Saturday, May 25, 2013

Azerbaijan and Russia: What’s with the Eurovision Beef?

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Azerbaijan and Russia: What’s with the Eurovision Beef?

by Shahin Abbasov

When it comes to differences with Russia over energy or arms shipments, Azerbaijan rarely flinches or gives an inch. But when discussion turns to the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest, Europe’s annual sequin-studded pop-music extravaganza, Azerbaijan seems unusually solicitous in its reaction to Russia.

For the last week, there’s been lots of wailing in Moscow about the Eurovision results, which showed Azerbaijan gave no points to the Russian contestant, Dina Garipova. Yet amid all the back-and-forth about how to remedy the situation, no one has been able to offer a convincing explanation as to why Russia’s Eurovision anger matters so much to Baku.

Azerbaijani officials have appeared eager to make amends. President Ilham Aliyev called for an investigation, and Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov released data from all three of Azerbaijan’s mobile operators to support Baku’s assertion that, yes, it had voted for Garipova. Some Azerbaijani media reports have alleged rigging, a charge the European Broadcasting Union, which organizes Eurovision, emphatically denies.

Lost amid it all the teeth gnashing has been the voice of 22-year-old Garipova, who ultimately finished fifth. “I do not see the need for an investigation,” she told the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.

Many Azerbaijanis, terming the investigation “ridiculous” and “silly,” would agree.
“It is only a song contest. Baku should calmly ignore it, and the uproar over Eurovision in Russia would soon disappear,” commented political analyst Elhan Shahinoglu, head of the Baku-based think-tank Atlas. “But the [Azerbaijani] government itself politicized the issue, showing how afraid it is of Russian anger.”

“It shows how far we are from the civilized world,” added Rauf Mirgadirov, a political columnist for the Russian-language daily Zerkalo (The Mirror). “Could you imagine such a conflict between Denmark and Sweden, for example?” he asked, referring to the 2014 and 2013 Eurovision host-countries.

“It is beyond my understanding and logic,” agreed human rights activist Leyla Yunus, director of Baku’s Institute for Peace and Democracy.

During the Soviet era, or immediately thereafter, the logic might have been clearer: Moscow in those days wielded a great degree of economic and political influence over Baku. But with Azerbaijan now an independent, energy-rich country, it’s much harder to understand how Azerbaijani officials might feel bullied by Russians.

The Azerbaijani government has not demonstrated similar sensitivity on matters of far greater economic and political importance, such as the construction of oil and gas pipelines that deliberately avoid Russia. Baku also has stood firm in lease negotiations for the Gabala radar station, and has lambasted Russia for its military ties with Baku’s arch-foe Armenia.

Yet to see Mammadyarov and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov now, some Azerbaijanis have joked on Facebook, you would think they have nothing to discuss other than the Eurovision vote.

Some political observers suggest domestic factors may be prompting Azerbaijani leaders to adopt a more accommodating stance toward Moscow.

With a presidential election scheduled for October, and, with it, the risk of unsanctioned street protests, Baku has good reason not to want to vex the Kremlin. Members of Aliyev’s administration may worry that a Russia-based group of ethnic-Azeri billionaires could pose a political threat to President Aliyev’s reelection, and thus officials are eager to keep Russia relatively happy, noted Shahinoglu.

Or perhaps energy plays a role – Baku and Moscow are discussing new terms for shipping Azerbaijani oil to Russia via the Baku-Novorossiysk pipeline, following Moscow’s suspension of a 1996 agreement. But why Eurovision would be the chosen tool for smoothing those tensions away is a mystery.

One analyst, who asked not to be named, speculated that President Aliyev himself, or his wife, First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, who oversaw arrangements for the 2012 Eurovision in Baku, may feel personally embarrassed or upset by the Eurovision flap. This could explain Baku’s eagerness to curry favor with Moscow, given that government decision-making in Azerbaijan is generally vertical, particularly in an election year.

Meanwhile, the dispute has provided a big bone for conspiracy theorists to gnaw on. “Our votes were rigged intentionally in order to create a confrontation between Azerbaijan and Russia. I think the West is interested in it,” wrote Kenan Guluzade, editor of the New Baku Post newspaper, in a column on the pro-government public television site

In Russia, Ekho Moskvi radio reporter Hamid Hamidov voiced a belief that Germany, a frequent critic of Azerbaijan’s human-rights record, might be responsible for stirring up trouble. After all, he reasoned, Digame, the company that performed the Eurovision vote count for the European Broadcasting Union, is German. And Germany, others point out, was the target of a shrill propaganda blitz launched by Baku last spring.

Analyst Shahinoglu scoffed at such wild conjecture. “Germany does not need to harm our relations” with Russia, he said. “They do not care.”

Amid the brouhaha with Russia, the Azerbaijani public generally has ignored another brewing scandal -- an online Lithuanian news outlet’s report that Azerbaijan allegedly attempted to buy votes for Eurovision. The European Broadcasting Union has said it is “looking into” the matter, but does not see a direct “link” to Azerbaijan.

As for whether Moscow’s complaints will ultimately be redressed, Foreign Minister Mammadyarov, in comments published May 23 in Moscow’s Nezavismaya Gazeta, hinted that people should not hold their breath, while emphasizing that overall Azerbaijani-Russian relations were in good shape.

“Do not look for a cat in a dark room; especially when it's not there,” he said.

Editor's note: Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku.