Building Bridges: 60 Years of the Eurovision Song Contest

It’s been a dreadfully slow news week in Azerbaijan following the celebration of Novruz, but the new year always brings new excitement.

That’s right, folks – it’s Eurovision time!

Last week, Azerbaijan announced that İctimai Television (ITV) selected Elnur Huseynov to represent the country in the second semi-final on May 21st. He will be singing “Hour Of The Wolf,” written by Sandra Bjurman, Nicolas Rebscher, Nicklas Lif and Lina Hansson. Elnur Husyenov is no stranger to Eurovision – he competed with Samir Javadzada in the country’s first entry in 2008, coming in 8th place. (He also won last year’s edition of The Voice Turkey.)

Elnur Huseynov’s promotional picture for Eurovision 2015.

You might be confused by now: How can Azerbaijan compete in a contest called “Eurovision” when the country isn’t really in Europe? And what is Eurovision anyways?

While the name has changed over time (until 1977, the French name was used – Grand Prix Eurovision de la Chanson Européenne, or Eurovision Song Contest Grand Prix), the Eurovision Song Contest began when the Switzerland-based European Broadcasting Union began investigating lighthearted ways to bring war-devastated Europe together. In 1956, the first “European Grand Prix” telecasted song contest was held in Lugano, Switzerland between 7 countries: the Netherlands, France, Germany (West Germany, though not named as such in most contests), Italy, Luxembourg, Belgium, and Switzerland. The project itself was ambitious, as a simulcast television show had never been done on such a large scope – and many of Eurovision’s first viewers didn’t even own a television (fortunately, it was also broadcast on the radio).

Today, Eurovision has evolved: any country within the European Broadcasting Area (EBA) may complete, provided that they meet that year’s agreed-upon requirements (such as broadcasting the prior year’s show). The EBA is defined as the following:

“The European Broadcasting Area is bounded on the west by the western boundary of Region 1, on the east by the meridian 40° East of Greenwich and on the south by the parallel 30° North so as to include the northern part of Saudi Arabia and that part of those countries bordering the Mediterranean within these limits. In addition, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and those parts of the territories of Iraq, Jordan, Syrian Arab Republic, Turkey and Ukraine lying outside the above limits are included in the European Broadcasting Area.”

The contest is hosted in the country of the prior year’s winners, provided they are able to supply funding for the event. Hosting Eurovision is a considered a great honor (and a prime opportunity to lure tourists, especially considering that nearly 200 million viewers will tune in to the broadcast), so few countries rarely turn the opportunity down. This year’s contest will be hosted in Vienna, Austria. The theme is “Building Bridges,” in light of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and subsequent efforts to “build bridges” in the reunification of Europe.

The Eurovision eligibility map. Countries in green have competed at least once, and countries in orange have never competed but are welcome to do so. Countries in pink are eligible but have withdrawn from the contest.

Following the determination of eligibility, each country is sorted into two live semi-final rounds that occur the week before the contest, and the top 10 songs from each semi-final will proceed to the final on May 23rd. Entrants in the semi-final select both a singer and a song, and submit a music video. Each country may utilize any selection strategy – in many nations, a national phone/text vote is held for a singer and a song, or a talent contest is held. In Azerbaijan, Elnur was chosen internally by the ITV committee, which broadcasts the contest in Azerbaijan, and the song was chosen in a similar fashion.

In both rounds, countries allocate votes (which are often done by the citizens of that nation, or by committee) from 12 to 1 towards the song/country they like. The “Big Five” of France, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Italy are not required to compete in the semi-final as recognition of their (financial) support over the years, but still vote in the semi-finals. The host country, as last year’s winner, is also an automatic qualifier for the final. In recognition of the 60th anniversary of Eurovision, Australia has been invited to compete as a guest country, and will also skip the semi-final.

Of course, the contest is more than a fun song event – it is often used by countries as a platform for promoting a nation’s history and beliefs, which inevitably leads to conflict (as seen last week with the Armenian controversy). Voting “cliques/blocks” are common (such as with Russia and the former Soviet countries), and in 2009 a number of Azerbaijanis were “questioned” by the government and accused of being “unpatriotic” when they voted for Armenia. Numerous countries have withdrawn at some point throughout their Eurovision tenure in protest – Georgia in 2009 over the ongoing conflict with Russia, Armenia in 2012 following Azerbaijan’s victory, Ukraine’s this year in light of financial and political issues, and so on. It’s also interesting to me because the way countries participate in the contest reflect the nature of their politics: in a repressive country like Azerbaijan, citizens had no say in their singer or song selection this year, and voting referendums are held infrequently.

