Saturday will bring the return of everyone’s favourite kitsch night in – the Eurovision Song Contest Final. While Britain has always viewed the event with an element of disdain, thanks to our obsession with credibility, the same is not true of the rest of Europe – and the excitement and full participation of the mainland show that the competition is still succeeding more than the Euro. Nearly every country wants to be part of this event, and it is anticipated that a global audience of 300 million will tune in.
But that’s just the sizzle on the steak. And this year, something about the steak itself is decidedly… rotten.
At the tip of an iceberg of problems facing Eurovision organisers the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) is the withdrawal of Armenia: a consequence of recent border wars between itself and this year’s host nation Azerbaijan. Perhaps more worrying for the EBU is a raft of internal problems in the host nation – highlighted by this week’s Panorama – which threaten Eurovision’s status as an apolitical event.
Incredibly, Azerbaijani citizens were jailed in 2009 for voting for Armenia’s entry – a course of action that many people took to protest against the song not being shown on state-run TV. On that basis, it’s hardly surprising that the country have declined to enter.
In terms of domestic policy, Azerbaijan has built a brand new stadium to host the event – the Baku Crystal Hall – but many blocks of flats around the venue have been demolished to improve the surrounding aesthetics, with apparently very little notice for residents, and paltry compensation. This is perhaps not surprising when the country is allegedly run as a “mafia state”, with President Ilham Aliyev inheriting power from his father, and effectively appointing himself to the position for life. Meanwhile, his extended family have been handed key positions, and control the vast majority of the country’s wealth. Indeed, the nepotism has gone so far as to guarantee that Aliyev’s son-in-law Emin Agalarov will appear on the show on Saturday.
Journalists are persecuted in Azerbaijan, and there are numerous political prisoners. Indeed, two peaceful anti-government protests were violently dispersed on Wednesday this week. In a throwback to the Soviet era, Aliyev appears to want to use the event as a propaganda tool to boost his own standing abroad and validate his position at home.
There has been much criticism of the EBU’s management of this situation and their failure to take a strong stance on Azerbaijan’s politics – but it would be unfair and unwise to blame them completely. Eurovision rules state that the winners in any given year must host the event the following year, so the EBU had no choice but to go there. The organisation also made the pre-emptive move of holding a general assembly in Baku in 2010, where it made a public commitment to freedom of expression and freedom of the media in all its member countries – including Azerbaijan.
Quite simply, the EBU is not an organisation set up to deal with politics and the situation is highly reminiscent of the fiasco of England’s cricket tour to Zimbabwe in 2003, where cricket authorities and the government all refused to take responsibility for deciding whether to play in the country. Cricketers and their authorities could hardly be blamed for not making a decision, when the government refused to do so – and when the situation arose again in 2008, the government provided clear leadership.
Similarly, the EBU had to go to Azerbaijan unless instructed not to by other European governments – and, while these Panorama reports are verifiable, it’s not up to the EBU to set the relevant tests. That is the job of government authorities. One can certainly criticise the EBU for allowing Agalarov to perform – the hijacking of the event itself is surely within their remit to control – but the external factors are something that they cannot be blamed for.
The EBU will undoubtedly try to manage the storm as best they can – and hope that, at least by coming here, they will shine a light on more than just the music.