Protest Song: Armenia’s boycott of Eurovision an unfortunate reflection of regional reality

Protest Song: Armenia’s boycott of Eurovision an unfortunate reflection of regional reality

Un-presidential comments from Azerbaijan’s president and regrettable but predictable behavior by his countrymen have led officials in Yerevan to a decision that places Armenia under a spotlight that has turned its glare from the frivolity of Euro-“culture” and has made politics out of pop.

Armenia’s decision to boycott Eurovision 2012 because the international song competition is being held in Baku, Azerbaijan – while exercising reasonable cautions for security reasons -- appears to be shortsighted, and driven by epidermal emotion rather than careful consideration.

Last week authorities officially pulled Armenia out of the contest, and in so doing risk appearing incapable of distinguishing social competition and war-hungry aggression, from sport and politics.

How great would it have been if Armenia had entered the unfathomably-popular songfest and, by some miracle, have won – or, at least, have placed higher than the enemy host? We won’t know, because in taking their decision to boycott, Armenia has turned Eurovision into “Bakuvision”, giving the enemy camp – to exaggerate the world worth of the competition – a chance to, without contradiction, claim its willingness to have fairly treated the Armenians, had they shown up.

In front of Eurovision’s audience of 100 million viewers, Armenia has retreated, when it might have had a chance to shine, if only morally.

While the timing of the pullout coincides with a repugnant and disturbingly-large anti-Armenian rally attended by Azeris in Istanbul two weeks ago, the trigger of the decision was said to be a statement last week by Ilham Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan, whose website stated: “Our main enemies are Armenians of the world and the hypocritical and corrupt politicians that they control.” Armenian authorities reacted as if this were news; as if Aliyev had been a pal up until now.

Ever heard of Jesse Owens? If you have, it is not because the son of an Alabama sharecropper and grandson of slaves made his name by boycotting Hitler’s 1936 Olympics, though there was good reason to do so. It is because Jesse Owens, a black man, who knew the dangers he faced by merely showing up in a crowd of fascists, went to Berlin anyway, and during the Games in Hitler’s world arena, won four gold medals in track and field, triumphing over the Fuhrer’s “dominant race”.

Ever heard of Craig Beardsley? Me neither, until I started looking for U.S. athletes who lost their chance at world attention because the United States boycotted the 1980 Olympics and Beardsley was a member of a team that stayed home for political reasons. Within 10 days of when he should have been swimming before the world in Moscow, Beardsley set a world record in the 200-meter butterfly, beating the Moscow Olympic winner’s time by more than a second. Never has a world record been less meaningful. Or more meaningful, for all the wrong reasons.

The United States chose to boycott those Games to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Did the boycott serve its purpose? Sure it did. “Only” nine years later, Soviet troops pulled out. Guess who was the next super power to invade Afghanistan?

The intended message of the Eurovision boycott -- that Aliyev’s enemy, Armenia, suffers border restrictions and weekly deaths at the hands of the Azeris [met by retaliatory deaths by the Armenians, it should be noted] – is lost because it is aimed at an audience that doesn’t care and even if it did, could offer no remedy.

And even in the bigger picture, as it pertains to Armenia-Karabakh-Azerbaijan issues: Except for pro-forma attention from Washington and Moscow and scattered bits of Europe, nobody knows and fewer care about what goes on in the mountains of a spit of land that is either unheard of or considered an irritant to the outside world. How do you explain the complexities of the tangled issues of Karabakh-Azerbaijan relations, to an audience whose first question is: “Where is Armenia?” You surely don’t make your point by boycotting a song competition in which you’ve never fared better that fourth place anyway.

To be fair: Who of us would want our loved ones subjected to the treatment that might have awaited the Armenian delegation in Baku? Still, in Armenia’s decision to stay away from a silly but wildly-popular cultural stage, it appears that schoolyard insolence gets the better of diplomatic maturity.

The decision, taken in light of other bad-neighbor relations, also negates previous occasions when Armenia has taken the higher moral ground, such as the European Football Championships of 2008, when Armenia guaranteed the safety and gentlemanly reception of an Azeri national team, who, ultimately, took the same decision as now taken by the Armenians over Eurovision.

Hope of better regional relations was at least kindled in 2008, when Armenia hosted Turkey in football. Should Turkey have boycotted? Should Armenia have boycotted the next year’s match in Turkey? Unfortunately politics couldn’t do what sport could, and division again won when the infamous “protocols” soured all efforts of civility on both sides. But for awhile there was believable hope that progress could happen. And when you are this tiny republic in this increasingly tumultuous neighborhood, hope is often as good as it gets. And better, always, than hopelessness.

The boycott of Baku Eurovision falls short and falls flat. Does anybody in Yerevan really think that boycotting Eurovision will serve any purpose that helps build Armenia’s world stature? It might, instead, lead to speculation -- already voiced in the New York Times -- that a collective mentality that can’t broaden its view enough to, literally, raise its voice in a sing-off, has little chance of negotiating the vastly more complex issues that trouble Armenia’s gnarly neighborhood.