But Elnur Huseynov isn’t focusing on the negative: with his song, which he referred to as a “mystical contemporary ballad,” he says “I believe in my entry song as it has so many powerful messages. It is truly a song with great meaning of which the most important is ‘that every heart deserves a fight’ and we should never give up. We must fight for our happiness and for a better future. I’m going to the Eurovision to share this message with the European audience.”

(Which totally has a darker undertone and subtle jabs at Armenia, but whatever – he didn’t write it.)

And fight he will, but the odds are already looking good: gambling websites project that Azerbaijan will come in at least 4th place.


The music video for “Hour of the Wolf” can be found here. I quite like it, but I share the common complaint that it is very “conventional” and “mainstream pop.” Many have panned contest winners for being similar, but without Eurovision we wouldn’t have ABBA and Celine Dion so…yay?

And for a long history of Armenia-Azerbaijani tensions during the Eurovision song contest, grab your popcorn and click here for more information.

Fortunately for us American peasants, the event will be streamed online on Eurovision’s website. Hope to see you there in late May!



At Least It’s Not Snowing in Baku

Spring officially began in most of the world yesterday, but those of us in Boston are witnessing a familiar and unpleasant sight – fresh, fluffy snow. Fortunately in Azerbaijan, citizens have finally cast off the gloom of winter in the most beloved holiday of the year, Novruz Bayramı – the New Year. Despite popular belief, Novruz (also spelled Nowruz, which literally translates as “new day“) is a secular holiday derived from Zoroastrian beliefs. Likewise, there are symbolic “characters”: Kechel, Kosa and Bahar gizi (spring girl), respectively representing nature, fertility, and the “landscaping” of nature. Unlike Western nations, the New Year is considered to be the spring equinox because it “symbolizes the awakening of natural life and marks the end of an old year and beginning of a new year” with the awakening of spring, and it is also a time to celebrate community unity and equality. Novruz is celebrated in Central Asia and parts of the Middle East, and by Iranians worldwide (and is typically referred to as the “Persian New Year”).

The most important preparations for Novruz begin nearly a month before on the four Tuesdays: Su Chershenbesi (Water Tuesday), Od Chershenbesi (Fire Tuesday), Yel Chershenbesi (Wind Tuesday), Torpag or Akhir Chershenbesi (Earth/Last Tuesday). On each Tuesday, people strive to awaken each of these elements to bring back harmony with nature. The weeks leading up to Novruz eve are also devoted to “spring cleaning” of the house in order to meet the new year with an uncluttered mindset (the popular saying used by many Azeris is the English proverb “A good beginning makes a good ending”). Many families also begin growing lentils or semeni (green wheat), so that on Novruz day they have grown tall enough to be noticed.

More spiritual aspects of the holiday are also practiced: the Semeni ritual is often done, including the song “Semeni, save me and I will grow you every year.” Semeni is also the centerpiece of the ceremonial table, where the most popular national pastries and pilafs are served. Bonfires are lit in backyards, and friends and family jump over them seven times to symbolize the purification and “burning away” of their fears and worries (it sounds dangerous, but people really enjoy it). Some also maintain one of the most ancient rituals, the divination tradition: young, unmarried women gather together and try to learn when they will get married or when they will satisfy their wildest dreams. Very few people believe in this ritual today, but it’s a fascinating example of how many societies are preserving ancient beliefs.

And of course, there’s something for the younger children: Novruz also consists of a Halloween-like tradition of knocking on neighbor’s doors, then hiding behind a bush and receiving candies in return, as well as leaving brightly-colored hats on neighbor’s doorknobs. Children also bring portions of the traditional meal to those less fortunate, so all may have a clean slate for the next year.

I’m not going to lie – I want to celebrate Novruz too! Fortunately, the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston is holding a Nowruz celebration today, and you can find out more here. (I will also be ushering in spring at the Boston Ballet’s spring fling prior to tonight’s performance – if you will it, it will come!)


Tensions in Nagorno-Karabakh have flared up once again, and in response to Armenian rumors that Azeri soldiers were killed in the fighting, the Defense Ministry spokesman stated that Baku would not release the names of the dead because there were none – and as for why, it’s because “it means that soldiers from Karabakh have “bullet-proof magical jackets” and nothing happens to them.” I wish I was making this up.

The Eurovision Song Contest, beloved by nearly one billion viewers worldwide (though sadly not by any in the US), is just around the corner in Vienna, but controversy has already emerged following the first meeting of delegates. While Armenia’s song for 2015 is titled “Face the Shadow,” it was originally titled “Don’t Deny” and is sung by a group called “Genealogy” that features Armenians from many different countries – presumably in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Naturally, Turkish and Azerbaijani representatives cried foul at the “provocative move” to “promote a deliberate political message” – because as we might recall, Turkey and Azerbaijan deny that this “mythic ‘genocide'” ever occurred.

