European Vision

The following summary was written by Araz on the request of the Hungarian linguistic portal Nyelv és Tudomány (Language and Science), and now he also publishes it in English and complemented with some further illustrations on Río Wang.

I doubt if two years ago, when Hollywood actor Willem Dafoe  and actress Ashley Jensen jokingly voted for Azerbaijan at the Graham Norton’s Eurovision Warm-up comedy show on BBC Two, anybody would imagine that this country with such a hard-to-pronounce name will win Europe’s most watched song contest, which brought more than 120 million people to the front of the television screens past weekend on 14 May 2011.

Inspired by the Italian Sanremo Music Festival, the Eurovision Song Contest among the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) member countries absorbs attention of the European audience every year since 1956. EBU member broadcasters organise selection of the national finalists and the contest culminates in a spectacular live television show, hosted usually by the last year’s winning country, during which every country cast votes for other’s entries to determine the winner. 

Eurovision, which was started as a “light entertainment programme” to bring together the countries of post-war Europe, embraced new members since 1993 after the fall of the Soviet Union and Eastern Block. The most number of debuts was back in 1994, when Hungary also made its entry with Kinek mondjam el vétkeimet? (Whom can I tell my sins?), performed by Friderika Bayer. This song finished the voting race in the fourth place and it is Hungary’s best result at Eurovision so far.

Graham Norton may ridicule it up, but for the countries in the coming wave of the new EBU members like Azerbaijan Eurovision became another chance for international visibility, which sometimes raised winning the competition up to the level of a national mission. This further aggravated the controversial image of Eurovision as an overly politicised, “wacky song contest”, which suffers clique voting syndrome. Debates about neighbour and diaspora voting resulted in decision to give the professional jury votes a 50 per cent say in the final results since 2009.

“We freed ourselves from the Soviet Empire through song, now we will sing our way into Europe!” allegedly said the prime minister of Estonia congratulating crowds of citizens after the country’s victory in 2001. Estonia as the first post-soviet country winning Eurovision was followed by Latvia in 2002, Ukraine in 2004, Russia in 2008 and lastly Azerbaijan in 2011.

Azerbaijan was also the last country of the new wave, making its debut entry only in 2008. The song Day after Day was a completely Azerbaijani production, composed by Govhar Hasanzade and written by Zahra Badalbeyli. The duet of Elnur Hüseynov and Samir Cavadzadə was remembered by the vivid scenic characters of the angel and the demon fighting “day after day”. The rock-style composition, starting with opera falsetto and culminating in a traditional Azerbaijani mugham, got top 12 score from Hungary, but came only as eighth in the finals. It is interesting that Azerbaijan actually is the top fourth country getting votes from Hungarian audience so far.

For peace we pray” was the opening line of the first ever Eurovision song from Azerbaijan. Peace indeed is very much needed in the troubled South Caucasus region, torn apart by interethnic conflicts since late 1980s, and especially in Azerbaijan, which suffers continuing occupation of 20 per cent of its territory, effectively controlled by the neighbouring Armenia, after a full-scale war over its Mountainous Garabagh region widely know under its Russian transliteration of Nagorno-Karabakh. The third South Caucasian country Georgia has got even two broke away ethnic regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Similarly self-declared republics since 1990s in 2008 however they were officially recognised by Russia that even more tightened the Gordian knot of South Caucasian conflicts.

As one of the visible international events Eurovision has become a scene for some political demarches. A vivid example is Georgia’s withdrawal from the 2009 Eurovision hosted by Moscow after the 2008 Russian invasion because of a controversy raised by Russia over the Georgian finalist song We Don’t Wanna Put In which was allegedly referring to Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister of Russia. 

As the first South Caucasian country joining Eurovision in 2006, Armenia’s first ever entry immediately entailed a scandal, because the birth country of the singer was indicated as Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia and Azerbaijan live in a “no war no peace” situation since the 1994 ceasefire and this leaves its mark on the festive atmosphere of the contest so much that a separate Wikipedia entry was dedicatd to their tense Eurovision relations. This is why showing the flag of Armenia as representing Azerbaijan at the recent Eurovision special of the most popular Russian talk show “Пусть говорят” (Let them speak) caused excessive indignations.

Səfurə Alizadə, the Azerbaijani star of Eurovision in 2010

So in parallel with an arms race, costing Azerbaijan increasing portion of its annual budget, built mainly on the Caspian oil and gas revenues (an amount in the recent years far exceeding two billion US dollars), and pushing Armenia towards closer military cooperation with Russia, which apart from headquartering there its Trans-Caucasus Group of Forces, reportedly handed over arms in the value of almost two billion US dollars since 1996, two countries apparently became involved also in a Eurovision race.

It seems that starting from its second year in Eurovision Azerbaijan opted for leaving it to crack-jacks and it proved to be efficient with its songs coming third and fifth in 2009 and 2010. This year’s song Running Scared , crafted by a famous Swedish crew of Stefan Örn, Sandra Bjurman and Iain Farquharson, with a more plain, down-to-earth lyrics and a “western-style, middle of the road R&B pop tune” was performed by the Ell/Nikki duo. The duet of a 21 years old international relations student Eldar ‘Ell’ Qasımov and a 30 years old housewife and mother of two children living in London Nigar ‘Nikki’ Camal, both with apparently no professional vocal or stage experience, were selected by the national jury among five out of the unprecedented number of initial 77 aspirants, who made it to the local finals in February. But eventually this turned out to be a winning combination.

