Armenia and Azerbaijan are sworn enemies, locked into a bitter stalemate over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh. Around 25,000 people died and a million were forced to flee their homes by fighting between the two former Soviet republics in the early 1990s. Lasting peace remains elusive, despite a ceasefire agreement signed in 1994. Scores of conscripts die each year in cross-border skirmishes, but recently the conflict has moved to a new and unlikely battleground – the Eurovision Song Contest.
The kitsch and glitzy music competition has had its fair share of scandals since its inception in 1956, despite the original intention to draw countries from the European Broadcast Union (EBU) closer together. However, the recent inclusion of post-Soviet states has taken national rivalry to new heights.
Armenia entered Eurovision in 2006, followed by Georgia in 2007 and Azerbaijan the following year; bitter rivalry between the countries of the South Caucasus was evident from the outset.
In 2009, in the wake of its August 2008 war with Russia, Georgia pulled out after its song, apparently mocking President Vladimir Putin, was considered ‘too political’.
In 2009, Armenia ruffled Azerbaijani feathers with a promotional video that featured a statue in the contested Nagorno Karabakh region. This falls under Armenian control, but is considered sovereign Azerbaijan by the international community. Forced to drop the video, Armenia defiantly displayed the offending statue as the main image for its slot during the international tele-voting, which was broadcast live to millions.
Later the same year, in perhaps the worst incident of petty bickering between the two countries, 43 Azerbaijanis who voted for Armenia during the competition were called in for questioning by National Security Service agents.
No wonder, then, that when Azerbaijan won the competition last year, earning itself the right to host the event in its capital, Baku, in 2012, alarm bells rang in Armenia. Given that citizens of either country cannot visit the other under normal circumstances, additional security guarantees for Armenia’s delegation were sought from the EBU, which said that it would not intervene. Armenia formally withdrew from the competition on 7 March.
The problems are not confined to a spat with Armenia. Online activists and journalists are facing intimidation, detention and imprisonment in Azerbaijan, prompting international human rights and other organizations to cast doubts on the country’s suitability to stage Eurovision in the first place. Both local and international groups have flagged up the forced eviction of homeowners to construct the Crystal Hall Stadium where Eurovision will be held.
But some activists disagree. They argue that the international spotlight may result in much-needed reform and change. For now, however, the omens do not look good.