The Power of Eurovision Revisited


Since the very first days of the escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, both sides have been using every possible stage for promoting narrow nationalist and exclusivist agendas.  Thus, any arena with the participation of representatives from both sides often becomes a battlefield.

Eurovision, the popular pan-European music contest, has not been an exception. For 54 years, Eurovision proved to be one of Europe’s most popular TV shows. Many on the European continent and beyond follow it. Some 1,100 songs and artists have been featured, including world favorites like ABBA, Celine Dion, Cliff Richard, and Julio Iglesias. The contest has become an annual ritual, strongly embedded into Europe’s collective culture.

The 2008 running saw a record of 43 represented countries, as Azerbaijan and San Marino joined the family. The competition has been broadcast throughout Europe, but also in Australia, Canada, Egypt, Hong Kong, India, Jordan, Korea, New Zealand, and the United States, even though those countries do not participate.

This year’s Eurovision song contest featured 39 countries, including Armenia and Azerbaijan. Over 120 million viewers around Europe tuned in to this great show. By June 4, the Eurovision Facebook fan page attracted 167,052 fans.

Eurovision has long promoted itself as an event where national audiences in Europe and beyond can put politics aside and enjoy an entertaining show run in the spirit of friendly competition.

The popularity and the PR potential of Eurovision has been utilized by many participant countries and has yet a lot to offer. It is no surprise that Palestine’s Eurovision partners have applied for full membership in the European Broadcasters Union, hence the Eurovision song contest. The Palestinian organizations inform that they want to tell the big audiences a story different from images people get from the TV news and that Eurovision is a perfect platform for this.

In the case of Armenia and Azerbaijan the Eurovision stage has so far been only utilized for ends very far from constructive. Some actions by representatives of any of the two conflicting countries would be negated or seen as conflicting by the other delegation and fuel reactions evolving into a spiral that does nothing but escalate tensions in the two societies at large.

The tensions between Armenian and Azerbaijani broadcasters/delegations mounted in the 2009 song contest. The Armenian team sparked controversy when the original video backdrop for their performance featured an image of the “Grandma & Grandapa” memorial in Nagorno-Karabakh that is deeply meaningful for Armenians as a one of the symbols of the Armenian identity of Karabakh, while the Azerbaijani delegation boycotted it for reasons described by Azerbaijani news site, as “the Armenians and their friends from the Eurovision steering committee used this monument for provocative political purposes.”

Russia, the 2009 Eurovision host, under pressure from the Azerbaijani broadcasters requested the image be removed. The Russian decision caused consternation in Yerevan. Armenia decided to air its protest. As vote tallies were called in from Eurovision’s participating countries, a live-broadcast on Yerevan’s Republic Square featured a large screen with the mentioned statue. The presenter, Armenia’s 2008 Eurovision contestant Sirusho, raised a clipboard as she spoke which also included an image of the monument. Another major scandal broke right after the 2009 show, when Radio Azadligi (Radio Liberty Baku Beauro) reported that the National Security Ministry of Azerbaijan summoned Azerbaijani voters who cast their votes for the Armenian performance at Eurovision. Voters were called to the ministry where officers demanded them to explain why they had voted for Armenia. They were told that this was a matter of national security. Azerbaijani human rights activists voiced concerns over the state controlling personal SMS messages and private voting of citizens based on individual musical tastes. A total of 43 Azerbaijanis voted for the Armenian duo Inga and Anush and their song titled “Jan-Jan.” At the same year, 1,065 Armenians voted for the Azerbaijani team (see — apparently without consequence — which resulted in a whole one point from Armenia for Azerbaijan.

In response to these scandals of 2009, this year’s Eurovision Armenian commentators Hrachuhi Utmazyan and Khoren Levonyan refused to name the country when the Azerbaijani performer started her show, while they did present the other 38 performers and countries they were representing.

Yet the prestigious Eurovision stage has a lot to offer in terms of conciliation, friendship and cooperation. This potential has been successfully identified and employed by the Israeli contestants in 2009. Israel’s Eurovision entry was presented by two friends — one Jewish, one Palestinian. Here is what the Guardian had to write about them: “Just as the Israel-inflicted death toll in Gaza reached 900, a third of those children, Israel’s entry to the Eurovision song contest was announced. It was the third week of Israel’s devastating assault on Gaza, in January, and an Arab-Israeli was going to sing to Europe with a Jewish-Israeli, a song about finding “another way.”

An initiative that saw condemnation shelling down on the duo from both sides of the divide, failed to make the duo surrender their mission and art, and the two surprised the multimillion audience with a story well worth the attention. The duo had a message for the Eurovision audience and their own communities and the message was that no matter what the International Community does or fails to do, the Palestinians and Israelis will eventually have to find a way to co-exist. Some enthusiasts tell me that similar cooperation of Armenian and Azerbaijani artists within Eurovision can be possible. Let us hope that the young generation of artists form the two countries, many of who have already had experiences of joining efforts for a mutual cause, will once again get together and come up with a partnership entry, either a mutual one or two separate but linked and coordinated national entries with a mutual, mission and message for Eurovision 2011.

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