In the UK the Eurovision song contest is seen, at best, as frothy light entertainment with little substance, and little relevance. This may, in part be due to the fact that we rarely win it, and on most occasions, get very few points. But even in those times that we were more engaged with the process, the accolade of hosting it was not considered to be that significant. Traditionally the whole proceedings are commented on in a light-hearted whimsical way as we make light fun of some of the curiosities which are seen in our European neighbours. In the main, hosting the contest serves as a form of glossy, tourist, public relations exercise which fills in the cracks between the existing levels of ignorance that we all have about our neighbours. There is no aspiration to make political statements, score geo-political points, or see any real long-term advantage; and we all get up on Sunday morning largely having forgotten all about it.
Since the beginning, the Song Contest has been broadcast on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) TV channel , which is the only publicly funded channel in the UK, and generally is recognised as being impartial and fair in its reporting. One of the stalwarts of current affairs reporting, and investigative journalism, on that channel, is the “Panorama” programme which is aired at prime-time during the week. This week it screened a programme on Azerbaijan, a country about which most people know very little, and will probably consider to be exotic, and strange, sitting on the eastern most edge of what the Song contest would consider to be Europe. To an audience of several million viewers, an insight into the darker side of Azerbaijan was exposed under the programme title of “Eurovision’s Dirty Secret” – this is not what President Aliyev was expecting from winning this “prestigious” event.
It would appear that the regime in Azerbaijan is viewing this event as somewhere between the Football World Cup, and the Olympics, and that by providing a fabricated, and high glamour show that somehow no one will be interested in the politics of the country. How little they understand British, if not true European, inquisitiveness in this modern world. Also, in Britain, our press takes great delight in exposing iniquities wherever it can find it, and the naïve host of the Eurovision Song Contest is a prime target.
The propaganda machine has gone into overdrive in Baku. It has erected a pole, 40 stories high to parade the national flag, and has forcibly evicted people from their homes in order to build a 20,000 seat arena – Baku Crystal Hall – to stage the contest. The actions of removing people from their homes has been condemned by Human Rights Groups.
The programme described, from a number of different angles, the lengths that the regime goes to, to suppress dissent, or free journalism. In the 2009 contest, it was reported that the Armenian entry was “blacked out” as it was transmitted which seems like the act of a desperate state. A Pro-democracy Contest voter, Rovshan Nasirli, who was not an Armenian supporter, voted for the Armenian song through his phone. He was subsequently approached by the Ministry of National Security, taken in to custody, on the basis that his phone number was part of a criminal investigation, and intimidated; others were also taken in for questioning. Journalists, and dissenters described stories of being beaten, threatened, intimidated, and in one case shot, and killed for promoting anti-regime views. The US Embassy was quoted in a statement from 18th September 2009 “Aliyev takes the actions he does in order to eliminate even the semblance of risk to his political prominence. His goal appears to be a political environment in which the Aliyev dynasty is unchallenged…”
The Eurovision Song Contest is supposed to be apolitical, and it was clear from the interview with Ingrid Deltenre ( Director General – European Broadcasting Union) that the approach that the Azerbaijan government was taking was the source of much embarrassment, and frustration to the point that she declared it to be “unacceptable”.
There is a phrase in English “ Be careful what you wish for”, and from the moment that Azerbaijan entered the competition , and wished to win it, then the clock started ticking. The glare of publicity is well understood, in most parts of the world, as a “double-edged sword” and there is an expectation that goes with it, as well as a responsibility, and a risk. On this occasion Azerbaijan has raised its head into the real world, and now millions of people in the UK, and across the world, know more about this exotic place by the Caspian Sea, than they did a week ago, and it is not a good impression. In the long run, this can only be good news for Artsakh.