by Rhodri C. Williams
I promise that this will be my last ever word on the Eurovision song contest. There are any number of good reasons for me to move on, not least the fact that Eurovision seems to move me to rant, which is honestly not my strongest genre. However, the best possible reason was handed to me on a plate by fresh-faced Emmelie de Forrest, who took all the honors and moved them conveniently from one peaceful Nordic democracy to another one a forty minute commute away.
And there were moments, as Azerbaijan nudged within a few ‘dix points’ of Emmelie’s comely heels, where I saw an alternative, dystopic future – a future in which I would once again be compelled to wander the darkened streets of the blogosphere, bitterly denouncing the capricious demolitions of homes in Baku, casting aspersions upon the political naifs of the European Broadcasting Union, and railing against the hypocrisy of ostensible guardians of democracy such as the Council of Europe, long since tamed by a steady diet of inflated per diems and caviar. Thank you, Emmelie, for sparing us all that.
But before I bow out of the debate about Eurovision and human rights fully, a few observations. First, despite the welcome contrast between Azerbaijan’s structural aversion to human rights (universality notwithstanding, how is one honestly to go about applying them in a dynastic autocracy fueled by oil patronage?) and Sweden’s imperfect but earnest efforts, the human rights did emerge once again as a background issue in this year’s contest.
Perhaps most obviously, although the Nordic teacher’s pets tried to avoid politics per se, they still got human rights squarely into everyone’s personal space with two big fat prime-time gay marriages, first in Finnish finalist Krista Siegfried’s performance, and second in a bravura half-time act that invoked numerous other contemporary Swedish stereotypes, from enlightened young Swedish men flouncing about with baby carriages to a brief passage of Kodo drumming with the recycling bins. It was all quite lighthearted and breezy, but apparently had TV officials in some of the more homophobically challenged corners of our common European home scrambling to lay up commercials.
Meanwhile, to the credit of Swedish journalists and organizations such as Civil Rights Defenders, the politics of apoliticality were subject to repeated explorations. The issue first came up when a local politician in Malmö called for a boycott of the Israeli contestant, and continued when acts from Belarus and Hungary – as well as Azerbaijan’s own contribution – cleared the bar to the finals. All of which resulted in Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt facing a barrage of unusually pointy questions when he swanned in to attend the festivities.
To his credit, Mr. Bildt was well-prepared and made a vigorous case for engagement. In his morning interview (here, in Swedish, starting at 1h38), he repeatedly made the point that regimes do not participate in Eurovision, but rather people, and that boycotting people because of their ugly regimes was less effective than bringing people together in order to encourage change to regimes. He also noted the extent to which Eurovision participation represents a symbolic homecoming to the European family for territories with difficult pasts including Kosovo, where he was apparently recently told that Eurovision eligibility would mean more than UN membership.
Bildt equivocated on Azerbaijan, conceding that the effect of hosting last year’s contest had been “a bit backwards and forward” but asserting that the “long term development was forward”, particularly in light of the country’s great challenges “as a secular Shia Muslim country squeezed between Iran and Russia.” Later, dressed in a rather extraordinary blazer, Mr. Bildt was a bit more explicit (see here, in Swedish again, starting at 0h37). To cite him in full:
Azerbaijan is not particularly democratic, to say the least. But Eurovision meant a lot, because it is a Muslim country that is under a lot of pressure from fundamentalist forces – and here you had people performing in all kinds of outfits and lots of happiness. It meant a lot in terms of strengthening the country’s secular flank.
Fair enough? Well, in abstract yes, but in the concrete context of a region stretching from Morocco to Iran that remains convulsed by the Arab Spring, this type of statement takes on unfortunate undertones. It is a version of an argument put forward by regimes ranging from the secular elite that resisted the democratic rise of the current moderate Islamist government in Turkey, to Mubarak and Gaddafi before their populations took less polite issue, to Bashir Al-Assad now. We may not be democratic, they say, but we are more liberal than those guys. Après moi, le déluge.
This view also attributes a unity of purpose to right-thinking secular liberals and the regime itself which cannot possibly exist in a context in which the latter is intent on slinging all the former into jail. Meanwhile, if Azerbaijan is anything like Mubarak’s Egypt was, said liberals are sharing their cells with Islamists of all stripes, in a net loss for any hope of legitimate and representative democratic reform. Indeed, in the worst case, as documented by Human Rights Watch in pre-2011 Libya, the rhetoric of fighting fundamentalist ‘terrorists’ becomes an alibi for garden variety repression. After all, ‘political prisoner’ is such an ugly word.
Meanwhile, a brief tour of the internet raises the inference that the above argument may also be something of a consolation prize, in the wake of disappointed hopes that the exposure afforded by the leadup to last year’s Eurovision contest in itself would have forced more liberalization on the intransigent regime in Baku. Here is Bildt quoted in a more hopeful 2011 interview with an Azerbaijani online magazine:
One important message from the Azeri side was their continued commitment to internal reform and integration with the EU. We also talked about the need for Azerbaijan to step up its efforts in the fields of human rights, democracy and good governance.
I reminded the Azeri Government of the importance of the upcoming ” Eurovision” Song Contest in this respect. In the coming year the European audience, and especially the younger generation, will pay much more attention to Azerbaijan, and the clear expectation will be that Azerbaijan lives up to the high European standards in respecting the fundamental rights of its citizens.
Its a fine sentiment, but even a quick perusal of Human Rights Watch’s Azerbaijan page reveals how thoroughly whatever expectations Europe’s younger generation might have had have been dashed. And as I argued last week, its hard to imagine how one really could have expected anything different from the Baku regime, which has little more to gain from true liberalization than the Damascus one at the end of the day.
Sadly, the only legitimately disappointed expectations out there would be any placed on institutions such as the Council of Europe and the OSCE that were created precisely to ensure that respect for human rights in Europe should never have to depend on song contests.