the question is slowly starting to be asked. Azerbaijan has already declined to take part in the Junior Eurovision Song Contest to be held in Yerevan later this year, but past precedents such as the 2009 Eurovision Dance Festival in Baku show that Azerbaijan is bound by EBU regulations and the same will be true for next year. Then, as now, Azerbaijan has stated that adequate security will be provided for the Armenian delegation if it decides to take part.
”Next year’s event in Baku has the potential to bring both sides together,” wrote Daniel McGuinness for the BBC today in a piece that says that Azerbaijan’s human rights record as well as its relations with neighboring countries will now be under close and intense scrutiny. “If the Armenian delegates decide to attend, and the Azeri authorities welcome them, Eurovision’s party atmosphere could provide a rare opportunity … The lyrics at Eurovision are not always the most erudite, but if Eurovision can help ease tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, there may be some sense to them after all.”
“Next year they should ask us to help judge the contest,” Andrew Stroehlein, the International Crisis Group’s head of communication, tweeted in response. ”The question for me is … is this the Beijing Olympics or the Armenia-Turkey football match?” Thomas de Waal, Senior Associate in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment and author of Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War, wrote in response to an article on the possibility of change in Azerbaijan because of Eurovision posted on my own Facebook page. “There are reasons to be cynical and optimistic.”