Earlier this month Armenia announced that it would not participate in the Eurovision Song Contest scheduled to take in Baku from May 22-26. This is not the first time Armenia and Azerbaijan—and to a certain extent, Turkey—have clashed over the song competition. Armenia’s latest decision, however, elicited responses from Azerbaijani and Turkish officials. Turkey’s EU Minister Egeman Bagis, told journalists, “We would like Armenia to stay away not from Eurovision, but from Karabagh. I think they should revise their decision.”
Asked whether he knew of the appeal sent to the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) by Armenia to reconsider the location of the contest, Bagis said he was not aware of such a move, and added that Azerbaijan’s right to host the event could not be disputed. Azerbaijan’s Ell and Nikki came first in Eurovision 2011, earning Azerbaijan the right.
“Azerbaijan is already a respected factor in the international arena. It’s a member of the United Nations. This country respects international law and is directed to democracy. No country has [a] right to deny it,” added Bagis.
Eurovision in ‘dark place’
In a March 19 article titled “Eurovision: Light Entertainment in a Dark Place,” The Independent newspaper questioned the choice of Azerbaijan as a host country in light of Baku’s “abysmal” human rights record of the country, the “authoritarian measures” adopted by its rulers, and the “beautification” efforts that have led to the eviction of thousands of citizens in Baku. The article cited criticisms from the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and added that this year’s contest “could be the most controversial Eurovision since it was held in Franco’s fascist Spain.”
Azerbaijani officials have argued that their country is on the path to democracy, and that no opposition members or journalists are imprisoned as a means to suppress freedom of speech. “No one outlaws freedom of speech [in Azerbaijan],” said Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov. Yet, human rights organizations strongly dispute this assertion. When asked whether Armenia-Azerbaijan relations would suffer as a consequence of Armenia’s withdrawal from the contest, Mammadyarov criticized the “politicization” of the event. “The Eurovision Song Contest should not be politically exploited and especially not in this conflict,” he said to the German press.
Armenia explains decision
On March 7, Armenian Public Radio (APR) informed the EBU that Armenia would not be participating in the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, explaining that “it would make no sense to send a participant to a country where they would be received as an enemy.”
APR went on to say that anti-Armenian statements made by Azeri officials, including a recent comment by President Ilham Aliyev, had created an atmosphere where one “cannot ensure equal conditions for all singers participating in Eurovision.”
Aliyev had posted the following on the presidential website: “Our main enemies are Armenians of the world and the hypocritical and corrupt politicians that they control… Members of some parliaments, certain political figures, etc. who live on the money of the Armenian lobby.”
The executive supervisor of the contest, Jon Ola Sand, expressed his disappointment on behalf of the EBU. “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 led to this unfortunate decision,” he said.
The shooting of an Armenian soldier on the Azeribaijan-Armenia contact line in February had already brought a rise in tensions before the APR’s announcement. Armenian performers had also issued a statement calling for a boycott. “We refuse to appear in a country that is well-known for mass killings and massacres of Armenians, in a country where anti-Armenian sentiments have been elevated to the level of state policy,” read a statement signed by 22 musicians, including 3 past Eurovision contestants.
Anti-Armenian sentiments from the top-level is frequently highlighted in the media. One often-cited incident is the elevation of Ramil Safarov to the level of national hero. (In 2004, during the NATO Partnership for Peace program in Budapest, Hungary, Safarov, an Azerbaijani army officer, axed his Armenian counterpart to death.) In August 2011, during a speech marking Azerbaijan’s 20th anniversary of independence, the head of Azerbaijan’s Presidential Administration’s political analysis department Elnur Aslanov told over 400 youth, “The victory in Eurovision Song Contest, wins of Azerbaijani athletes and the fact that sons of Azerbaijan like Mubariz Ibrahimov and Ramil Safarov did not kneel down before the enemy give special spirit to Azerbaijani youth.”
Despite Azerbaijan’s expressed distaste for mixing politics with a kitschy music competition, a much different tune was heard from the oil-rich republic as recently as in 2009. That year, Azerbaijani authorities tracked and interrogated dozens of citizens who had dared to vote for Armenia’s entry, the Inga and Anush Arshakyan sisters. Called to police stations, 43 citizens had to justify their vote and affirm their allegiance to their country. Also that year, the EBU found that the Azerbaijani broadcaster Ictimai Televiziya had intentionally distorted the TV signal to blur out the telephone number during Armenia’s performance. Similarly, during the 2010 Junior Eurovision, Baku authorities were accused of taking the live broadcast off air when it became clear that Armenian Vladimir Arzumanyan would win.
In 2010, when then 22-year-old Eva Rivas sang “Apricot Stone” during the national selection process, a Turkish composer claimed the song’s first seven lines had a political message—that it was about the Armenian Genocide, and that “motherland” referred to lands under Turkish control. The story appeared in numerous Turkish and Azerbaijani newspapers, such as the Anadolu Ajansi (Anatolian News Agency), the Azeri Press Agency, CNN Turk, and Radikal. Rivas and her producer said the lyrics in question—“Many, many years ago / when I was a little child / mama told me you should know / our world is cruel and wild / but to make your way / through cold and heat / love is all that you need…”—were about love and peace, and about the diaspora yearning for the homeland.
Eurovision bans songs that have a clear political message. In 2009, Georgia’s representatives were instructed to change the words to “We Don’t Wanna Put In” which, they believed, took a jab at Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Georgia, in turn, withdrew from the contest, which was held in Moscow.
Last year, Azerbaijani newspapers accused Armenia of stealing the “Azerbaijani national dance,” the kochari, when it was featured in Emmy’s performance. In 2009, the media attacked the Inga and Anush sisters for “stealing” an Azerbaijani song titled “Nakhchivan.”
Armenia has also used the song contest as a platform to highlight its position, irritating Azerbaijan. For instance, in 2009 an introductory video that aired before Armenia’s semi-final performance showed the “We Are Our Mountains” monument located in Karabagh. Infuriated, Azerbaijani representatives complained to EBU officials, and the scene was deleted from the video. Armenia did not give in easily, however. As Sirusho, Armenia’s 2008 contestant, read Armenia’s 2009 votes, she repeatedly flashed a large image of the monument—taped to the back of her clipboard—as another screen shot of the controversial monument was displayed brightly behind her.
This most recent decision is not the first instance of Armenian competitors refusing to travel to Azerbaijan. About a month ago, 29-year-old Grandmaster Levon Aronian, one of two top chess players in the world, notified the World Chess Federation (FIDE) that he would not compete in the Candidates Tournament for the World Championship if Azerbaijan were to host the games. Aronian said that being in a hostile atmosphere would have an adverse effect on his mental capabilities, and would rob him of his “peace of mind.” In a Feb. 2 letter, he wrote, “No circumstances, if they are not chess-related, should prevent the grandmaster from demonstrating all of his skills. Unfortunately, at this moment no Armenian can find [a] favorable or adequate psychological atmosphere in Azerbaijan, whereas that is something absolutely necessary. In my opinion, all the participants should be in equal conditions, which is impossible in case of holding the tournament in Azerbaijan. Security guaranties and any kind of additional support cannot be a remedy.”