Armenia–Azerbaijan relations in the Eurovision Song Contest
Armenia has participated in the Eurovision Song Contest since 2006, while Azerbaijan has participated since 2008. The continuing conflict between the two countries over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is considered to be a de jure part of Azerbaijan by the United Nations, but has been under control of the Armenia-backed de facto Nagorno-Karabakh Republic since 1993, has affected the Eurovision Song Contest on several occasions.
Conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan first appeared in 2006, when Azeri media criticized the event's website for listing Nagorno-Karabakh as the birthplace of Armenia's first representative, André, as it was part of the Azerbaijan SSR at the time. Conflicts notably escalated throughout the 2009 contest: during the semi-finals, Azeri officials objected to the depiction of the Nagorno-Karabakh monument We Are Our Mountains during an introductory video for the Armenian entry. Armenia responded during the finals by displaying multiple images of the monument whilst presenting its results. Following the contest, allegations emerged that Azerbaijan's state broadcaster had tampered with its feed of the broadcast to censor the Armenian entry, and that the Azeri government was interrogating citizens who voted for Armenia, accusing them of being unpatriotic and a threat to security. Following an inquiry, Azerbaijan was fined by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) for breaching the privacy of voters.
Following the 2010 Junior Eurovision Song Contest, Armenian media claimed that Azerbaijan's broadcaster had cut off the broadcast when it became apparent that Armenia had won; however, it was disputed whether the contest was even broadcast in Azerbaijan. Accordingly, as Azerbaijan prepared to host the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest following its victory in 2011, a group of Armenian musicians led a boycott effort, and the country would ultimately withdraw from the contest, causing the broadcaster to be fined for the late notice. Armenia returned in the 2013 edition, which was held in Sweden. The move was criticized by an Azeri politician and a representative of the country's state broadcaster, who felt that Armenia's participation could have been a symbol of peace between the two nations, and that the decision would further damage the country's reputation.
Conflicts between the two countries began to develop again during the lead-up to the 2015 contest, as critics perceived the lyrics and music video of Armenia's entry "Don't Deny" as alluding to the Armenian Genocide—whose 100th anniversary was commemorated in the month prior to the contest. As Azerbaijan, alongside Turkey, denies the genocide, officials from the country issued a statement threatening Armenia for attempting to use Eurovision as an outlet for its "political ambitions". Armenia's delegation has denied that the song is specifically about the genocide, and renamed the song "Face the Shadow" to address concerns over its alleged political themes.
In the 2016 contest the conflict arose again when the Armenian singer waved the flag of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic during the first semifinal. This was met with condemnation by Azerbaijan and a warning from EBU.
In 2006—the first year in which Armenia participated, the official Eurovision website listed the birthplace of its performer André as being in the "Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh". Media outlets in Azerbaijan criticized the contest's organizers for recognizing the republic, especially given that the region was an autonomous oblast within the Azerbaijan SSR when André was born in 1979. The birthplace listing on André's profile was later removed entirely.
Azerbaijan would make its own Eurovision debut in 2008—marking the first time both Armenia and Azerbaijan competed against each other at the contest. The Armenian entry, "Qélé, Qélé" by Sirusho, finished in 4th place, while Azerbaijan's inaugural entry, "Day After Day", finished 8th.
Postcard controversy and aftermath
During the first semi-final of the 2009 contest, the "postcard" video introducing the performance of the Armenian entry "Jan Jan" depicted, amongst other monuments, We Are Our Mountains, an art piece located in Nagorno-Karabakh's capital city of Stepanakert. Due to the country's claims over the region, Azerbaijani officials objected to the use of We Are Our Mountains to represent Armenia. For the finals of the contest, the offending statue was edited out of the Armenian postcard.
In protest of the decision, multiple photographs of We Are Our Mountains were displayed during the presentation of voting results from Armenia; one was displayed on a video screen at Yerevan's Republic Square in the background, and another was displayed on the back of a clipboard that the presenter Sirusho was reading results from. Despite the controversy, 1,065 Armenians voted for the Azerbaijani entry, enough to give the country a single point. A total of 43 Azerbaijanis voted for the Armenian entry.
Censorship, interrogation of voters
Following the contest, reports surfaced that the local Azeri broadcaster, İctimai Television, had attempted to censor the Armenian performance from its broadcast of the final, and had obscured the voting number for the entry in an effort to discourage voting for it. İTV denied these claims, and provided footage showing that its broadcast was untampered with. In August 2009, a number of Azerbaijanis who had voted for Armenia's entry during the contest were summoned for questioning at the Ministry of National Security in Baku, during which they were accused of being "unpatriotic" and "a potential security threat". One of those summoned, Rovshan Nasirli (who had voted for "Jan Jan" because he felt it was a better reflection of Azeri music than "Always", the country's actual entry) said that his interrogators told him that they had the names and addresses of all 43 Azerbaijanis who had voted for Armenia.
Following these reports, Svante Stockselius, executive supervisor of the Eurovision Song Contest, announced the launch of an enquiry into the incidents. In their response, İctimai TV stated that while two individuals had been invited to the Ministry of National Security, the Ministry had given assurances that nobody had been questioned, either officially or unofficially, on voting in the competition itself. The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) Director General, Jean Réveillon, responded to this by saying that freedom to vote is one of the cornerstones of the contest and "Any breach of privacy regarding voting, or interrogation of individuals, is totally unacceptable". Azerbaijani Minister of Youth and Sport, Azad Rahimov, denied that anyone had been summoned to the Ministry of National Security about voting for the Armenian entry, and accused RFE/RL and other news outlets of reporting the allegations to create a scandal.
