Eurovision: A “Cultural Chernobyl”

ABBA and Céline Dion first grabbed the world’s attention here.  So did Finnish monster-rock group Lordi. This year, a group of 6 elderly Russian women singing an Udmurt-language song titled “Party for Everybody” are vying for fame.

The annual Eurovision Song Contest, one of the world’s longest-running and most popular televised events, rarely arrives without controversy. Also known as “a riotous celebration of sequins, high-kicks, and cheesy lyrics” and “a cultural Chernobyl where sex appeal has more value than musical ability,” the contest is a sure bet to get feelings running high every spring.

Cheesy lyrics aside, the contest is infamously political.

Allegations of conspiratorial bloc voting amongst the smaller, newly independent Southern and Eastern European participants were frequently heard from the larger Western European countries.  Allegations of expatriate voting were likewise raised against countries like Switzerland and Germany, who supposedly give high rankings to countries like Turkey, the origin of many immigrants in both countries.

And it’s not just for Europeans. Morocco, Lebanon and Algeria are all eligible to participate, but refuse to televise the Israeli entrants, who have won three times. Political lyrics, though explicitly banned by the European Broadcast Union (EBU), seem to find their way into songs from time to time.

Spotlight on Azerbaijan

More serious concerns regarding human rights violations in host countries have also been raised as countries like Russia and Azerbaijan have won the rights to host the contest. With duo Ell & Nikki’s victory in Düsseldorf last year with their song “Running Scared”, Azerbaijan will be hosting the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest in Baku from May 22 – 26.

Hosting Eurovision is always seen as a marketing coup and a major way to increase a country’s profile and prestige, particularly in Southern and Eastern Europe.  Winning performances and subsequent hosting rights were major events of national pride for countries like Estonia, Latvia, and Russia. Arriving only months after Kosovo’s declaration of independence and after years of negative press regarding the breakup of Yugoslavia, Serbia’s hosting of the event in 2008 was seen there as a chance to show a positive side of the country.

Azerbaijan has been busy promoting itself over the last few months in the run-up to the contest, portraying itself as a modern, secular, Western country as well as a sort of new Dubai-on-the-Caspian.  Developers have announced plans to build the world’s tallest tower as the centerpiece to a $100 billion island city in the Caspian Sea close to Baku.  At 1,050 meters (3,444 feet) high, this hyper-modern tower would dwarf Dubai’s Burj Khalifa (830 meters / 2,723 feet) and the Kingdom Tower (1,000 meters / 3,280 feet) currently under construction in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

The attention has also increased the spotlight on Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record.  Ilham Aliyev inherited the presidency in 2003 from his dictatorial father, Heydar Aliyev, and has continued on much the same path.  Azerbaijan under the Aliyev’s reigns has been rated very low (171 out of 191) on media freedom by Freedom House.

The LGBT community, often portrayed as some of the staunchest Eurovision fans, faces similar challenges in Azerbaijan as in neighboring parts of Eastern Europe and the Middle East.  Freedom of speech is normally nonexistent in the country, but there have been complaints that Eurovision is even exacerbating human rights issues in some cases.  In reaction to the nearby Arab Spring movements, some opposition members have begun to demonstrate in favor of political change, although with few results.

Arrests and evictions
After votes were counted for Eurovision 2010 (hosted in Oslo, Norway) Azerbaijani authorities tracked down and imprisoned anyone suspected of voting for the performer from neighbor and arch-enemy Armenia.   For the 2012 show in Baku, people have been forcibly evicted to make way for the shining new Crystal Hall venue.

This year Armenia pulled out of the contest when an Armenian soldier was shot to death at the border. The two countries have had a fraught relationship since independence from the Soviet Union two decades ago.  Tensions over a still-unresolved war over the Nagorno-Karabagh region in the 1990s continue to bubble to the surface.

Guido Westerwelle, the German Foreign Minister, has remarked that Azerbaijan’s hosting of Eurovision and Ukraine’s hosting of the UEFA Euro 2012 soccer championship this summer should be accompanied by a greater commitment to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.  Civil rights campaigners around Europe have tried to raise the topic, although the EBU stridently insists that the event is apolitical and is incredulous when accused of being part of the problem rather than part of the solution of opening Azerbaijan up to the rest of Europe.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics were rife with commentary over whether China’s behavior towards its own citizens improved or worsened due to the games. The government of Qatar has tried to allay fears that female and gay soccer fans will face problems during the 2022 World Cup.

The awarding of the 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 World Cup to Russia have human rights campaigners denouncing the shortcomings of Russian democracy, murders of prominent journalists, recent attacks on gay rights, as well as Russia’s combative history in the Caucasus, particularly with Georgia.  Western nations and the Soviet bloc traded Olympic boycotts in the 1980s, using each other’s military engagements as an excuse.

Should major cultural and sporting events be tied to questions of human rights? Or do sport and art transcend politics?  As countries like Qatar and the BRICS (out of which only India has not been selected to host either the Olympics or a World Cup) gain increasing prominence on the international stage, it is likely that these questions will become even more commonplace.

If you’re looking for a fun and/or ridiculous distraction from work for the rest of the afternoon, music videos for all 42 countries are available on the official Eurovision site. For a quick run-through of some of the more colorful entrants in Eurovision 2012, AfterElton has a good summary.

By Matt Landers, Communications Intern.

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