How Armenia and Azerbaijan Wage War Through Eurovision

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Giel Domen / European Broadcasting Union

Armenia's Eva Rivas performs "Apricot Stone" at Eurovision 2010 in Oslo, Norway. The song was widely interpreted as a statement about the Armenian genocide.

Critics deride the Eurovision Song Contest as a cultural Chernobyl where sex appeal has more value than musical ability. There’s some truth in that. In recent years contestants have danced salaciously in giant hamster wheels (Ukraine) and stood on wind machines while wearing pink tutus (Albania). But look past the froth and sequins and it becomes impossible to deny that the annual contest, which is watched by more than 100 million people, also serves as a barometer of contemporary Europe—and the internal conflicts the continent faces.

That truth was made rather salient on March 7 when Armenia withdrew from the 2012 contest, which takes place May 22-26 in Baku, Azerbaijan, citing escalating tensions with its neighbor. Azerbaijani and Armenian forces fought a bloody war over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in the 1990s, leaving at least 25,000 people dead. Although the two nations signed a ceasefire in 1994, they have never brokered a final peace deal. 

Azerbaijan, which has invested millions into hosting the event, sees Eurovision as an opportunity to boost its profile in the West and to prove it can offer the world more than just oil. After its little-known singers Ell & Nikki won last year’s contest—thereby giving Azerbaijan the right to host this year’s contest—members of the Eurovision press corps dreamed of a glorious rapprochement. The Armenian contestant would take to the stage in Baku, audiences would clap, and euro-pop love would wash away all the hostility. Other countries would get in on the action, too. A member of the French delegation—which includes the officials who choose France’s song and artist—confided to me that he would push for France to send a French singer of Armenian descent, someone like ye-ye artist Sylvie Vartan or chanson entertainer Charles Aznavour. This spring Azerbaijan agreed to simplify visa restrictions for foreigners—allowing Armenians, who are normally barred from entering the country, to do so. And as Armenians voiced concerns about their participant’s security, Azerbaijan declared that everyone—including the Armenians—would be safe during the two weeks of dress rehearsals, and the televised semifinals and grand finale.

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But tensions began to escalate in February when Armenia blamed the death of one of its soldiers on Azeri sniper fire. On Feb. 24, a group of 22 prominent Armenian musicians—including three former Eurovision contestants—signed a letter calling on Armenia to boycott the contest. “We refuse to appear in a country that is well-known for the mass killings and massacres of Armenians, in a country where anti-Armenian sentiments have been elevated to the level of state policy,” it said. The final straw appears to have come in late February, when around 50,000 Azeris gathered in Baku to commemorate an alleged massacre carried out by Armenians 20 years earlier. Shortly afterwards, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev posted the following remarks on his website: “Our main enemies are Armenians of the world and the hypocritical and corrupt politicians that they control.”

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Following Armenia’s March 7 withdrawal, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which runs Eurovision, described the move as an “unfortunate decision.” And Azeri politicians accused Armenia of a propaganda war. Ali Ahmedov, a senior member of Azerbaijan’s governing party, told reporters that Armenia had drummed up an excuse to withdraw—and that they would likely regret it. As he said: “The Armenian refusal to take part in such a respected contest will cause even further damage to the already damaged image of Armenia.”

Of course, this isn’t the first time Armenia and Azerbaijan have used Eurovision as a proxy for their ongoing conflict. In 2010, Armenia’s Eva Rivas—who bares an uncanny resemblance to Angelina Jolie—sang “Apricot Stone,” an ode to the national fruit of Armenia, which she said gave her strength to overcome life’s travails. Conspiracy theories suggested its lyrics, which included the word “motherland” five times, invoked the 1915 Armenian Genocide, which neither Turkey nor Azerbaijan recognize. “Many, many years ago/ When I was a little child/ Mama told me you should know/ Our world is cruel and wild/ But to make your way through cold and heat/ Love is all that you need.”  She and her team denied the claim.

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In 2009, the ongoing dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh exerted a visual impact. An introductory video clip—a so-called “postcard”—was shown before each contestant took to the stage, and included notable landmarks of their country, so Big Ben for Britain, and the Eiffel Tower for France. During the semifinals, the Armenian clip included “We Are Our Mountains“—a statue in Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan. Azeris complained, and the EBU removed the statue from the clip for the grand finale.

However, Armenians wouldn’t let the issue go. After all of the performances, a presenter in each participating country announced how his respective country had voted. In an act of revenge, the Armenian presenter Sirusho Harutyunyan repeatedly flashed a clipboard containing an image of “We Are Our Mountains.” And she stood before another image of the statue. (Subtlety has never been a strength of Eurovision performers).

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That upped the tension inside Azerbaijan, too. After the 2009 contest, Azerbaijan’s National Security Committee reportedly seized tele-voting records and summoned Azeri citizens who had voted for Armenia to police stations. Officials then interrogated them over their loyalty to the nation.

Not even the Junior Eurovision Song Contest—which is held annually for 10 to 15 year olds—is immune to the conflict. In 2010, during the Junior Eurovision contest in Minsk, Belarus, officials in Azerbaijan reportedly cut off the live broadcast of the show when it became clear that Armenia’s Vladimir Arzumanyan, 12, had won the contest with his song “Mama.”

Adults in Armenia quickly seized on the geopolitical dimensions of his victory. “Vladimir has not yet realized what a significant event took place for our country,” Diana Mnatsakanyan, the head of Armenia’s Junior Eurovision delegation, told reporters the day after his win. But that much was already clear the night before at his press conference, which TIME attended. Young Vladimir was more concerned with scoring a victory against his parents than with political rivalries. “I want a brother,” he said. “My mother promised me that if I’d win.”

If the Armenian-Azerbaijani controversies at Eurovision are any indicator, then that indifference to the bigger picture will pass soon enough.

William Lee Adams is a staff writer at the London bureau of TIME. Find him on Twitter at @willyleeadams or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.