Eurovision 2022 was a year like no other. Despite being the first “normal contest” post-pandemic, a heavy cloud persisted throughout, as most of the coverage focused on how Ukraine participated despite Russia invading the country mere months earlier. Initially, the European broadcasting union allowed Russia to participate in the 2022 contest, but several broadcasters announced their intention to boycott the show should that plan go through, resulting in Russia not competing and the EBU banning any of their national broadcasters from competing thereafter.
All the while, Ukraine remained on top of the odds for months, despite having to change their representative song after the Vidbir winner, Alina Pash, withdrew after it was revealed that she forged documents stating that she went through Crimea through Ukraine, when she did so through Russia. Nevertheless, Stefania ended up winning the contest; their televoting score highly unlikely to be topped. This wasn’t the other show of solidarity amongst the European community; several participants declared their support for Ukraine, and former Ukrainian representatives became cultural ambassadors for their war-torn country throughout the continent and the world.
Several months later, Armenia would host a contest of their own–the Junior Eurovision Song Contest, shortly after Azerbaijani forces made their way across the Armenian border, catalyzing another round of violence after the previous war in 2020. The children competing in JESC “very aware that there’s a lot of difficult things going on, particularly they know a lot about the Ukraine and Russia situation” according to BBC commentator Lauren Layfield. While Yerevan wasn’t invaded during the contest, and the city showed off their best in hosting to the point of decorating its streets before Christmas, things flared up further when Azerbaijan blocked the Lachin corridor–the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabagh to Armenia–” disrupting access to essential goods and services for tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians living there. “
Over a year later, most discussions focus on the Russian-Ukrainian front, and how will that conflict play out in the next Eurovision Song Contest. The odds still have Ukraine high, prompting fears of consecutive wins for one of Eurovision’s most notable countries. The BBC, who’s hosting on Ukraine’s behalf, has worked hard to incorporate Ukrainian artists and culture into the show. But the bigger concern is not only how to provide solidarity through the present, but also so that other countries would get a similar share too.
Looking into the Past, Entering a New Europe, and Making One’s Place
Ukraine and Armenia emerged as countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union, both playing different roles in the former country. For Ukraine, they “played a very important role in the process of building the Soviet nation-state” through how it combined the secular aspect of Leninism with the Imperial Russian one. This led to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic being less of a nation state on its own right and more of a little Russia, and “became one of the most Sovietized and Russified among other Soviet republics” because of its numerous resources throughout its lands and its proximity to Europe itself.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine struggled to handle corruption within their borders, along with maintain itself as an independent nation. While the country sought out better relations with Europe, they still had connections with Russia—particularly in the southeast part of the country, thanks to it falling to the Russian Empire in the seventeenth century.
Incidentally, it was Ruslana’s win with “Wild Dances” in 2004 which brought Ukraine’s image to the forefront. Several months after the contest, the Orange Revolution broke out, which overthrew the results of elections which put Viktor Yanukovych into power. Eurovision 2005, which was held in Kyiv, used “awakening” as their slogan to promote a new Ukraine, one which would open itself up to Europe. However, the reforms were foiled, and Ukraine still mired in lulls of corruption. The Euromaidan protests, which was in response to Yanukovych rejecting closer ties to the European Union, lurched Ukraine forward towards Europe, even as Russia annexed Crimea and staged operations in the east of the country.
While it was part of the Soviet Union, Armenia was a periphery, “it basically produced rocks and intellectuals” for the republic, and relied on its diaspora and foreign aid when it became independent. In contrast, its neighbors in Azerbaijan became wealthier over time, thanks to their oil wealth, which made Baku one of the first petrol-capitals. The latter also resulted in the Soviets giving Nagorno-Karabagh to Azerbaijan despite having a majority Armenian population—not only were the Azeris wealthier, but it also made Moscow the main diplomat for any flare-ups should it occur.
This would prove important as the Soviet Union started disintegrating. Armenia, which was expected to be one of the more compliant Soviet republics, saw major protests in 1988 when glastnost loosened up and protests emerged in Nagorno-Karabagh after a vote to join the country to Armenia, due to its ethnic makeup. While Armenia’s borders during the Soviet Union were clearly defined, “they were not acceptable to many Armenians”, which catalyzed the need to declare independence so that they may reclaim it back.
But after Armenia and Azerbaijan became countries, escalations amplified. In the first war over it, which lasted between 1988 and 1994, Armenia won, taking control of Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding areas. Nevertheless, in the United Nations, Resolutions 822 and 853 highlighted the region as part of Azerbaijan and the need to leave the region as soon as possible.
