A darker shade of glitter: Eurovision’s political underbelly

You could be forgiven for thinking that Eurovision is simply a “smorgasbord of kitsch”, as Keith Lawrence’s headline so eloquently put it in an article he wrote about Eurovision on his website, and nothing more. But as the other half of his article’s headline suggests, “…and politics”, it is not as innocuous an event as appearances might first suggest.

Not that you will ever get the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which runs the event, to admit to anything so tawdry as politics being associated with their event. They will maintain till they are a fetching shade of EU blue, that it is still the idealistic song contest created in 1956, a scant decade or so the bloody aftermath of World War Two, to reunite a fractured and bloodied continent. In common with their Olympics counterparts, they will also stress that it is a force for good, a showcase of European talent and diversity, and that in these economically trying times, it is needed more than ever to bring Europe together as one.

While all of that is true to some extent, and it remains the case that Eastern Europe at least is an enthusiastic advocate of the contest and its noble ideals (while Western Europe is a little less, shall we say, enamoured of it than their old Iron Curtain cousins), it is also true that Eurovision has always been a political play thing and that has never been more in evidence that this year.

Of course no one could have predicted just how political things would get this year when Azerbaijan shocked everyone by winning Eurovision in 2011 with “Running Scared” by duo Eldar and Nigar, the sort of photogenic singers that the EBU dotes on. If only Azerbaijan was as attractive as the smiling couple that represented it so well.

At the time their win was hailed as a chance for the emerging Caucausas’ economic powerhouse, which has prospered thanks to ridiculously large oil reserves, to showcase what a modern progressive member of the European community it is. Like China with the Olympics in 2008, this was its chance to strut the world stage, point to its high adult literacy rates (close to 100 percent) and its transformation of Baku into a world class city fuelled by the oil wealth that had flooded the country.

And it is exactly what the leadership in Baku still intends to do. It has constructed a purpose-built venue for this year’s contest, The Crystal Hall, on National Flag Square in the centre of the city at a rumoured cost of $100 million USD. Around it, in Baku’s Bayil neighbourhood, is a newly formed Eurovision zone which has stunning views of the city and the beautiful Caspian Sea. These newly built and expensive facilities have been expressly designed to impress the flood of visitors expected to come to the country to attend Eurovision in person and Baku’s municipal authorities regard it as nothing more than long overdue urban renewal, spurred on by the hosting of the event.

Demolition of 5 Agil Guliev Street (via www.hrw.org)

Try telling that to the residents of 5 Agil Guliyev Street who, in contravention of Azerbaijan’s own laws, have been forcibly evicted from their homes with minimal to non-existent compensation. One by one, they have been told to leave their apartments, often with little warning, as the building was literally torn down around them starting with the top floor so a park and road to the Crystal Hall can be constructed. One man, Mr Gusseinov, who has just weeks before has celebrated his daughter’s wedding in his apartment, was given so little notice to move that he had no time to evacuate his possessions, and lost almost everything he owned.

While Mr Gusseinov was offered 300 manat (approximately $US380) to get a temporary apartment, this is a far cry from what he should have received under the official laws that govern forcible resumption of property in Azerbaijan. According to an article “Azerbaijan: Illegal Evictions Ahead of Eurovision” on the Human Rights Watch website, the current offers being made to residents, which amount to 1500 manat (approximately $US1900) per square meter regardless of the state of the apartment or its age, and their concurrent offer to assign residents apartments in area far from the city centre, fall far short of what the law demands.

“…under Azerbaijani law, in cases of expropriation the state must provide compensation at a market rate and cover moving, closing and other costs.”

It also appears that the municipal authorities, who have not been reprimanded in any way shape or form by the Azerbaijan government of President Ilham Aliyev (whose family has ruled the country since it broke from the Soviet Union in 1991), have also ignored the legal requirement that they have obtain a court order before any official demolition work commences.

In fact so eager have they been to tear down the nine-story building that they commenced its demolition while families remained in the building waiting for some form of official compensation to arrive. Not only did this endanger the lives of people as rubble fell into lower apartments from the ones being pulled apart above but residents were forced to live without heating, electricity and telephone services in the middle of winter.

