Pop meets politics at Eurovision Song Contest

Sweden claimed a decisive victory at Eurovision this weekend. But for all its glitz, the annual contest is dogged by controversy. In host nation Azerbaijan, repression and corruption are rife.

With glittering flame-shaped skyscrapers and fleets of flashy cars, Baku is a show city. This weekend, it got the chance to put its luxury to good use – as the host of the Eurovision Song Contest.

The fans that flooded Azerbaijan’s capital were in for a treat. Turkish vampires used cloaks to create an electro ghost ship, dancing grannies recalled the street parties of Soviet Russia, and Sweden’s Loreen swept to glory with a euphoric dance tune.

Eurovision is watched by 125 million people worldwide – and for the host nation, it is a powerful propaganda tool. On Saturday, Azerbaijan treated viewers to impressive films of the country’s treasures, and performers sang in a specially-built Crystal Hall, embedded with 45,000 glittering lights.

Beneath the kitsch and glitz, however, lurks an unsavoury reality. In rural Azerbaijan, many people live in poverty, and many more were displaced by simmering conflict with neighboring Armenia. The $134 million Eurovision venue will do little to help. More worryingly, Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev, made a hefty personal profit from the construction – and hundreds were forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for it.

When it comes to human rights, Aliyev’s record is dismal. Activists are silenced with imprisonment and intimidation; opposition politicians prosecuted on trumped-up charges. Aliyev’s family dominate politics, maintaining only a meagre semblance of democracy. The President’s wife was elected to Parliament with an implausible 94% of the vote – before being placed in charge of the country’s Eurovision effort.

Khadija Ismailova, an investigative journalist in the country, has worked tirelessly to uncover this corruption. She was viciously punished: after illegally setting up secret cameras in her home, authorities threatened to leak sexual videos of her if she didn’t keep quiet. Even musicians are not safe: Shortly before this weekend’s contest, rapper Jamal Ali was arrested and savagely beaten by police. His crime? Insulting the president in a performance.

Lack of vision?

Eurovision, some say, is bad news for for human rights in Azerbaijan. Hosting it only gives the regime international standing, and a chance to present the nation as prosperous and thriving. The country’s grisly reality will be hidden under a veil of kitsch and fun.

If the contest is a gift, others argue, it is a Trojan horse. Now the eyes of the world are on Azerbaijan, and its leaders cannot hide their repression, corruption and cruelty. Anything that draws attention to this little-known nation is good news.

You Decide

  1. Should countries with repressive regimes be excluded from the international community, or drawn closer in?
  2. Which singer from your country would you enter for an international pop competition?


  1. Write and perform a Eurovision-style song about human rights abuses in Azerbaijan.
  2. Write a letter to the organisers of the Eurovision Song Contest, arguing EITHER that Azerbaijan should OR that it should not have been allowed to host the competition.

Some People Say...

“Only countries with perfect human rights records should be allowed to hold international events.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How did the UK do?
Not very well, unfortunately. Although aged croonerEngelbert Humperdinck put on a brave effort with country-tinged ballad Love Will Set You Free, he only notched up enough points to come second from last. In the past, the United Kingdom was one of the most successful nations of the Eurovision Song Contest: then, countries had to perform their song in one of their official languages. When that rule was abandoned in 1999, however, the UK’s popularity plummeted.
So will Sweden have to hold the Eurovision next year?
That’s right. But for Eurovision hopefuls, winning isn’t always the best option. Spain’s entry, Pastora Soler, was supposedly urgednot to win the competition: ‘I think it would be impossible to stage the next edition because it costs so much money,’ Soler said.

Word Watch

In the early 1990s, Armenia invaded Nagorno-Karabakh: an area of Azerbaijan that was, ethnically, predominantly Armenian. Azerbaijan wishes to reclaim the land, but there seems to be no clear resolution for the conflict, and many refugees are still living in Baku.
Trojan Horse
In Greek Myth, the ‘Trojan Horse’ put an end to the ten year siege between Greece and Troy. Greek forces constructed a huge wooden horse and left it outside Troy’s walls. The citizens, taking it as a victory trophy, wheeled it into Troy – and Greek troops that had been hiding inside the ‘gift’ leapt out.
Engelbert Humperdinck
Engelbert Humperdinck, Born Arnold George Dorsey, is a British pop singer. His romantic ballads, including ‘Release Me’, earnt him a devoted following in in the 1970s and 80s, and have now given him a cult status in the UK.


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