Despite attempts to broker a permanent peace, it remained a tension point in the Caucasuses for decades. The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, which took place over several weeks in 2020, saw Azerbaijan use their military strength and foreign support to take those regions back from Armenia, with both sides losing thousands of lives in the process. Admittedly, the Armenian military invested less in their military than with Azerbaijan, and their lack of resources–particularly in drone warfare–negatively impacted their chances of defending themselves. However, the prospect of peace is still afar, and the position of Armenians living in the area is precarious.
Both countries’ paths are tangled with the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year. With Russia’s efforts to claim Ukrainian territory, they lost track of peacekeeping between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Especially with the invasion of Armenia in September, which Russians didn’t intervene in, it eroded their trust in a country which was supposed to be a benefactor. Recently, they managed to get the European Union to send 100 monitors to patrol the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. However, to wean off of Russian oil, the European Union had to turn to Azeri oil and gas to replace it in the winter.
Both emerging from the Soviet Union, Armenia and Ukraine saw themselves dealing with different conflicts. However, Ukraine worked to develop closer ties with Europe, and is seen as more “worthy” of help, whereas Armenia, due to its position, is relegated to the sidelines.
How does trying to affirm one’s nationhood translate to the Eurovision Song Contest?
Crying Out in a Time of Crisis:
While both countries would have their growing pains as independent countries, the Yugoslav wars raged across the Balkans, which killed over a hundred thousand people and displaced thousands more. Bosnia and Herzegovina, which saw the most suffering of the newborn countries, told that story through “Sva bol Svijeta”, their debut entry in 1993.
The story of Fazla’s journey to Eurovision is one frequently told—winning a national final amongst notable names, having to traverse through the mountains to escape a beseiged Sarajevo, leaving their conductor at the airport, and making their statement known to a continent which would not intervene until near the end of the war.
“When we entered Eurovision my country was set to be wiped off the map. Europe appeared to have decided that we were not worth fighting for, but at the same time would not allow us to defend ourselves.” The message, from Fazla himself, indicated the important edge of solidarity which wasn’t fully expressed with technologies of the time. While clearly on the European continent, Bosnia and Herzegovina is well enough in the periphery that a strong enough message isn’t enough.
It also played with Western Europe’s perception of the Balkans—particularly the former Yugoslavia—as a borderland. “Caught between Catholicism and Byzantium, Christendom and Islam, the Western powers and Russia, the peninsula has been conceived as an unruly borderland where the structured identity of the imperial centre dissolves and alien, antithetic peripheries begin.” This would play out in how European powers expanded their influence over the nineteenth century, and the portrayal of the Yugoslav Wars as emerging out of “ancient hatreds” delayed the EU’s response and cost thousands of lives.
Similar perceptions can be seen with Armenia, and how they were able to participate at Eurovision. While the EU works to help Armenia, the overall Caucasus region is seen though a place of competition, especially during empire. Due to the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, Armenia wasn’t able to participate in Eurovision 2021, because the aftermath of the war was too heavy. Similarly, the country withdrew from Eurovision 2012 because of Azerbaijan winning the previous year and the lack of security guarantees should they compete there.
This doesn’t mean Armenia never used its Eurovision platform to tell the story of its survival and demands of recognition. While its 2010 entry, “Apricot Stone”, was suspected of referring to the Armenian Genocide, it was their 2015 entry–”Face the Shadow”–which made things more explicit.
Originally titled “Don’t Deny”, in reference to the Armenian Genocide, the six singers who told the story were five members of the Armenian diaspora scattered across the world, with Inga Arshakyan being the center for their homeland, Armenia. The title was changed to its current form because of allegations of politicization of the contest; mostly from Turkey and Azerbaijan.
The latter is important to this case because they also want to showcase themselves as a modern, European nation since its debut in 2008. Particularly, their victory in 2011 was seen as a national triumph, as well as “yet another brick to the country’s efforts to liberate the Armenia-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region“. This is part of a further expansion of Azerbaijan’s cultural capital within Europe, which was also shown through how they hosted Eurovision 2012.
Europe’s borders have diverged over the decades, and Eurovision can follow suit in terms of how to focus their attention on certain issues. Within the last decade, the war between Ukraine and Russia became paramount to European safety, to the point where the EBU felt compelled to act when countries stood up. The same wasn’t done for Armenia’s behalf, partially of seeing the Caucasuses as a messy confluence, not unlike the Balkans in the 1990s.
The contest is frequently used to promote one’s image on the global stage, and its not uncommon to see Eurovision songs commenting on their situation. With Bosnia and Croatia, it’s to affirm their existence in a time of war. With Ukraine, they want to assure their message is still heard across the continent, even as year has passed and the war further retreats back into the news.
True solidarity is not necessarily shown through who wins and loses Eurovision, but who can step up with their message in a time of crisis. Only when the EBU could take the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict as seriously could they begin to develop true solidarity, and show that any conflict can put Eurovision into disrepute.
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