The Armenian performance in the world’s most anti-Armenian city had promised to be the biggest event at Eurovision -- and not for musical reasons. Armenia and Azerbaijan have been at hammers and tongs with each other ever since the 1994 cease-fire that ended their fighting over the right of the predominantly ethnic Armenian region of Nagorno Karabakh to independence from Azerbaijan.
But, amidst an arms buildup, frontline killings, and a dead-end for international talks on Karabakh, the mood in Armenia has not exactly been conducive to a sequined sing-off on enemy territory.
Earlier on, many famous Armenian singers demanded that Armenian Public Television, which oversees Eurovision matters in Armenia, withdraw from the show. The protesting singers said that the Armenians should not perform in a country where “hatred of Armenians is state policy.”
Pop music, powerful a force as it is, may have been unlikely to heal the deep scars left by the 23-year-long Karabakh conflict, but, now, we'll never know if Armenians and Azerbaijanis could have managed to put aside their differences for at least the short space of a syncopated beat.
Ever since Azerbaijan won the right to host Europe's main music powwow, the big question has been whether or not next-door Armenia would opt to send singers to the event. After the Nagorno-Karabakh war, the bloodiest of the post-Soviet world's conflicts, many Armenians and Azerbaijanis can barely stand the sight of one another.
Although Azerbaijan promised a safe, open-to-all show, safety concerns persisted in Armenia. Now the two countries have an opportunity to rise above their endless feud and deliver a positive message. Or, at the very least, to shelve the conflict for a few, brief, sequin-studded minutes.
Granted, the contest is unlikely to resolve the deep-running grievances over the still-smoking Karabakh fight. Yet with the right act, it could help break the ice.
But things could also go wrong if the two sides choose to deliver rebukes to one another through their songs. And don't think it couldn't happen. Eurovision generally tends to be highly political, but even more so in this part of the world. Neighboring Georgia’s entry for the 2009 Eurovision in Moscow got cut when the Georgians tried to poke fun at much-hated Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
In any case, with the Armenians in it, the contest is shaping up as the event of the year in the South Caucasus, and one that no war, riot or election can overshadow.
Eurovision, the Super Bowl of European pop music, is headed next year to Azerbaijan, but questions linger about whether Baku has what it takes to host the annual celebration of glitz and electric tunes. Funds for infrastructure updates and pageantry are not at issue here. Rather, the biggest question is quickly becoming whether Azerbaijan can ensure the security of journalists, performers and fans from its neighbor-cum-foe, Armenia.
The song contest’s official website reported on June 29 that the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) held talks with Azerbaijan’s public broadcaster, Ictimai TV, about the 2012 event. “EBU presented a detailed planning, venue requirements, information about security and accreditation…” to the Azerbaijani side, stated a release on the Eurovision website.
Azerbaijan has yet to name the venue for the contest. Options include building a new arena.
The EBU requested that the government provide security guarantees for everyone during the event, and freedom of expression in line with the European standard; something that is not Azerbaijan’s strongest point, rights groups say.
On June 27, the Azerbaijani government was described as a "Consolidated Authoritarian Regime" by Freedom House, an influential American civil rights advocacy group.
Critics argue that two recent incidents similarly detract from Azerbaijan's Eurovision image.