Sunday, 15 May 2011

Eurovision leaves Europe

After two years in Western Europe, Eurovision will return to the East next year – as far East as it could possibly go. Azerbaijan was the surprise winner of the Eurovision Song Contest Saturday night, meaning next year the contest will be held in the Caspian Sea coast city of Baku. It is located just 150km (93 miles) from the Iranian border.

It will be an awkward host city given that the country is in an ongoing conflict with its neighbour Armenia which has sometimes spilled over into the contest, most notably in 2009 when people in Azerbaijan who had voted for Armenia were interrogated by the police. Azerbaijan was almost banned from the contest as a result, but the European Broadcasting Union decided to only give them a fine.

Many people were left scratching their heads Saturday night asking, "Erm, where is Azerbaijan again?". Depending on which definition you use, this will be just the third time that the Eurovision Song Contest will not be hosted outside Europe, following the contests in Israel in 1979 and 1999. The border between Europe and Asia is generally taken to be the Caucasus Mountains, which Baku is technically just South of. It will be the first time the ESC will go to a region with several active military conflicts - the Caucasus is home to disputed territories and ongoing military conflicts in Chechnya, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh just to name a few. It will be the second time an ESC will be held in a Muslim country, following the final in Istanbul in 2004. That contest, incidentally, was hosted in the European side of that city, west of the Bosphorus Strait.

Azerbaijan's unexpected win topped off a night of surprises. Nobody I talked to before the contest had predicted Azerbaijan would be the winner. Many people were putting their money on Sweden. But Sweden came in third place (though they can take comfort in the fact that the Azerbaijan entry was written and produced by Swedes). Italy came in second, a surprising placement for their rather un-Eurovision-like jazz entry, and it was perhaps awarded partly as a gesture of good will from juries that want to keep it in the contest.

In general Western European countries did much poorer than predicted. The UK, which some bookies had favoured to win the competition with the fielding of a popular boy band called Blue, placed 11th. Ireland's X-Factor contestants Jedward finished eighth (though there was still surely some delight in beating the UK, which as predicted awarded Ireland their 12 points). Denmark's catchy song "New Tomorrow" finished fifth. Switzerland came in a humiliating last place, while Spain didn't do much better at third-to-last. Estonia and Hungary, two other entries that had been tipped to win, came in astonishingly second-to-last and fourth-to-last respectively. Meanwhile Ukraine's rather forgettable song came in fourth thanks to the addition of a live sand painting during the performance.

Azerbaijan's win, with what many in Western Europe saw as a poor quality song, will cast doubt on whether the jury system introduced in 2009 has solved the problem of bloc voting. It was noticeable Saturday night that the majority of Azerbaijan's points came from Eastern European countries. The only Western European country to give Azerbaijan 12 points was Malta. As the country's voting results were being announced, by halfway through it was clear that each time a former SSR in the Soviet Union came up, that country was going to give 8, 10 or 12 points to fellow former Soviet state Azerbaijan. And there were a lot of former SSRs to be awarding those points. Out of 43 countries competing, 10 were former members of the Soviet Union. Former Eastern Bloc countries now make up more than half of the participants.

Each country gets an equal amount of votes no matter their size. As the former Eastern Bloc countries have been admitted to the contest over the past 15 years, it has become increasingly weighted toward the East since there are so many more countries on that side of Europe than in the West. The situation came to a head in 2008 when Russia won the ESC hosted in Serbia under similar circumstances, receiving huge numbers of votes from its former satellite states and virtually none from Western Europe. The revulsion to how political the ESC voting had become was so great it caused long-time British ESC host Terry Wogan to dramatically quit live on air. There were discussions over whether the big four countries which pay for the contest – France, Germany, Spain and the UK – should continue funding a contest they can't win.

In reaction the European Broadcasting Union, which organises the show, instituted voting reform in 2009 so that each country's vote is now determined 50% by televoting and 50% by a national jury of music industry experts. The idea is that the jury members are not supposed to be swayed by political or ethnic loyalties but rather only on the quality of the song.

At first the system seemed to be working. In 2009 Norway won by the largest margin in Eurovision history with a song that was clearly head and shoulder above the rest. In 2010 Germany won with a radio-friendly pop song, receiving votes evenly spread throughout east and west. But this year's highly political bloc voting with its stark east-west divide will call into question the impartiality of the national juries.