And while no news has emerged on Pakistani-Azeri relations, Azeribaijan is mulling bilateral relations with China and Afghanistan after visits from both nations. Particular recognition was given to economic relations with China, and the Azeri government’s continued peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan.

Azeri news sources have also been featuring an op-ed written by Daoud Kuttab, a Pakistani-American journalist, regarding Netanyahu’s recent statements regarding a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine. Azerbaijan, like many other Middle Eastern nations, does not generally support Israel’s treatment of Palestinian and denial of Palestinian land claims. The op-ed is sponsored by the Project Syndicate non-profit, and can be found here.


You Get a Pipeline! And You Get a Pipeline! Everyone Gets a Pipeline! (Except for Russia)

It’s been a slow couple of weeks in Azerbaijan in preparation for Novruz, the traditional New Year’s festival (which means next week will be even slower, as all workers are given 5 days off for next week’s festivities). But of course, there’s always something to talk about in Azerbaijan – the oil.

BP, the world’s preferred destroyer of ocean gulfs everywhere and primary shareholder of the Shah Deniz gas field, came to terms with a consortium of fellow gas-mongers to acquire a 13% share of the Trans-Anatolian Gas Pipeline. The finished Trans-Anatolian Pipeline, commonly known as TANAP, is the heart of the proposed Southern Gas Corridor. Once finished, TANAP will connect the Baku–Tbilisi–Erzurum Pipeline to the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline terminus in Italy. It’s a very strategic gain for Azerbaijan; gas from Shah Deniz will flow freely to Western Europe, and Turkey’s significance as a leader in gas transport will be solidified (and could lead to EU membership).

For a larger and improved version of this map, click here:

As you might recall in my earlier coverage of the Southern Gas Corridor, a certain neighbor has been left out of Europe’s grand plans: Russia. The proposed pipelines bypass Russia and many of its Caspian allies completely, weakening its role as Western Europe’s only gas supplier. With the news of BP’s support for the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, the competing Nabucco West Pipeline project – as well as Russia’s proposed connection via the South Stream Pipeline across the Black Sea – is no more.

Not being one to wallow in vodka and unsalable oil, Putin boldly proclaimed plans for a new “Turkish Stream” pipeline at the end of 2014 (which was, of course, before the Russian economy really tanked). The Turkish Stream looks suspiciously like the South Stream pipeline, although the newly proposed pipeline would end somewhere in west Turkey and boast an impressive capacity of 63 billion cubic meters per year (for reference, TANAP will export 10 billion cubic meters annually). It should be noted that this capacity far outstrips the demand for gas, leaving the curious question of why Russia would build an unnecessarily elaborate pipeline. Alas, all anyone can do is speculate in the meantime, as there are no sketches, plans, or diplomatic agreements between Turkey and Russia to even consider the pipeline.

Despite the EU’s desire to distance themselves from the increasingly unstable Russia, capitalistic desires for cheap gas always wins out in the end. Brendan Devlin, the advisor to the European Commission’s Directorate-General on Energy, spoke recently on the collapse of the South Stream project. While emphasizing that Azerbaijan and TAP would have priority in finding European clients, he didn’t count Russia out quite yet – or really at all.

“It doesn’t matter who the shipper is, and we don’t care if it is Russian gas, Libyan gas and Azerbaijani gas. The internal market works like that. It’s the rules that we have set up for Russia, or for Gazprom. And as we require them to implement those rules, they are free and welcome to use pipelines in the European Union on the same basis.”

He also subtly reminded those in attendance of the 50% TAP expansion clause that can be invoked if another gas supplier joins the pipeline.

And there you have it, folks. Capitalism: 1, honest business: 0.


In a disturbing turn of events, the National Hydrometeorology Department of the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources has revised their weather outlook for the week of March 15th, citing the potential for snow and sleet in the mountainous north. Expect average temperatures to drop by 4 to 6 degrees Celsius.

Following last week’s solar flare on March 11th, expect solar “explosions” to cause “weak magnetic perturbations across Earth” for the next few days. And no, this is not a joke.

The President of Azerbaijan was present for the grand opening of a “facility” in Barda. To the author’s disappointment, the facility is neither psychiatric nor detentionary in nature. The president also planted a tree. You can hear more about the facility and thinly-veiled president worship here.

Once again, relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia are tense – but a third player has entered the mix on the side of Azerbaijan (or are they)? I’ll be keeping an eye on Azeri-Pakistani relations in the coming weeks.