A home on Shamsi Badalbeili Street in central Baku demolished illegally in 2011

This sort of unauthorised behaviour is part of a broader pattern, according to Human Rights Watch, of “illegal expropriations and demolitions in Baku that [have] marred the Azerbaijani authorities’ ambitious program of urban renewal in Baku. In the course of this program, begun in 2008, tyne authorities have illegally expropriated thousands of properties, primarily apartments and homes in middle-class neighbourhoods, to be demolished to make way for parks, gardens, roads and luxury residential buildings.”



These flagrant breaches of not only Azerbaijan’s own laws but of peoples basic human rights, have been met with either silence by the EBU or by statements that seek to distance the event from the demolitions themselves. In fact, the EBU maintains that any “urban renewal” in Baku was underway prior to the country winning the right to Eurovision.

While that is partially true, the pace of demolition had hastened since Azerbaijan began preparing to host Europe’s poptastic night of nights. When pressed to defend the fact that the EBU has stayed silent as people like the Gusseinovs lost their homes, Joergen Franck, director of television for the EBU, said that while the EBU is seeking what it terms “explanations” from the Azerbaijan government on the nature of the redevelopment being carried out in Baku, it wouldn’t be addressing what were termed “eviction-related abuses”. He stressed that doing so would interfere with the non-political character of the Eurovision Song Contest. (see Terra Nullius blog for more)

Joergen Franck, EBU Director of Television

But you could well argue, and many have that the political horse bolted some years back and that the Eurovision brand is being tainted by the controversy around the forced evictions of people with little recourse to legal remedies.

Still this is not the only skeleton hiding in Azerbaijan’s glitter-covered closet. While the country is adamant it respects the rule of law, any pretensions to democracy are just that – pretense. It has made few concessions to democracy, and enforces strict press censorship, punishing anyone who dares to defy it in the most punitive ways possible.

For instance, a blogger, Emin Milli, who released videos critical of the Aliyev regime on YouTube in 2009, was seriously beaten up by unidentified people while having dinner with other activists in July of that year. When he went to the police to complain, he and a friend were charged instead of the people who attacked him and after four months in jail, he was sentenced to two and a half years imprisonment. He was only freed in November 2009 after an international furore which involved, among action by the European Parliament and Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International designating both Emin Milli and his co-accused and co-sentenced, Adnan Hajizada as “prisoners of conscience”.

Emin Milli

In another example of the Azerbaijan government’s less than charitable attitude to those who dare to call for change in the country of any kind, it arrested Jabbar Savalan in February 2011 one day after he called for protests and used Facebook to make pointed criticisms of the regime. He was eventually released in December that year but again, only after major international groups such as Amnesty fought for his release.

It is a pattern repeated again and again. Anyone who voices even the slightest criticism of Aliyev’s repressive regime is silenced as quickly as possible using whatever means are at the government’s disposal. This habit of silencing opposition figures conflicts with Azerbaijan’s commitments to respect human rights as a member of the Council of Europe, and a signatory to a whole host of international treaties.

So what of the EBU’s response to this? In an article in Britain’s Guardian newspaper by Tracy McVeigh which canvassed the worth of a boycott of Eurovision – more on this later – she quoted an EBU spokesman in the context of a wider discussion of the merits of a temporary lifting on the press restrictions:

“Azerbaijan, which won the right to host Eurovision after winning the contest in 2011, has given the organisers, the European Broadcasting Union, a guarantee that foreign delegates will be secure and free from any censorship during their stay.

‘It is an astonishing guarantee to have to give,’ said Milli. ‘What does it say about Azerbaijan for the rest of the time?'”

Emin Milli’s point is a valid one. What is the point of a censorship “holiday” if, as Rhodri C. Williams says on the blog Terra Nullius in an article entitled “Eurovision in Baku: Should the European Broadcasting Union care about human rights?”, “it ended as soon as the disco balls came down?” It would amount to little more than democratic window dressing for the duration of the contest with the usual repressive state of affairs resuming as soon as the last spandex clad person flew out of the country. You could well ask what would be the point?

The EBU firmly believes that Azerbaijan’s time in the international spotlight can be used to bring about much needed change. But history has demonstrated that the moment that spotlight goes dim that a country simply reverts to its old habits, and little changes. While Eurovision may briefly serve to highlight Azerbaijan’s abuse of its own citizens, and the glaring economic inequalities in a country where the rich are obscenely rich and the poor, bereft of rights and stable income, straggle to get by, it looks like it will have a limited lifespan and won’t accomplish much in the longterm.

