The Dark Side of Eurovision

TOM BELGER investigates the side of Azerbaijan that it doesn’t want the rest of Europe to see.

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How will the average Cambridge student react to Eurovision this week?

For some, pure scorn. For others, a faint tremor of illicit excitement.

Someone asked online recently whether it could be screened at a college bar, with the inevitable ‘ironic’ disclaimer: “I have no personal interest in the event”. Yet 17 Likes within a few hours speak for itself: faint tremors, illicit excitement, everywhere.

A third type of Eurovision-person you won’t have come across: they start as a high-brow procrastinator, resisting the mid-morning Facebook tug, but succumbing to micro-peeks at news sites – not time-wasting, technically. One fine morning, they’re perusing the usual vaguely entertaining article, but then realise too late – there’s a sneaky, educative slant.

We learn Eurovision this year comes from Baku, Azerbaijan. In a peculiar incident in March, a brown package landed on the doormat of one of the country’s best investigative journalists, Khadija Ismayilova. Inside were sexual photos of her – taken by a hidden camera in her own bedroom. “Whore, behave. Or you will be defamed”, read the attached note. She announced she would not ‘behave’, and the photos duly spread online a week later.

What her new friends wanted is clear. For a long time she has been one of the few brave journalists reporting on corruption within the president’s family. Suffice to say it’s not appreciated by the powers that be. Azerbaijan may have produced last year’s Eurovision winner and the ‘Russian’ linesman of 1966 World Cup fame, but its government’s liberal democratic pretensions are a sick joke.

In the 2010 ‘elections’, the main opposition didn’t win a seat. Baku residents have been evicted from their homes without notice to ‘beautify’ it for the cameras this week. The constitution guarantees free speech, but the head of a TV station is behind bars as we speak for broadcasting a video of an abusive official. He has been denied the medicine he desperately needs, and made to walk naked along corridors by his jailers. Will he be watching Eurovision?

The woes of Europe hit us week in, week out, but our eastern neighbours are largely ignored. Eurovision presents an opportunity. Is it not crucial that its proud hosts receive the same harsh spotlight as Bahrain around its Grand Prix?

The Grand Prix demonstrated the law that the more marginal the cultural or sporting event, the more enthusiastically people demand a boycott. Of course, a Eurovision boycott would deprive the excited of their relief. Besides, its organisers, the European Broadcasting Union, claim the event is “not political”.

However, in 2010 the EBU committed itself to promoting free speech in its member countries. PR, politics, hypocrisy or what? Why say it at all? Like the Azerbaijani government, it’s failing miserably to practise what it preaches. It must use the leverage it has to press them for greater freedom. Otherwise it risks conviction on a charge of pure hypocrisy.

So you, Cantabs simply seeking a break from the books, now blossom into our third type of Eurovision-person: fully aware of the broadcasters’ little local difficulty, but now complicit in the act of watching once harmless pap-pop.

And so the originally scornful (along with those whose hearts are racing) are now armed with the perfect excuses for a Eurovision opt-out: “I can’t watch the PR ploys of an oppressive regime” for the snob; “I can’t ignore an oppressive regime anywhere anytime” for the cheesier soul.

Surely the only real hope is that the Azerbaijan glittering on our screens will be recognised as a single side of the picture; that the darker sides of Europe will never be forgotten or assumed away amidst the ubiquitous rhetoric of liberal democracy.