Opinion Divided on Armenian Withdrawal from Eurovision
Eurovision, the international music competition for members of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), has been no stranger to controversy ever since it was launched in Europe in 1956, but the inclusion in recent years of post-Soviet countries has taken international rivalry over what is otherwise considered by many to be a somewhat kitsch event, to new heights. The three countries making up the South Caucasus are no exception and especially since Armenia participated for the first time in 2006. Georgia followed in 2007, as did Azerbaijan the following year.
In particular, although Georgia also withdrew after an aborted attempt to enter an anti-Putin song following the August 2008 war with Russia, bitter rivalry has particularly emerged between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Locked in a bitter dispute over Karabakh, the war that broke out in the early 1990s saw around 25,000 people killed and a million flee their homes. And although a cease-fire agreement was signed in 1994, the two sides are still no closer to finding a lasting peace, with scores of conscripts from both sides dying on the frontline in cross-border skirmishes and sniper incidents every year. With the International Crisis Group (ICG) warning of the dangers of a new accidental war in the future, Eurovision, in a sense, has become a new battleground.
Scandals between the two countries, in fact, have become a regular feature of the song contest watched by over 150 million people. In 2009, for example, the inclusion in Armenia’s promotional video of a statue in the breakaway mainly Armenian-populated region prompted a strong response from Azerbaijan. And even then, when the offending monument was removed from the clip, it was anyway included as the backdrop and main image adorning the clipboard of Sirusho, Armenia’s presenter during the international televoting broadcast live on air.
The same year, in perhaps the worst incident, 43 Azerbaijanis who voted for Armenia were reportedly called in for questioning by their own National Security Service. The telephone number for viewers in Azerbaijan to vote for Armenia had, of course, been obscured locally, but some had anyway managed to work it out. One even explained his voting preference by saying Armenia’s entry sounded “more Azeri” than Azerbaijan’s entry. So, when Azerbaijan won last year’s Eurovision in Germany, earning itself the right to host the competition, alarm bells naturally rang in Yerevan.
The situation had already become controversial when questions were raised about attitudes towards members of the local and international LGBT community, let alone the prospect of Armenians performing in the capital of its regional foe. Armenia, in particular, demanded additional security guarantees for its delegation from the EBU.
In response, the European organization stated that it could not intervene, but that it was satisfied with the security provisions promised for any delegation. Indeed, the provisions for receiving a visa at Baku’s Heydar Aliyev airport were such that any Eurovision-ticket holder or EBU-accredited journalist would be granted a visa, available at a much lower rate than normal, on arrival in the country. Although not stated implicitly, that meant that anyone arriving for the event, even with an Armenian surname, could enter the country albeit only if they hadn’t visited Karabakh without official Baku’s permission.
But, with the local media increasingly full of articles seemingly preparing Armenians for a withdrawal, it anyway didn’t matter, and not least when a statement from well-known singers in Armenia called for a boycott of the competition. In particular, they made reference to the February 24 shooting of an Armenian conscript, reportedly by an Azerbaijani sniper. Somewhat embarrassingly, however, after human rights activists examined the case, the Armenian Ministry of Defense later confirmed that the conscript had actually been shot by one of his own fellow servicemen.
Left without the death to justify withdrawal from Eurovision, Armenian Public TV finally found an excuse in the form of a speech by Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, declaring all Armenians worldwide to be the enemy, and it formally withdrew from Eurovision on March 7. In reality, though, it appeared that Armenia had already decided not to participate even if, in 2010, His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, had made an official visit to Baku, conducting a religious service in the Armenian Church downtown, as had members of the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation — Dashnaktsutyun such as Giro Manoyan.
True, Armenian boxers who competed last year at a sporting event in the Azerbaijani capital were momentarily subjected to an incident involving the throwing of stones from the Karabakh Liberation Organization comprising Azerbaijani War Veterans, but the culprits were anyway arrested. Armenian wrestlers also experienced no problems competing in Baku in 2007.
“We can conclude that the president of a Eurovision host country is officially stating that all Armenians, including those who would be included in the Eurovision delegation, are the enemies of Azerbaijan,” Public TV nevertheless announced. “Therefore, it would make no sense to send our participant to a country where they would be received as an enemy … We are convinced that the atmosphere created by this and other anti-Armenian statements and actions cannot ensure equal conditions for all singers participating in Eurovision.”
“We are truly disappointed by the broadcaster’s decision to withdraw,” Eurovision Executive Supervisor Jon Ola Sand responded to the news. “Despite the efforts of the EBU and the Host Broadcaster to ensure a smooth participation for the Armenian delegation in this year’s Contest, circumstances beyond our control lead to this unfortunate decision.”
Some such as Mika Artyan, perhaps Armenia’s best-known online Eurovision commentator, were also disappointed. “They could have announced it much earlier, with dignity, with a kind of reasoning that would have gained them respect,” he wrote on his Unzipped blog. “Instead, they resorted to stupid propaganda games and outright lies. They undignified themselves to the extent of exploiting [the] death of the Armenian soldier … A disgrace.”
Perplexed, even Dorians, the front-runner to represent Armenia in this year’s Eurovision, noted the irony in the withdrawal, mentioning that the country didn’t boycott the competition when it was held in Russia in 2010. “When we were going to Russia for Eurovision, no one was speaking of security — even though in Russia nationalism knows no bounds. There, every day an Armenian is killed, but we weren’t afraid to go,” the band, which had frequently expressed its willingness to perform in Baku, wrote on its Facebook page. “Let’s remove the hatred injected within us, people of the world … Life happens only once — let us live in peace and without wars.”
But, with online activists and journalists facing intimidation, detention, and imprisonment in the oil-rich former Soviet republic, human rights and other organizations have also cast doubts on the country’s suitability to stage Eurovision. In particular, they point to forced evictions of homeowners in downtown Baku to construct the Crystal Hall Stadium where Eurovision will be held in May. “There are quite a few genuine reasons that Armenia’s Public TV may have considered to withdraw from the competition without resorting to [the reasons otherwise given],” wrote Artyan in another post on his blog.
And, although Armenians are divided on the matter with many supporting the boycott, other bloggers agreed even if for different reasons. “There was initially controversy revolving around the question of whether Armenian participants would be allowed, and if their safety would be guaranteed, and finally whether Armenian fans would be allowed and their safety would be guaranteed,” wrote Cilicia.com’s Raffi Kojian. “After much teeth gnashing by Baku, they agreed to all of these Eurovision requirements. Remarkable I’d say, but they had invested a lot in this and wanted it that bad.”
“This … is approximately the millionth time Azerbaijan has made racist and hateful comments about Armenians,” Kojian continued. “But this time Armenia decided for some reason that because of this we are not going to participate in Eurovision to punish Azerbaijan and show them. Well guess what, that’s exactly what Azerbaijan wants — so it’s a reward, not a punishment. We’ll now be a tiny, tiny footnote in the contest as non-participants, and few will hear of or care about Karabakh. We’d have had to spend millions of dollars to get the kind of PR we just threw out the window.”
“Party time in Baku, while we shot ourselves in the foot,” the well-known Diasporan blogger concluded.