But it’s not just Azerbaijan’s citizens who have issues with the way the country behaves. Their neighbours do as well.

Armenia which has declined to participate in this year’s contest says it is doing so because Azerbaijan’s president cited them as his country’s “main enemies” in a speech in early March this year. While such a pronouncement wasn’t a surprise, it was seen as a provocative act so close to the contest which Armenia takes very seriously. It is a continuation  of the animosity that has existed between Armenia and Azerbaijan since they went to war with each other over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan’s recognised borders that Armenia has occupied since the early 1990s. (It was an autonomous territory under the Soviets which Armenia argues means it was not technically part of greater Azerbaijan; this year’s Eurovision host of course disputes this.)

Armenia's flag

While a ceasefire has been in place since 1994, tensions remain high. Azerbaijan has expressed no intention of moving in to reclaim the territory from which many ethnic Azeris were expelled becoming refugees in their own country, and Armenia, fiercely protective of Armenians everywhere, is determined to hang onto it. So a stalemate exists that means that relations between the countries, never warm to being with even during the Soviet era, have approached subzero temperatures with no thaw in sight.

But it’s not the territorial wrangling that concerns this article. It can be argued that both sides have a claim to the territory based on the fact that in the vacuum created by the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s, and this is not the place to debate the worth of either side’s claims.

However what this territorial dispute has engendered is another variation on the  repression that is almost routinely exercised within Azerbaijan. Already adept at forcing its citizens to toe the party line, the government in Baku almost veered into parody when, in 2009, it tracked down and interrogated 43 of its citizens who somehow managed to vote for Armenia’s entry, Inga and Anush Arshakayans. These citizens, who were forced to swear renewed fealty to Azerbaijan and recant their vote, had managed to thwart elaborate systems in place to prevent them voting for a country Azerbaijan sees as an enemy combatant.

That same year the Azerbaijani broadcaster Ictimai Televiziya was cited by the EBU for blurring out the telephone number for Eurovision voting in contravention of the broadcasting rules they had agreed to. At least in this instance the EBU acted decisively, fining Ictimai 2700 Euros, and threatened to ban Azerbaijan from any future participation in Eurovision if this act was repeated. Apparently unrepentant though, the broadcaster was also accused of terminating the broadcast of Junior Eurovision in 2010 when Armenian Vladimir Arzumanyan took out the crown.

It is not surprising that Azerbaijan would go to great lengths to censor any mention of Armenia or its accomplishments. This is the modus operandi of regimes like Aliyev’s, especially ones that are technically still at war with a neighbour who is occupying part of what it regards as its territory.

What is troubling for some observers who have followed Azerbaijan’s predilection for blanket suppression is that while the country has professed aspirations to become a part of Europe, taking as its own all of that continent’s democratic and social ideals, it often acts in direct opposition to commitments it has given to various bodies to adhere to European norms. (Which includes its treatment of homosexual men and women – while being gay was decriminalised in 2010 so the country could join the Council of Europe, and is not punishable by death like it is in neighbouring Iran, it is still censured as a lifestyle incompatible with Azerbaijan’s Islamic values which could prove an issue for Eurovision’s considerable gay following when they descend as expected on Baku en masse.)

Activities like those outlined above do not bode well, some say, for its commitment to refrain from censorship or harsh treatment of critics during the event. It is hoped though that the attention that Eurovision normally brings to the host country will still the hand of suppression, at least for the duration of the event.

But the perceived pointlessness of a temporary cessation of repressive actions by the Azerbaijani regime has led to calls for a the afore-mentioned boycott of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. While it is argued that a boycott will only serve to politicise the event, others argue that the event was tainted by political machinations as far as back as Spain’s hosting of it in 1968 when Franco manipulated the votes to ensure a Spanish win to serve his own propaganda purposes. While the only loser at that point was Cliff Richard with his song, “Congratulations”, which went on to stellar commercial success while Spain’s song, “La La La” by Massiel sunk without a trace, it is seen as the beginning of Eurovision’s descent into politicisation.

Cliff Richard performing at the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest

It was a politicisation that gathered pace following Turkey’s controversial 1974 invasion of Cyprus which promoted Greece to withdraw from the 1975 contest. The Turks retaliated in 1976 by refusing to telecast the Greek song, “Panaghia Mou, Panaghia Mou” by Mariza Koch which they alleged was a barely disguised protest song about their occupation of the disputed island.