The Reference Group of the EBU, which organizes Eurovision, examined the matter at a meeting in Oslo on 11 September 2009. In a statement issued on 17 September, the EBU acknowledged the allegations that Azeri officials were interrogating voters and breaching their privacy. While the EBU would not impose sanctions on or ban Azerbaijan from future editions of the contest (the country could have been banned from the contest for three years), it fined the delegation €2,700, and changed its rules to make participating broadcasters liable for the "disclosure of information which could be used to identify voters" during future editions of the contest. Previously, telecommunications providers were liable, but the EBU could not impose sanctions on them.
The 2012 Eurovision Song Contest was hosted by Baku, Azerbaijan after their win in 2011. Azerbaijan temporarily amended its visa policy to allow Armenians, who are normally barred from entering the country, to attend the event. However, in February 2012, a boycott effort emerged in Armenia following an incident where a 20-year-old Armenian soldier was shot dead on the border between the two countries. Armenian officials initially blamed the soldier's death on an Azerbaijani sniper; however, conflicting reports indicated that the death was the result of friendly fire. Also in February, Azeri president Ilham Aliyev made a statement re-affirming the country's stance against Armenians, arguing that they control "hypocritical and corrupt politicians." 22 Armenian musicians, including previous Armenian Eurovision representatives Emmy and Eva Rivas, signed an open letter supporting a boycott, stating that they would "refuse to appear in a country that is well-known for the mass killings and massacres of Armenians, in a country where anti-Armenian sentiments have been elevated to the level of state policy."
On 7 March 2012, Armenian officials announced that the country would withdraw from the 2012 contest. The EBU stated that it was "truly disappointed" with Armenia's withdrawal, and that "despite the efforts of the EBU and the Host Broadcaster to ensure a smooth participation for the Armenian delegation in this year's Contest, circumstances beyond our control lead to this unfortunate decision." İTV General Director Ismayil Omarov expressed his regret about Armenia's withdrawal, believing that the country's presence could have been a "joint peace message to the world." Local politician Ali Ahmadov also criticized the Armenian delegation for its decision, stating that "[its] refusal to take part in such a respected contest will cause even further damage to the already damaged image of Armenia."
Due to its late withdrawal, Armenia was required to pay its entry fee, plus a fine totalling half the value of the entry fee.
2010 Junior Eurovision Song Contest
Vladimir Arzumanyan, a singer from Nagorno-Karabakh representing Armenia, won the 2010 Junior Eurovision Song Contest. It was alleged by Armenian media outlets that the broadcast of the contest in Azerbaijan was interrupted when it became apparent that Armenia had won.
These claims were disputed by Armenia 1 director and Eurovision delegation leader Diana Mnatsakanyan, who also denied reports that the country was preparing to file a complaint with the EBU over the matter. She noted that the broadcaster did not know whether Azerbaijan even aired the contest at all, given that the country had not yet participated in the Junior Eurovision and had "no interest" in it at the time, and that reports about the alleged incident were limited to posts on Azerbaijani forums. Azerbaijan would ultimately make its official debut at the Junior Eurovision two years later.
Upon its unveiling in March 2015, media outlets characterized Armenia's entry in the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest, "Don't Deny", as being in tribute to the Armenian Genocide, whose centenary was commemorated prior to the contest on 24 April 2015. The song was performed by Genealogy, a group whose composition alludes to the forget-me-not by consisting of five Armenian diaspora, along with a sixth singer representing Armenia and their unity. "Don't Deny" was perceived to be a call for recognition of the genocide; critics also noted that the song's music video contained visuals alluding to the genocide, with one scene depicting the group's members posing for a family photo in World War I-era outfits, and then disappearing from sight. Gohar Gasparyan, head of Armenia's Eurovision delegation, has described the song as being about love and unity, and did not make reference to any specific political intent or themes. Representatives of Azerbaijan—which, alongside Turkey, denies the genocide—criticized the song for its alleged political themes, and stated that they would "act adequately" to prevent the contest from being "sacrificed to the political ambitions of a country."
On 16 March 2015, the Armenian delegation announced that it would rename the song to "Face the Shadow" to quell concerns over the alleged political themes of the song and to "strengthen" its themes; the song's original title still appears as part of its refrain. The delegation continues to deny any specific political subtext in the song.
Despite the EBU allowing only the flags of the full UN member states to be displayed at the 2016 contest, and banning the flag of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, during the first semi final on 10 May 2016, the Armenian representative Iveta Mukuchyan was seen holding the flag of the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, sparking backlash from the Azeri press. The situation further escalated during the semi-final winner's press conference shortly after, where an Azeri press criticised the Armenian delegation and the EBU for allowing the flag to be shown during the show. The Armenian representative responded stating: "My thoughts are with my Motherland. I want peace everywhere." The Azeri representative also commented on this situation stating that "Eurovision is a song contest and it's all about music."
The EBU and the reference group released a statement the following day explaining that they "strongly condemn the brandishing of the Nagorno-Karabakh flag" during the live transmission of the first semi final, and consider the appearance "harmful" to the contest brand. The reference group has consequently sanctioned the Armenian broadcaster AMPTV, with the nature of the sanction to be determined citing a breach of the rule stating "no messages promoting any organisation, institution, political cause or other causes shall be allowed in the shows". Furthermore, the reference group has pointed out that a further breach of the rules of the contest could lead to disqualification from the year's event or any successive editions. Hikmet Hajiyev, the spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Azerbaijan called the action of Mukuchyan "provocative" and unacceptable claiming that "the Armenian side deliberately resorts to such steps to encourage and promote the illegal formation created in the occupied Azerbaijani territories”.
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