BAKU—It’s a simple song competition. Or is it?
The Eurovision Song Contest has long promoted itself as an event where national audiences in Europe and beyond can put politics aside and enjoy a long night of entertainment performed in the spirit of friendly competition, if not necessarily musical mastery.
But as Eurovision’s reach has traveled further east, old political rivalries are muddying the contest’s claim on good clean fun.
Rovshan Nasirli, a young Eurovision fan living in the Azerbaijani capital Baku, says he was summoned this week to the country’s National Security Ministry—to explain why he had voted for Armenia during this year’s competition in May.
“They wanted an explanation for why I voted for Armenia. They said it was a matter of national security,” Nasirli said. “They were trying to put psychological pressure on me, saying things like, ‘You have no sense of ethnic pride. How come you voted for Armenia?’ They made me write out an explanation, and then they let me go.”
A total of 43 Azeris voted for the Armenian duo Inga and Anush, and their song, “Jan-Jan.”
Nasirli, like others, used his mobile phone to send a text message expressing his preference, hardly imagining that his vote would eventually result in a summons from national security officials.
By contrast, 1,065 Armenians voted for the Azerbaijani team, apparently without consequence.
The official antipathy can frequently trickle down to personal bias among ordinary Armenians and Azeris. But not always.
In the case of Eurovision, Nasirli said he preferred the Armenian entry because it sounded “more Azeri” than his country’s own submission, a duet featuring Arash, a pop superstar born in Iran and based in Sweden:
“I voted for Armenia to protest the fact that Arash was representing Azerbaijan. Also, the Armenian song was closer to Azerbaijani style than Arash’s song,” Nasirli said.
Some Azeris cried foul when Arash was chosen to partner with a relatively young and unknown Azerbaijani singer, AySel, for the country’s Eurovision entry with the song “Always.”
But others saw the decision as a shrewd move that would lend star power and an international name to the Azerbaijani submission.
In the end, the gamble appeared to pay off. Azerbaijan came in third place, its highest Eurovision showing ever. Armenia’s Inga and Anush came in tenth.
Many Azerbaijanis celebrated the results as a victory over Yerevan. The third-place finish, however, was apparently not enough to satisfy Azerbaijan’s National Security Ministry, which summoned Nasirli to its Nasimi district office on August 12.
Nasirli, who was contacted by RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service after posting a comment about his experience on the station’s website, said he saw nothing wrong in his vote for Armenia.
“If Azerbaijani parliament members can go to Armenia, then what’s wrong with voting for the Armenian song in the contest?” he asked. “I told them, ‘If you don’t want people to vote for Armenia, then why are you in the same contest with them?'”
Ministry officials were not available for comment on Nasirli’s experience, but the case has set off alarm bells in Azerbaijan’s civil rights community.
Activist Avaz Hasanov called the move “unbelievable” and warned that Azerbaijan, which has already seen a steady clampdown on civil rights under President Ilham Aliyev, seems to be moving toward a police state.
“There are no state secrets involved here. It was an open contest. It’s just people expressing their personal taste,” Hasanov said. “It’s unbelievable that they are trying to keep that kind of control over people. Limiting people’s choices in such an obvious manner won’t do any good for the country. If all SMS and phone conversations are being screened, then this country is nothing more than a police state, with people being watched all the time.”
Some see the ministry’s scrutiny of the Eurovision vote as a bizarre extension of the government’s preoccupation with gaining the upper hand in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.
Shades of the Karabakh conflict could be detected in the Eurovision contest itself. The Armenian team sparked a storm of controversy when the original video backdrop for their performance featured an image of a memorial in Nagorno-Karabakh that has a profound meaning for Karabakh Armenians.
Russia, the 2009 Eurovision host, requested the offending image be removed. But Armenia stoked the dispute further when its 2008 contestant, Sirusho, appeared during this year’s contest holding a photograph of the same monument.
Elmir Mirzoyev, a commentator on Azeri cultural issues, says some issues related to Nagorno-Karabakh undoubtedly fall within the purview of the National Security Ministry. Fueling ethnic hostilities, however, should not be one of them, he said.
“I have to know what the ultimate goal for our state is—to restore territorial integrity, or to refuse to accept Armenians as an ethnicity? Security services are serious organizations. What is their function? To spread ethnic hatred against Armenians, or to restore our territory?” he asked.
Mirzoyev continued: “Our government has never declared that Armenians can’t live in our country, or that those voting for Armenia should be summoned to the National Security Ministry.”