Political problems

Azerbaijan will make for an awkward host country in other ways as well. The country has been in an active conflict with its neighbour Armenia since 1993 over the disputed territory of of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is now technically still part of Azerbaijan but is under Armenian military control. This conflict has in the past bled into the ESC. In 2009 a number of Azerbaijanis who had voted for Armenia's entry during the contest that year were reportedly summoned for questioning by the Ministry of National Security. Once word got out, the EBU threatened to exclude Azerbaijan from the contest if it ever happened again.

There were also allegations in 2009 that the Azerbaijan broadcaster blurred out the number for people to call to vote for Armenia during the contest. The EBU fined Azerbaijan €2,700 euros for this, as well as for distorting the TV signal during Armenia's performance. There is still an open question over whether the Armenian entry will be able to go to Baku for next year's contest, as Armenians are not allowed to enter Azerbaijan.

There is also a risk that by this time next year the political situation in Azerbaijan could be quite unstable. The country has been ruled by the same family since 1993, first by strongman Heydar Aliyev and now by his son Ilham Aliyev. There are already signs that the Arab Spring protest movement could spread to fellow Muslim country Azerbaijan. Protests organised against the government there last month were forcefully repressed by the government, which is clearly nervous that the violent anti-government demonstrations in the Middle East could spread to their country.

So next year will be an interesting year of political intrigue for the contest, but will Western Europeans watch it? From the reaction I've seen, there is a feeling of disappointment and confusion from Western European fans in reaction to Saturday's win. In the UK, where the media was touting up a possible win by boy band Blue, there is confusion and resentment over why the Brits failed to even make the top ten. The BBC reports that this year's contest had the highest ratings in the UK since 1999, but will they come back next year?

Swedes seem to be equally surprised and resentful that they were beaten so badly. There has also been accusations of bribing of the juries, none of it backed by hard evidence though. Suggestions have been bandied about that the juries were bribed by everything from oil contracts to record contracts. The Romanian entry's singer has even accused the Swedish music industry of bribing juries to vote for Azerbaijan because they have a lock on signing Azeri singers. The oil interest speculation is the result of the fact that the female half of the Azeri duo, Nigar Jamal, is married to a Russian oligarch who lives in London.

Ironically it is probably the Western European country that has historically had the least interest in Eurovision that will have its interest increased as a result of this year's show. Italy's second place finish will guarantee that the country won't leave the contest again, at least in the short term. That means there will now be five big countries paying for the contest. But if another Eastern European country wins next year with a song that is perceived to be of poor quality, it could turn people in Western Europe off for good.


Pedro said...

I just cared for Ireland... :p

Lisa said...

they were my favorite!!!! so adorable and romantic :) i should have had money on that shizzz!

Björn said...

How's this for irony - there are now accusations that the Swedish music industry bribed juries to vote for Azerbaijan because Swedish music producers have signed many artists from Azerbaijan. In fact the Azerbaijan song was written by Swedes! So in effect, we still won :-P

Petri said...

Well...let's make the whole EV efficent and integrated (and get rid off the national tendencies + really crappy songs) so that the Swedish producers could write songs to all nations! ;-D

David said...

ha ha yes I think the Swedish music industry should be the secret puppet master behind all Eurovision acts.

Andrzej said...

Maybe the lovely swedes could export a little democracy there too?

Poly said...

Romania's entry was a singer from the UK (Newcastle) as well as the rapper in the Greek song (Mike Exarchos) who lectures at the university of Westminister so maybe countries can also dole out the points to its natives.

Also maybe we can stop exaggerating. Why not let the Caucasus win, something for once? Why cry for the west when it's good for the east to have some prestige? Opening the voting system to the public surely only still encourages people to vote for their neighbours, per se.

I also wonder if people only voted for this song because it was the most traditional and romantic in presentation...girl meets potentially not straight guy...

Milena said...

If there is a doubt about voting system or questions if some country is really European, those issues should have been solved pre-competition. Every comment now can not be perceived seriously, but rather as discrimination of East. One can ask, if question about military conflict and being an European country related to Azerbaijan wasn't raised before competition took place, was then their participation "act of Western mercy" having in mind that " there is no way this country is going to win". That sounds a bit unfair to me. Eastern country won, get over it :)

Noveerotaaja said...

I am more wondering about the question if Armenia will be able to participate in the next Eurovision and how if - as far as I remember - they are not allowed to enter Azerbaijan (and the other way around)?