Of Guns and Glamour, Snipers and Sequins: Eurovision 2012 proves to be more than just song and dance

Apr 10, 2012

By Sung In Marshall

BakuThe Eurovision Song Contest is an annual televised competition featuring music acts from 56 countries in and around Europe, which draws an estimated 125 million viewers from around the world. Eurovision has given Azerbaijan a unique opportunity to showcase its country when it hosts the event in May. But behind the glitz and glamour, sequins and songs lies real-world conflict. This year’s contest comes amid ever-present tensions and continual low-level armed conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. In such a tense environment, even the apparently innocent fun of Eurovision is politicized and politically sensitive.

On February 24, a group of Armenian pop singers launched a campaign to boycott the Eurovision contest. In their letter, they expressed their refusal 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.” This campaign was launched amid anger at the reported shooting of an Armenian soldier by an Azerbaijani sniper, but it ran into controversy after officials announced that he had actually been killed by a fellow serviceman.

Relations between the two countries continued to sour as Azerbaijan marked the 20th anniversary of Khojaly, the alleged massacre carried out by Armenians during the Nagorno-Karabakh War, on February 26. Reports from the Azeri media included inflammatory language, stating that the Khojaly incident was one of the most “heinous and bloodiest tragedies of the 20th century” and blaming the “Armenian aggressors” for “genocide”. Two days later, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev stated, “our main enemies are Armenians of the world and the hypocritical and corrupt politicians under their control.” 
 
Amid this renewed tension and increasingly threatening rhetoric, Armenia withdrew from the Eurovision competition. Citing the recent hostile and anti-Armenian remarks made by Aliyev, Armenian Public Television released a statement about its withdrawal, which said: "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. 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." Moreover, the statement continued, "Despite the fact that the Azerbaijani authorities have given security guarantees to all participating countries, the Azerbaijani president made a statement that enemy number one for Azerbaijan were the Armenians." 
 
A senior Azerbaijani politician reacted to the Armenian withdrawal, saying that Armenia had no genuine reason to boycott the competition: “The Armenian refusal to take part in such a respected contest will cause even further damage to the already damaged image of Armenia," said Ali Ahmedov, the executive secretary of the governing party. Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov also commented on the Armenian boycott, stating “The Eurovision song contest should not be politically exploited and especially not in this conflict." 
 
Despite the apparent innocuousness of a multinational pop song competition, Eurovision has been politicized in recent years. In 2009, Azerbaijani authorities interrogated 43 citizens who had voted for Armenia’s entry, the duo Inga and Anush. The accused citizens had to justify their vote and affirm their loyalty to Azerbaijan. Also in 2009, the introductory video clip—or "postcard"—leading into the Armenian performance depicted "We Are Our Mountains", a statue located in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. After complaints from the Azeri side, the European Broadcasting Union removed the clip. Ostensibly in retaliation for the Armenian display, Azerbaijani television blurred out the Armenian voting number as well as distorted the TV signal when the Armenian entry was performing on stage.
 
The tit-for-tat spat surrounding the Eurovision contest is a small-scale reflection of the larger Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that Armenia and Azerbaijan have been embroiled in for the past two decades. Nagorno-Karabakh, the landlocked, mountainous, Armenian-populated enclave inside Azerbaijan, has been the subject of a two-decade long dispute between the two countries. Conflict over the region began in 1988 with smoldering antagonism and small-scale violence during the collapse of the Soviet Union and erupting into a full-scale war by 1992. The war resulted in an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 people dead and more than one million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). A Russian-brokered ceasefire was signed in May 1994. Though it has thus far prevented another all-out war, the Line of Contact separating Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in the region remains the site of frequent sniper attacks and low-level violent skirmishes. Meanwhile, both sides—Azerbaijan in particular—have been escalating their arms race and resorting to bellicose rhetoric.
 
Nagorno-Karabakh is often described as a “frozen conflict,” but in reality it is a simmering stalemate, and recent actions taken by both sides indicate that the conflict is heating up. A 2011 International Crisis Group (ICG) report stated that there has been significant deterioration in the region’s fragile peace, with an increase of 53 percent in ceasefire violations. Moreover, both sides have stepped up their vitriolic rhetoric: according to an article in The Economist, Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev warned of war in at least nine separate speeches in 2010. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan responded by strongly underlining his country’s readiness to respond to any attacks. 
 