Running Scared got 12 points from Malta, Russia and Turkey, 10 points from Croatia, Moldova, Romania, San Marino and Ukraine, as well as solid 7 points from Hungary among other 30 countries, who sent their 1 to 8 points to Azerbaijan . So Ell and Nikki won the 2011 Eurovision Song Contest in Düsseldorf, which brought together 42 countries, and Baku won the right to host the competition next year.

Google Maps was probably overloaded by requests for where on Earth Azerbaijan is. Sceptics inquiring in the Internet “Is it really in Europe?” are reminded that Azerbaijan is a member of Council of Europe since 2001. Besides EBU membership is not limited to geographical Europe, so even Israel hosted Eurovision three times, most recently in 1999. Another immediate concern was about Armenia’s participation in the next year’s contest. However Baku had hosted range of prestigious international events with delegates from Armenia, including the World Wrestling Cup with the neighbour country athletes participating.

But of course there were lots of positive sentiments and congratulations. Brits immediately claimed a portion of the victory – after all, Nikki lives in Enfield, North London since 2005 with her husband Luke and their daughters Jasmine and Saida. Charmed by Ell’s fluent knowledge of their mother tongue the German audience joke that Ell is almost a German after living there as an exchange student back in 2004 and 2008. Swedish did not brag much about their compatriots behind the scenes, anyway their song was third this year. And of course the Turkish audience, culturally very close to Azerbaijan, were extremely touched by the scene of Nikki, probably not deliberately, in the euphoria of victory coming to the stage for claiming their prize with a Turkish flag in her hands. Many who supported Turkey, which consistently gives its 12 points to Azerbaijan, most probably voted for Ell/Nikki after the Turkey song did not qualify to the finals.

The joyful screams of Azerbaijani team in Düsseldorf echoed in cheerful rally of young people back in Baku streets that were a “scene of mad joy”. One of these spontaneous gatherings ended up at the central Freedom Square, which was a scene for massive anti-soviet rallies bringing together half a million people back in 1988.

But it seems that the people of Azerbaijan, who paid a high price for getting free from the soviet totalitarian regime, could not really get rid of its negative heritage. Azerbaijan, which appeared on the political map of the world back in 1918 as the first parliamentary republic in the Muslim East, once holding the torch of enlightment for many other nations , today unfortunately has sunk into the disgrace of being among the most corrupt and least free countries, as the ruling regime does not do much to recognise the memory and vision of the founders of the first Republic.

The power of victory! Freedom of Assembly in Azerbaijan right NOW. People on the streets and everywhere… NOW!” wrote in his Facebook status Emin Milli, one of the two youth activists, who were arrested back in July 2009 and were conditionally released last November after a strong international pressure. Another young intellectual, former parliamentary candidate Baxtiyar Hajiyev was arrested this March and just last week on 18 May is sentenced to two years in prison on a charge that looks rather fabricated.

There is no doubt that the Truth will shine one day, those on the side of the foundations of freedom, principles of the United Nations and human rights will win. The sun of this victory will rise over our dear motherland moaning under the tyranny of red despotism, as 28 May 1918 did once. You should have absolutely no doubts about it, dear citizens!” exclaims through the decades in a 1953 radio interview the voice, which belongs to Məhəmməd Əmin Rəsulzadə, one of the founders of Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, who passed away in exile two years after this broadcast. 93 years after the 28 May 1918 declaration of independence his virtually only standing monument in Azerbaijan, some 20 kilometres away from Baku, is visited only by opposition groups, and no fireworks or big celebrations are visible throughout the country.

Anti-soviet rally in the autumn of 1989 on the Liberty Square in Baku.
Source: Azadliq Radiosu (FER)

I don’t know whether Graham Norton, who presents BBC’s coverage of Eurovision for three years now, remembered his warm-up show back from 2009. But just days ago, on 12 May another Graham from Britain sounded as sarcastic, but not so comical, speaking about Azerbaijan during the recent debates on the country at the European Parliament in Strasburg. Graham Watson, Member of the European Parliament for South-West England since 1994, brought up the fact that “The media in Azerbaijan is not free. Its elections are not fair. Its people are subject to arbitrary and sometimes violent treatment by officials. Peaceful demonstrations in recent weeks have met with repression more common to an Arab than to a European country, from an 18-year-old regime which has slowly stifled hope of progress.” 

Does Baku belong to progressive Europe or to outdated Orient?” was the very question faced by the protagonist of the world known novel Ali and Nino: A Love Story, taking place in the fascinating fin-de-siècle Baku of the first oil boom a century ago. It seems that the founders of the first Republic then answered this question: by establishing a functional parliament with equal participation of all ethnic or religious groups and with women having rights to vote and be elected even earlier than most of the modern democracies such as the United States or France, among many other progressive beginnings. Right between the sky Blue as recognition of Turkic roots and bright Green as a sign of respect to Islamic traditions, the blazing Red on the tricolour national flag, which rose again after more than seven decades of oblivion, is indeed the symbol of the progressive European values of freedom, equality and democracy. One can only hope that with Eurovision coming to Baku next year these values will also return to the country, now experiencing its second oil boom.

So, in four years Azerbaijan sang its way to the dream of Eurovision, but the question is how long will it take to sing its way to the realization of the European Vision?