For most television viewers, Eurovision 2009, with all its spangled costumes and schmaltzy tunes, was nothing more than a light-hearted, fun-filled singing contest. But for those watching in Armenia and Azerbaijan, the show became another front in the long-running struggle over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenia and Azerbaijan both made it into Eurovision's May 16 finals, which took place in Moscow's Olympisky Arena. Amid speculation that the two countries nearing a peace deal to settle their 21-year dispute over Karabakh, viewers in both Yerevan and Baku were keeping a close eye on the opposing side's musical moves.
Nineteen-year-old Baku resident Aysel Teymurzadeh and her Iranian-Swedish pop star partner Arash Labaf delivered a third-place finish for Azerbaijan. The Armenian sister duo Inga and Anush Arshakyan came in 10th in the 25-spot finals.
First place went to a performer from a comparatively non-controversial country -- 23-year-old Alexander Rybak of Norway.
Outside of the South Caucasus, the focus of the Eurovision competition may have been on the glitz and glamor. But for many Baku residents, Azerbaijan's third-place finish was laden with geopolitical significance. "We came in third place and it was just great that we beat our enemy Armenia," commented graduate student Samir Salakhov.
Seeking to capitalize on the good public relations generated by Azerbaijani duo's third-place showing, President Ilham Aliyev telephoned Aysel and Arash on May 17, telling them that they had "worthily represented Azerbaijan in Europe," the Trend news agency reported.
In Yerevan, Eurovision fans were more disappointed that an image from Karabakh had been removed from the Armenian performers' final video than with the sisters' 10th-place finish. The video had shown Karabakh's 1967 "Tatik and Papik" ("Grandmother and Grandfather") monument, which has become a symbol for the territory and its separatist, ethnic Armenian government. (Some Armenians argue that the government is "unrecognized," rather than "separatist.")
"This is extremely unfair! The sculpture belongs to an Armenian artist [Sarghis Baghdasarian - ed] and has been symbolizing Armenia from Soviet times," fumed 25-year-old Anush Minasian, one of scores of young Eurovision fans who gathered to watch the show at Yerevan's hipster Bunker Club.
Eurovision's Russian hosts opted to have the image removed from the Armenian video after Azerbaijani officials protested. Prior to the decision, Azerbaijani media outlets lambasted the monument's inclusion in the video. One outlet, the news website Day.az, said in a commentary that "the Armenians and their friends from the Eurovision steering committee used this monument [for] provocative political purposes."
The Russian decision to remove the controversial video segment naturally caused consternation in Yerevan. Many of the fans gathered at Yerevan's Bunker Club argued that the Armenian contestants should have pulled out of the Eurovision finals in response.
Armenia, however, found a way to air its protest. As vote tallies were called in from Eurovision's 42 participating countries, a live-broadcast on Yerevan's Republic Square featured a large screen with the Nagorno-Karabakh statue. The presenter, Sirusho, Armenia's 2008 Eurovision contestant, raised a clipboard as she spoke which also included an image of the monument.
But further geopolitical swats were in the works. Under contest rules, residents of finalist countries cannot vote for their own contestants. Instead, votes must be given to other countries.
This year, Turkey's voters gave 12 points (the highest score possible) to ally Azerbaijan, while Azerbaijan returned the favor. Azerbaijan gave no votes to Armenia, but Armenia voters did provide one vote for Azerbaijan. Four votes from Armenia went to Turkey (which reciprocated with six votes), and the maximum 12 to ally Russia.
But the fact that Armenia received only five votes in return from Russia and six votes from France, home to a sizable Armenian Diaspora, stirred further controversy within Yerevan. "This is a politicized contest and is highly unpredictable," commented Armenian Public Television host Ashot Mikayelian.
Most Eurovision viewers, however, likely missed the Armenia-Azerbaijan bickering.
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan. Jessica Powley Hayden is a freelance reporter in Baku.