Monday, May 28, 2012

Eurovision 2012: In between propaganda and... propaganda

The Eurovision final was held a couple of days ago, and since I had promised to write more on the subject, I tried to put together some materials and personal reflections on what happened. There were two major issues of note about this year's Eurovision, held in Azerbaijan: the attempted, and yet unsuccessful, "public diplomacy" by the regime, and Armenia's "boycott".

Official Eurovision 2012 logo. From:

"Public diplomacy", human rights, and counter-propaganda

As I had noted in my previous post, Eurovision 2012 gave Azerbaijan a great opportunity to take its public diplomacy to a whole new level. I would feel much more comfortable with the term propaganda (or "branding", at best), though, since there was nothing at all beyond biased images (and "image" is used in a literal sense, here) in what was put out by the government.

I would also argue that all the propaganda, as well as the actual Eurovision itself, came at a cost to the image of the country in the short run. Yes, it was a great excuse to bring in tourists and visitors; but along came international reporters and their cameras. All this spotlight could not have been limited to the actual song contest itself, and spread over Azerbaijan's other issues as well, whether political, economic, societal, or international. Thus, for instance, even distant, Eurovision-oblivious readers of the New York Times and Washington Post (and even NPR listeners) had the privilege to find out more about the human rights abuses in the country.

Reports on the state of affairs in Azerbaijan from distant and unexpected media outlets started coming out much earlier this year. For example, CNBC ran a full 25-min "Filthy Rich" episode on the Aliyev Presidential  family, back in February. Here is a preview:

Then, there was the (by now notorious) BBC Panorama "undercover" report that was released a couple of days before the contest:

Major issues: corruption (domestic and international), political centralization and repression, outrageous human rights record, and increasing economic inequality. Was the government hoping that ads such as these would provide a strong enough counter-weight to all the criticism?

I'm sure, not. After all, there needs to be a clear differentiation between branding for purely "touristic" reasons and real public diplomacy. Those who can afford to travel there, would probably not mind taking a trip to a beautiful and (increasingly?) mysterious country. But, that is very different from open public diplomacy, based on sufficient degrees of reality, sincerity, and mutuality (to name but a few of the key elements I find necessary for public diplomacy to be successful).

Yet, I should also go back and emphasize that here I am talking about the public image of Azerbaijan in the short run. Does it truly matter, in this case, one would ask? Azerbaijan is a country rich in oil and natural gas, and perhaps even more importantly, its location is of major geo-strategic importance (it has a very long border with Iran and a predominantly Shi'i population, yet it tries to maintain close relations with the West). Would anyone really speak up against what's going on inside a distant country, then...? The Aliyevs are using that well.

Some dare to speak up, however. There were some brave tweets from @arzugeybulla, for example:

"This is the night when we get a final chance to show the world that ‪#Azerbaijan‬ though looks fancy it's a ‪#dictatorship‬ ‪#Eurovision2012‬" [see here]
"why is it that people have such a hard time accepting the truth?! apparently i should only praise praise & praise ‪#Azerbaijan‬ ‪#Eurovision‬" [see here]
(Believe me, Arzu, I know exactly what you mean...!)
"‪#Loreen‬ please dont forget what you saw in ‪#Azerbaijan‬ & support ‪#FreedomOfExpression‬ ‪#HumanRights‬ ‪#democracy‬ when you are back ‪#Eurovision‬" [see here]

Beyond that, I think they really tried to put on a good show to impress their audiences. Here is an excerpt from the closing performance of the first semi-final (May 22):

Impressive indeed! Also, arguably, very similar to Armenian. But I'll get to that in a minute.

Armenia's Eurovision 2012 debacle

Given the ongoing (although dormant) conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh, Armenia's participation in this year's Eurovision was going to be problematic. It turned out to be problematic and ridiculous.

These two have had tensions play out in Eurovision for several years, now. Firstly, there were the controversies over Armenia flashing the Karabakh "Grandma and Grandpa" monument at various points of appearance, back in 2008 and 2009. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, reportedly blocked the Armenian performance altogether, in 2009, and summoned the 43 Azeris who voted for Armenia (in what is supposed to be anonymous voting) for questioning by national security officials to explain their vote.

To spare you the details, here is a quick backstory to what happened this year:

After a long debate within the country, as to whether Armenia should participate or not, the government and Public TV (the official "manager" at the country level) withdrew from the contest, officially due to security concerns and a remark made by President Aliyev in the end of February stating that Armenians are Azerbaijan's "main enemies". (The withdrawal was arguably "a PR disaster" for Armenia, for other reasons, too, but it is beyond the point here).

