Thursday, 8 March 2012

Eurovision controversy starts early as Armenia pulls out

As predicted, this is going to be one tumultuous year for Eurovision, the yearly singing competition where European countries compete with original songs (for Americans, it's a bit like American Idol and Miss America combined). News this week that Armenia has pulled out of the competition after Azerbaijan's president described Armenians as the country's "main enemies" has noticably rattled the competition's organisers.

The song contest, which has been held since 1956, is hosted each year by the country which one the previous year. Last year the contest was won by Azerbaijan, the Muslim former Soviet republic in the Caucasus on the border with Iran. The definition of 'Europe' has been stretched over the past decades to encorporate new countries such as Turkey, Israel and even one year Morocco.

But this year's contest in Baku is going to be an awkward one, given that Azerbaijan is still in an active conflict with its neighbor Armenia, which also participates in Eurovision and takes it very seriously. Having the warring countries both participating in Eurovision has caused problems in the past. In 2009 a number of Azerbaijanis who had voted for Armenia's entry Anush and Inga (pictured below) during the contest that year were reportedly summoned for questioning by the Ministry of National Security.

The authorities wanted to know how these people had voted for Armenia, given that the Azerbaijan broadcaster had blurred out the number for people to call to vote for Armenia during the contest. Once word got out, the European Broadcasting Union, which produces Eurovision, threatened to exclude Azerbaijan from the contest if it ever happened again. In the end, the EBU fined Azerbaijan €2,700 euros.

It was an open question of how the Armenian entry would even participate in this year's contest given that Armenians are not allowed to enter Azerbaijan. But this conondrum was solved this week by the decision by Armenia to pull out of this year's contest following threatening remarks reportedly by Azerbajian president-for-life Ilham Aliyev.

In a speech about local government on 28 February President Aliyev said: "Our main enemies are Armenians of the world and the hypocritical and corrupt [Azerbaijani] politicians under their control." The statement is typical of the general atmosphere of scapegoating and paranoia that goes on in both countries.

When asked to comment on the Armenian withdrawl, the head of Azerbaijan's governing party Ali Ahmedov told reporters, "The Armenian refusal to take part in such a respected contest will cause even further damage to the already damaged image of Armenia," according to the BBC.

The Armenian absence isn't the only thing that will make this an awkward year for Eurovision. As the lieklihood of an American/Israeli war with Iran over its nuclear program increases, he country's proximity to Iran, where the vast majority of Azerbaijanis live, is going to cause some jitters. Baku is just 150km (93 miles) from the Iranian border. 3/4 of the Azerbaijani people live on the other side of that border, and Azerbaijanis make up 1/3 of Iran's population.

An Iranian war wouldn't be the only discomfort. The government is a dictatorship ruled with an iron fist by a dynasty of autocrats. Whatever discomforts existed two years ago over Russia’s human rights record, they are dwarfed by the situation in Azerbaijan. Media freedom is severely curtailed and few independent news outlets exist. The country is ruled by a cadre of mafia-like families who control virtually all aspects of the economy. In diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks in 2010, the US diplomats who were station there described it as a feudal society, where “a handful of well-connected families control certain geographic areas, as well as certain sectors of the economy." The leaked cables also contain remarkably blunt descriptions of the ruling family, including the heavy plastic surgery of the powerful first lady Mehriban (pictured above along with Azerbaijan president Ilham Aliyev and the Browns).

Azerbaijan is ranked 171 out of 196 countries for press freedom, 135 out of 167 countries in the Economist’s Democracy index and is the 40th worst country for corruption according to the world corruption index. Dissidents are violently suppressed. One such crackdown led to this photo which made the rounds as one of the most iconic of 2011.

Like in Russia, there will likely be discomfort for the contest’s large gay following in this year’s host country. Like in neighbouring Iran, there are few openly gay people in Azerbaijan. While homosexuality isn’t punishable by death as it is for Azerbaijanis in Iran, homosexuality is still considered as an aberrant behaviour rather than an identity in Azerbaijan. According to the United Nations, accusations of homosexual acts are often used by state-controlled media to discredit government opponents or journalists. But, like in Russia, homosexuality was decriminalised in 2000 in order for the country to join the Council of Europe.
It should definitely be an interesting year for the contest.

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