Mariza Koch performing at the 1976 Eurovision Song Contest

And Eurovision’s close dance with political issues reached a crescendo in 2000 when Israel’s entry, Ping Pong finished their jaunty song “Be Happy” and unfurled Syrian flags while issuing a clarion call for peace in their region. It took the audience, Israel’s authorities and the EBU by complete surprise with no one being aware that two members of the group were politically active journalists who only entered Eurovision to make a point.

Israel's entry in the 2000 Eurovision Song Contest, Ping Pong

So since it appears that Eurovision is already hopelessly politicised, is there any merit in a boycott being observed? Many are arguing that there is. Proponents argue that a boycott would draw much needed attention to a country where bans on any opposition activities are the norm, and detention and harassment of journalists, including people like investigative journalist, Khadija Ismayil, are routine, and human rights abuses common.

One of the supporters of a boycott, calls for which have come from campaigners in Holland, France and Ireland, as well as from members of the European parliament, is an Azerbaijani activist and musician Azer Mamedov (also known as Cirttan) who was quote in a Guardian article on a potential boycott as saying:

“For sure Azerbaijan will be a very good host. It will want to show the world all of its modernity and prosperity. What we won’t get to see are the poor conditions of the people. Corruption is a way of life and the people are afraid to stand up for themselves.”

But others are against a boycott. Among them is a surprising figure, Emin Milli, the activist beaten by the authorities and then charged for a trumped up crime, who maintains that a boycott “is the worst thing that could happen.” He goes on to say:

“Eurovision is an opportunity for the international community to focus on what is happening in Azerbaijan. The best way to understand is to come and see it.”

The EBU, which unsurprisingly maintains that the Eurovision Song Contest is utterly untainted by any sort of politicisation had this to say on the issue in the same Guardian article:

“We would be very disappointed to have any boycotting. We believe strongly that Eurovision is not political. In real life, politics do come up at Eurovision. There was some talk of boycotting England in the 1970s over what was happening in Northern Ireland. But Eurovision can act as an agent of change. It is an event to unite countries and communities and bring understanding. It’s important to know that Azerbaijan’s prime minister has given a guarantee of press freedom during the contest, although we cannot ask for a guarantee for the next 10 years also.”

This close to the event, which is only a few weeks away at the time of writing, it is unlikely that a boycott will gather enough momentum to have any meaningful impact. Hosting the Eurovision Song Contest, which to be fair isn’t awarded to a country based on its observance of democratic and human rights norms, but rather on whether its anointed singer wins the contest, will at least ensure that more people know about Azerbaijan than did before its win and hosting of the event.

And if history shows us anything it is that the more people are aware of a country or an issue, the harder it is for the focus of their attention to keep to business as usual. For all its “Eurovision is not political” posturing, it is possible that the event best known for gloriously overblown kitsch may yet make a lasting impact that goes far beyond the final darkening of the stage in Baku.

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6 thoughts on “A darker shade of glitter: Eurovision’s political underbelly

    1. Thank you. The more I read the more horrified I became. I must admit that though I love Eurovision – you’ll see that elsewhere on the blog, I am so conflicted about its presence in Baku. Frankly a country like Azerbaijan which pays only lip service to any of the ideals Eurovision purportedly stands for shouldn’t have the event. Dictators only seem to window dress democracy when it suits them and I fear it will be business as usual when the EBI circus leaves town. Thanks so much for the extra update and I will keep reading your blog – awesome work thanks!!

      1. I’m pretty fond of Eurovision too, and while I wouldn’t necessarily advocate slinging countries with liberal democracy issues out, the failure to engage meaningfully with the issues in Baku is not only damaging to the credibility of the contest but sets a bad precedent. There are plenty of other potential Eurovision winners/hosts that could pose similar problems in the future…

  1. I will come back to this article to read. I need to go and get my requisite 3 hours sleep before getting up for work! So much to do, so little time before Oooooorovision!

    1. Hi Rhodri. Thanks for this informative but ultimately horrifying article. I was completely conflicted watching Eurovision this year – of course you don’t expect the telecasters to mention anything at all about human rights abuses etc but the fact that the event went off in some fairytale alternate universe where everything is sunshine and light left me feeling sick even as I watched the event. I am going to keep monitoring the situation, and definitely want to make sure it isn’t forgotten. It would be awful if the PR machine won.

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