In addition to aggressive rhetoric, both sides have been arming up. Reports estimate Azerbaijan’s defense spending will rise by 1.8 percent this year to $3.47 billion, topping Armenia’s entire state budget, although the official defense budget for 2012 is reported to be only $1.7 billion. In an effort to keep up, Armenia’s military budget for 2012 was increased to about $400 million—the country’s biggest annual defense outlay ever, despite being a mere fraction of Azerbaijan’s budget. Azerbaijan has been utilizing this huge defense budget to amass weapons: according to ICG, Azerbaijan purchased Mi-24 “Crocodile” attack helicopters, 29 BTR-70 armored vehicles and some 35 122-mm and 152-mm artillery pieces from Ukraine in 2009 and reportedly 62 of its 180 T-72 tanks from Russia. It also reportedly closed a huge $1.6 billion arms deal with Israel. Although Armenia’s official defense budget pales in comparison to that of its neighbor, Yerevan enjoys support from the Russian base in Gyumri, which currently houses MiG-29 fighter jets and S-300 missile systems, as well as some 5,000 troops. There have also been several claims from the Azeri side that arms transfers from Russia to Armenia via the Gyumri base have occurred. In January 2009, Azerbaijan claimed that Armenia was provided with $800 million worth of arms, including 21 T-72 tanks, some 50 armored vehicles, artillery pieces, “Strela-10” and “Strela-2” surface-to-air missile systems, although these claims were denied by Russia. 
 
Efforts to find a political solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict are being spearheaded by the OSCE-led Minsk Group, and the Armenian and Azeri presidents have met for negotiations on several occasions. However, progress has stalled. Given the failure of repeated international efforts to broker a peace deal, grassroots peacebuilding may offer the best solution to the impasse. Joint bilateral civil society dialogue processes, including cultural interaction, can provide a forum for meaningful exchange. The symbolic idea of various nationalities uniting under a common theme of music and entertainment—no matter how camp or cheesy it may be—was underscored (somewhat ironically, considering the harsh statements from the Azeri side) by Azerbaijan’s First Lady, Mehriban Aliyeva: “The language of music is clear to everyone, regardless of nationality and religion. And it's very symbolic that during these days in May representatives of different countries, different musical styles will stand on the same stage and sing songs in different languages.” Music can indeed, unify, and the Eurovision competition offers a unique opportunity for people-to-people dialogue and cultural interaction. 
 
In a recent interview with RFE/RL, Ambassador Robert Bradtke, U.S. co-chair of the Minsk Group, emphasized the importance of people-to-people dialogue as a peacebuilding tool:
“If you look back from the 20-year perspective, what we now see is a generation in Armenia and Azerbaijan growing up that has really not lived side by side. They have not had the personal relationships that might help them understand better the perspectives of the other sides and that might help them overcome stereotypes that one sees all too often in the media in Armenia and Azerbaijan. So people-to-people contacts can help play a role there, but one of the challenges is to do this in a way that is constructive [and] to do it in a way that is genuine. People-to-people contacts don't work if they are used by the sides for political purposes or are politicized. If they are used to continue arguments about who was at fault or who did wrong to whom 20 years ago, that's not going to help move things forward. It may need to be bringing people together to discuss common problems.”
Thus, the more Armenian and Azeri artists travel to each other's countries, the better they can build trust and restore confidence on a personal level. 
 
Eurovision 2012 had the potential to bring both sides together. Although Armenia’s withdrawal from Eurovision is not the same as walking out of peace talks, it is a negative move in a decades-long effort to solve the intractable Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. If the Armenian delegates had decided to attend even in the face of bellicose statements made by the Azeris, and the Azeri authorities had welcomed them, Eurovision's party atmosphere could have provided a rare opportunity for the two sides to unite. This, however, was not the case, and Armenia and Azerbaijan remain deadlocked in the conflict that continues to grip the region.
 
 
Sung In Marshall is a research intern at the Russia and Eurasia Program at CSIS.