The opportunity for improving relations between countries sometimes come in unlikely forms. In 2008 the process of Armenia-Turkey rapprochement was literally kick-started by a World Cup qualifier held in Yerevan, but even if the anticipated outcome of establishing diplomatic relations never occurred, last weekend's win for Azerbaijan in Eurovision, an international music competition, offers some hope that it could be used to improve relations with estranged neighbor Armenia.
The task won't be easy, with Eurovision usually ending up as an opportunity for both countries to continue their conflict in front of an international audience, but if the international community were to encourage and engage themselves in ensuring Armenia's participation in next year's competition to be held in Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, there is that possibility as I outline in my latest article for Ararat Magazine. However, Eurovision has always more been surrounded by controversy when it comes to the three South Caucasus countries.
In 2009, for example, Georgia had no choice but to pull out as well after its entry, a song seen by many to be mocking Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, was considered “too political,” but the main controversies have nearly always involved Armenia and Azerbaijan. Locked in a bitter conflict over the disputed territory of Karabakh, which saw over 25,000 killed and a million forced to flee from their homes, tensions remain high since the 1994 cease-fire. An arms build-up, tensions on the line of contact which often result in cross-border skirmishes, a peace process which has virtually stalled, and bellicose rhetoric even led the International Crisis Group earlier this year to warn of the danger of a new “accidental” war.
In 2009, however, rivalries and conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan became increasingly noticeable. The presentation video for the Armenian entry, Jan Jan by Inga and Anush, displayed an image of We Are Our Mountains, a prominent statue situated in the disputed territory of Karabakh and also included on the self-declared republic’s official emblem. Azerbaijan complained and it was removed at the insistence of Eurovision. In response, Armenia’s presenter, singer Sirusho who entered in 2008, purposely displayed the offending statue on the back of a clipboard used to read out the results for the final. However, that wasn’t the only problem.
During the competition itself, the telephone number to send votes by SMS for Armenia was deliberately obscured in Azerbaijan although that didn’t stop some viewers on the other side of the line of contact from voting for its foe anyway. One of those was Rovshan Nasirli, an Azerbaijani refugee from Karabakh, who was called in for questioning by the National Security Service (NSS) in Baku. According to Nasirli, the NSS had the names and addresses of another 42 who voted the same way. In his defense, he said he voted for Armenia, which came in 10th, because it sounded “more Azeri” than Azerbaijan’s entry, which came in 3rd.
Meanwhile, still reeling from being knocked out in the first semi-final of last week’s competition, Armenia has not announced whether it will participate in next year’s Eurovision in Baku, but the question is slowly starting to be asked. Azerbaijan has already declined to take part in the Junior Eurovision Song Contest to be held in Yerevan later this year, but past precedents such as the 2009 Eurovision Dance Festival in Baku show that Azerbaijan is bound by EBU regulations and the same will be true for next year. Then, as now, Azerbaijan has stated that adequate security will be provided for the Armenian delegation if it decides to take part.
”Next year’s event in Baku has the potential to bring both sides together,” wrote Daniel McGuinness for the BBC today in a piece that says that Azerbaijan’s human rights record as well as its relations with neighboring countries will now be under close and intense scrutiny. “If the Armenian delegates decide to attend, and the Azeri authorities welcome them, Eurovision’s party atmosphere could provide a rare opportunity … The lyrics at Eurovision are not always the most erudite, but if Eurovision can help ease tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, there may be some sense to them after all.”
“Next year they should ask us to help judge the contest,” Andrew Stroehlein, the International Crisis Group’s head of communication, tweeted in response. ”The question for me is … is this the Beijing Olympics or the Armenia-Turkey football match?” asked Thomas de Waal, Senior Associate in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment and author of Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War, in response to an article on Eurovision posted on my own Facebook page. “There are reasons to be cynical and optimistic.”
Incidentally, quoted in that BBC article was the opinion of Arastun Orujlu, head of the East-West Research Center in Baku. However, Orujlu's response to my own question re. the possibility to use next year's Eurovision constructively unfortunately came too late for inclusion in the Ararat article so here it is now:
I think the leadership of Azerbaijan and Armenia has to understand their responsibility for the future of their nations, as well as the South Caucasus region, and use any chance for confidence building between the two conflicting sides. Azerbaijan's victory at Eurovision is definitely a real chance for this process, but the question is whether the leadership of the two countries have enough political will to use this chance or continue to use the Karabakh conflict to keep their positions in their struggle against political opponents. I am sure that the efforts of the international community in this contest could also make the process more dynamic.
Interestingly, despite the controversy surrounding doing so, I've also just discovered that Orujlu's son voted for Armenia in Eurovision in 2009. Hopefully more Armenians and Azerbaijanis will follow his example in later years.