Friday 24 May 2013

Eurovision 2013: We are one?

So that's another Eurovision Song Contest over. Congratulations to Denmark on scoring their third Eurovision win. I didn't have "Only Teardrops" down as a winner but hey, what do I know? That's the trouble when you hear the songs on a loop for weeks on end; you lose all sense of perspective.

2013 was an interesting year for Eurovision. SVT scaled down the contest considerably, in terms of budget, size and spectacle. It was no Moscow or Baku. Malmo was simple yet effective and the Swedes proved that you don't need to splash the cash in order to produce a slick television show. The venue for the 2013 contest, the Malmo Arena, was particularly cosy, so much so that the press centre next door appeared to be larger! Before the recession hit, it seemed that almost every country hosted a party, in 2013 there were fewer and they were certainly more stringent. I was fortunate to be invited to a reception by the Georgian Ambassador. It was a lovely afternoon of fine music, cuisine, culture and yes, wine. My experience of Georgians at Eurovision has always been a positive one, they are by far the friendliest delegation and it is always a pleasure being in their company. I would dearly love Georgia to win Eurovision, it would be truly fascinating to see them stage the contest and of course to visit the country.

Georgia is an emerging democracy and as such, at times, there are difficulties, as with any other country undergoing radical social, economic and political change. On May 17 it was reported that there was violent protests in the captial Tblisi against gay rights activists. Given that the country is keen to join the EU, this is a worrying turn of events. As the BBC report highlights, this wasn't a far-right mob, these were ordinary people who fear the unknown. This is when events like Eurovision are all the more powerful, and all the more important. My friend Monty wrote an excellent piece on the LGBT relationship with Eurovision last week.

Last year there were calls for Eurovision to be boycotted, that Azerbaijan is a regime country and that by attending the event journalists and fans were merely feeding into government propaganda. I went to the country and experienced life there, first-hand. Yes argubably it was the side of Azerbaijan that the authorities wanted us to see, but still, I asked those important questions. I met with activists from the group Sing For Democracy and learned a lot about life in the country. I didn't live in a bubble as some fans have stated. It is interesting to note that those acitivists and critics of the government in Azerbaijan did not want people to stay away; they wanted us to come to the country, to ask questions and to shine a spotlight on Azerbaijan's political situation. Eurovision was the only opportunity for this to happen which it why it was so important that the event went ahead.

I spoke to some fans of the contest in Sweden who were appalled at the events unfolding in Georgia and one even appeared to be outraged that I could consider going there. Change takes time and yet it can also happen rapidly, as recent developments in the UK have shown. In ten years we've gone from gays being banned from the military and Section 28 to full equality even in terms of marriage. Much of my research has focussed on Estonia and this is a place of truly inspiring change. In Estonia, little over ten years ago, there were serious safety concerns over the decision to hold a gay rights march in Tallinn. Activists were threatened and attacked, the same is true of Riga too. Fast forward to 2013, Estonia is a full and equal member of the EU, it's basically a smaller version of Finland. The other week, in the tabloid newspaper, Őhtuleht, there was a debate about sending an openly gay athlete to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sotchi. As the newspaper article stated in the opening paragraph "Russia is a homophobic state". As contentious as this statement might be, the fact is that a tabloid has spoken out against homophobia. This change wasn't due to Eurovision of course but events such as Eurovision shine a spotlight onto countries and allow them to be scrutinised like never before. Estonia has changed, but it changed with dialogue. Dismissal does not work. This is why I am supportive of Georgia hosting Eurovision one day. It's far too simplistic to just write a place off and too often smacks of western double standards. Many British people are all too quick to point the finger at countries which are apparently homophobic and yet they'll go on holiday to Dubai and to Egypt, where it's actually illegal to be gay.

As my good friend Zuly pointed out in a recent discussion, why when we are talking about human rights abuses do we only talk about a select few countries? Europe is a big place. Ok on BBC Three I discussed the situation in Belarus, because it was relevant at that point in time. However what about the rise of fascism across the EU, which at times, has appeared to go relatively unchallenged? The poor human rights records in some countries actively benefits the business interests of others; namely the west. Look at oil-rich Azerbaijan and the Arab states and the amount of British investers and holidaymakers. Look at the sweatshops used by high street retailers; we are shocked when factories collapse and people are killed and yet turn a blind eye if it means we get cheap socks. I am just as guilty. Let's not forget that there are allegations of human rights abuses in the UK too. We need to look a little bit closer to home.

So what does all this mean for Eurovision? Well the 2013 slogan, We Are One", fashioned the continent as united. In fact, we aren't one. We aren't one economically, politically or as the case of Georgia shows, socially. However neither is the EU, despite all member states signing up to the same basic values. Whilst for that moment in time, we were one, watching Eurovision together, we were all sitting in very different living rooms. The developments in Georgia show how much gay people in particular take for granted their basic freedoms which were hard won. It also highlights a need for the Georgian authorities to prove that they can protect all sectors of society, particularly if they are serious about joining the EU.

The voting in the contest this year also appears to be particularly controversial which allegations of vote-rigging by several countries. The EBU need to take these allegations seriously. There can be no whitewash as there was in 2009 after the voting scandal in Azerbaijan. It's interesting that Azeri President Aliyev has ordered an investigation into why his country did not vote for Russia in the final, Belarus' President Lukashenko has also waded in complaining that he believes the results to be falsified. This, coming from a man alleged to have rigged elections for years... Meanwhile in Baku three people have been jailed for an alleged terror plot on Eurovision last year. The EBU keep insisting that Eurovision is not political, however, politics clearly does come into it, whether they like it or not.

As for the results. It was an interesting year given that not a single Former Yugoslav country qualified to the final for the first time since 1993. Belgium and the Netherlands, who haven't fared so well over the past decade or so, returned to form. Norway returned to the top five for the first time since their 2009 victory and Italy continued their strong run in the contest since returning in 2011. Hard luck on the UK's Bonnie Tyler, she was a great ambassador for the UK. Ultimately though, as with last year, what works on paper doesn't translate into votes. The BBC need to have a long think about what it is they want from Eurovision.

Thanks to everyone who made Eurovision in Sweden a terrific experience, thank you especially to the BBC team who despite popular opinion, do work extremely hard when it comes to Eurovision. Better luck next year to the UK and of course, Georgia!

Whilst it might be a quiet season for Eurovision over the summer, it's going to be a busy one for me as I try and finish my book, based on my PhD. Will keep you posted!

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