Don't Call It Culture

The European Song Contest is a thoroughly politicized event, not a celebration of culture. The strained relationship between the Azerbaijani hosts and their Armenian guests is only the most obvious example of the politics of art.

A few months before the Eurovision Song Contest, the European media began to discuss it and wagered a first guess on possible outcomes. But in many countries of Eastern Europe – like Armenia and Azerbaijan – the contest has been making headlines for quite some time. The reason is that every event connected to the process of European integration is a matter of national concern.

Since the victory of the Azerbaijani contestant in 2011, Armenia’s participation in the contest has been the subject of discussion in both countries (which are locked in a drawn-out and controversial border dispute). Azerbaijan declared that Armenia would be allowed to participate and extended security guarantees to the Armenian delegation during their possible trip to Baku, the nation’s capital. This was a smart diplomatic maneuver: Azerbaijan wanted to show the international community that they were ready to guarantee their adversaries’ security even after Armenian “aggression” in the border dispute. In the meantime, Armenian society was absorbed in discussions about whom to send to the contest – and ended up debating whether to send anyone at all.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have not yet reached a consensus over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which borders both countries. For Armenians Nagorno-Karabakh is an historically Armenian land which has been “liberated” by Armenia. Azerbaijan sticks to the position that during the Soviet period Karabakh was officially in Azerbaijan and has been “occupied” by Armenia. Even after the cease-fire in 1994, a peace treaty has never been signed and diplomatic relations were never established.

Since Armenia and Azerbaijan began participating in the Eurovision Song Contest (in 2006 and 2008, respectively), the music competition has always been seen as a political tool rather than as a cultural event. Every year, Azerbaijan’s entry received the maximum twelve point vote from its political ally Turkey, while Armenia can count on twelve points from its big brother, Russia (or from the Netherlands and Greece, which have strong Armenian minorities). The politicization of the competition is undeniable. Music appears only as a façade to carefully cover the political game on the European stage. Quite simply, the Eurovision Song Contest is not a celebration of culture.

Some have argued that Azerbaijan was chosen as last year’s winner primarily because it deserved the chance to show Europe that the country has more to offer than energy resources, and because a contest in Azerbaijan held the potential of warming regional confrontations and furthering European integration. The latter will certainly not take place this year – Armenia has decided to boycott the contest in Baku, declaring that it “won’t send its participant to a country that doesn’t respect principles of international law.”

It remains to be seen whether that strategy succeeds. Right now, Azerbaijan is basking in the light of Europe-wide anticipation while Armenia’s defiant stance is largely seen as dark PR. But given the heightened emotions on both sides and the political nature of the event, this might be the only strategy available to Armenia.

Read more in this debate: Shahin Abbasov, Leyla Yunus, Julia Korbik.

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