Ok, so, enemies just boycotting each other? Not really, said the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), overseeing the event. Because Armenia was too late to withdraw (well past the deadline), it was to be fined; and more importantly, the Armenian Public TV had to broadcast - live - the contest in full, with the public having no right to vote for the contestants. Had Armenia not complied, it would have been disqualified and barred from participation in 2013, as well. There was some uncertainty over whether the Public TV should be broadcasting the contest, but it eventually confirmed that it would.

EBU is against politicization of the contest? Yeah, right...

Some three-four hours of uninterrupted streaming of what is obviously Azeri promotion (propaganda?) live on Armenia's Public TV? In return, instead of going the traditional way and choosing well-known TV hosts for the occasion, the Armenians decided to get Gohar Gasparyan (head of Armenia's Eurovision delegation) and Artur Grigoryan (Public TV's foremost analyst on Azeri and Nagorno Karabakh affairs) as local commentators throughout the broadcast.

Before going any further, I should probably note for those who have never watched Eurovision that it is usually peppered with short ads - called "postcards"- that go in between the various performances in the contest. Some host countries choose to showcase themselves (their monuments, culture, etc) in form of a series of ads, while others choose images or themes pertaining specifically to the upcoming performance and their country.

Although I couldn't find any of the specific postcards Azerbaijan had prepared, here is a longer version of one of the ads they used:

Needless to say, the Armenian commentary was amusing, at times stupid, and often plain frustrating. Yes, I should note that at times I expected the commentators to be much more blunt and critical - and therefore, found them somewhat reserved and reluctant when they were not - but when they did ridicule the show, they were indeed very political and harsh.

Among the things they stressed most were the reasons for Armenia's non-participation this year (i.e. the official version: Aliyev's comment and security concerns) and something along the lines of "repetition is the mother of learning", referring to Azerbaijan's claim (in the ads) to certain parts of culture and land that Armenians would consider their own. Comments ranged from criticism of the Azeri hostess' attempted French, to the "postcards" that, according to them, didn't make sense and did not have a unified, coherent theme.

There were other remarks - plain wrong - confusing Nowruz' dyed eggs and jumping over fire (both, typical Zoroastrian traditions, still practiced in Azerbaijan) with Christian Easter eggs and the equivalent Armenian tradition of jumping over the fire during the Candlemas (or Hypapante; or Tearendaraj) festivities. Thus, they indirectly claimed such traditions for Armenians only, not knowing - or pretending to not know - that there are their equivalents in the Azerbaijani tradition as well. There was also a lot said about the use of "traditional Armenian duduk" and "zurna", carpets (and their patterns), folk dances and costumes, art, and even horses.

Another interesting part was about the postcard that preceded the Azeri performance in the contest, featuring "Garabagh". What the commentators explained was that it was the edited and much more acceptable version of the ad, which was a result of Armenia's complaint with the EBU. Thus, the postcard did not refer to "Nagorno Karabakh" (i.e. Mountainous Karabakh), but to "Garabagh" only, that is the rest of the historic region, over which there is no issue at the moment. The hosts presented this as a success for Armenia and credited political pressure from above for the final outcome (which was a little less unacceptable, I guess).

In short, the commentary, although reserved at times, was all but apolitical. There were instances, though, where I wondered if the hosts even knew what they were talking about. Why did they have to play so dumb? Why make proprietary statements about a much wider culture shared beyond borders, without any consideration of the fact that once, in the distant past, there were no borders at all...? Why feed into already bubbling nationalism?

Well, that was the very point, wasn't it? The public is already predisposed to selective perception and anti-Azeri processing of information, and with a little help from the commentators, Public TV tried to turn this disaster into their own version of the anti-Azeri Eurovision propaganda. It might have worked with the majority.

I just hope that there were some, not just among the Armenian audience, who would lament (along with me) the loss of this great opportunity: the opportunity to see (for many, for the first time) that the "Azeri" culture is not really all that different from the "Armenian" one; that there is much shared by the people; and that there is "dolma" on the other side of the border, too (and no, it is really not just Armenian).

Some day. Some day...


  1. Very good commentary Yelena, well written and well balanced, a rarity in a blog by an Armenian.

    Souren Sarafyan

  2. Thanks, Souren. I really wish there was more "balance" in the coverage of such issues, but clearly it's impossible in the region, in general.

  3. One comment. Azerbaijan didn't block the performance by Armenia in 2009. They simply obscured the telephone number for people to vote for that act.

    This is also backed up by an Azerbaijani blogger's account of watching the performance in Baku:

  4. Thanks for the clarification, Onnik. Indeed, it is a small detail, but does make a difference.
    And yet, the effect/result is the same and it basically says the same thing about the Azeri public TV, doesn't it? Especially after the government tracked down and rounded up those who had voted for the Armenian performers.
    Either way, there's A LOT of ridiculousness on both sides. It's all pathetic...

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