A new year, a new Eurovision season. 2013 is already shaping up to be an exciting and interesting year. However 2012 will go down in Eurovision history as the most politically charged year in the history of the contest. I am delighted that I experienced Eurovision in Azerbaijan, it was a setting like no other. Now that the dust has settled, let's take a look back to May 2012, a contest which will be remembered for years to come.
In previous blog posts I have written about the political situation in Azerbaijan with regards to freedom of the press, freedom of expression as well as the on-going tensions between neighbouring Armenia. In the summer it was reported that those activists who held peaceful protests in Baku at the time of Eurovision had been put on trial. Eurovision 2012 was nothing other than a facade for the Azeri government to present a friendly face to the world. There are some particularly nasty regimes governing countries which are members of the European Broadcasting Union, of which Azerbaijan is far from the nadir. However if action is to be taken against countries which do not uphold basic human rights then the EBU needs to look a little closer to home. Belarus is one obvious example.
All of this does not mean that the contest should not have gone to Baku though. Azerbaijan won the contest fair and square, it would have been wrong to deny them the opportunity to host the event. The time to take action against Azerbaijan was in 2009 when the government called people in for questioning over voting for Armenia. This blatant violation was against the contest rules and yet the national broadcaster got away with it. If anything Eurovision 2012 backfired for the Azeri government since all of the allegations of human rights abuses came to the foreground. In front of the world's media. People were talking about the situation in the country when only a year previously it barely raised an eyebrow or got a mention in the press. This can only be a good thing.
Sweden does not need to play the same game that the Azeris did last year or the Russians in 2009. Eurovision is first and foremost a television show. The venue next year will be smaller, accreditation is likely to be restricted and the first week of rehearsals will be behind closed doors. They're even making the fans stand! Eurovision is changing. Whilst the arenas will stay, we are unlikely to see such spectacles like 2009 (largest LED screen in the world) or 2012 (brand new venue built specifically for Eurovision and making hundreds homeless in the process) for a long while, if ever. Eurovision in Azerbaijan was an excercise in public diplomacy, albeit an expensive one. The Swedes are taking the show back to basics in 2013. This is probably just as well considering that several countries have announced that they will not enter the contest this year. Some were not surprising - Poland and Portugal are both feeling the pinch and some of the smaller countries in Eurovision are continung to stay away - Monaco, Andorra and the Czech Republic. However the two big shocks were Bosnia Herzegovina and Turkey.
Bosnia and Turkey have incredibly successful records in Eurovision, the former having qualified to every single final and the latter scoring its best ever placings over the past decade including that all important victory back in 2003. The Turks appear to be in a strop about the Big Five rule as well as the return of jury votes. This is curious as Turkey came second in 2010 and fourth in 2009. These are showings that many countries would love! Moreover the Big Four/Five rule has been in place since 2000! I suspect that there are other issues at play here. The Turkish government appears to be slowly turning its back on Europe - economically, politically and in the case of Eurovision, culturally. Of course for many countries the burden of the participation fee has led to many questioning the value of entering the contest. For the most part, the participation levels have remained reasonably steady and in the case of Malta, Greece, Estonia and Latvia, sponsorship has been sought which has allowed them to fly their respective flags once more. Eurovision usually takes a while to catch up with whatever is going on in the wider world and it appears that four years after the financial crisis hit Europe, austerity has come to Eurovision. Interesting times ahead, watch this space.
For me personally 2012 was an amazing year. Visiting Azerbaijan for Eurovision was an experience I'll never forget and was an extremely fertile ground for my own research interests. The everyday people I met in Baku were wonderful and it just goes to show that it's the citizens not the government which make a country. I think valuable lessons have been learned at the EBU. To those brave and inspiring people who risk their own safety to bring greater freedom to Azerbaijan, I wish all the very best for their journey ahead. As the German spokesperson, Anke Engelke said during the voting, it's good to have a vote and to have a choice, good luck on your journey Azerbaijan!
2012 was also a busy one since I did a lot of television and radio work which I really enjoyed. I am particularly grateful to the BBC Three crew for having me on their live coverage of the semi finals - I loved the experience and would dearly love to do it again. 2013 is shaping up to be a busy year since I have a publishing contract to write a book on Eurovision. Tartu University Press have given me a tight deadline to finish the manuscript so I had better get my head down!
As the 2013 season starts, I wish all of you a happy new year, thank you for reading and may the best song win!