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The Other Controversies Impacting 2024’s Eurovision Song Contest Written by on April 19, 2024 | 2 Comments

Phil Dore highlights two other controversies in the run-up to Malmö 2024 and asks how the EBU can address concerns about national representations on the Song Contest’s stage

There is a furious controversy over Israel’s inclusion in the Eurovision Song Contest during its ongoing assault on Gaza, but this is not the only country where geopolitical concerns have intruded on this year’s Song Contest. Azerbaijan and, to a lesser extent, Serbia have both engaged in conduct that might raise questions. This article looks at those lesser-known controversies, and raises some questions about the relationship between democracy, human rights and Eurovision.

Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh

In 2023, Azerbaijan’s long-running conflict with Armenia ended in forcible deportation of the entire Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh.

During the Soviet era, this disputed territory formed part of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic and so became de jure part of Azerbaijan when it became independent in 1991, despite having a majority Armenian population. Tensions and violence between Armenians and Azeris emerged in the late 1980s before escalating into civil war. By the time a ceasefire was agreed in 1994, hundreds of thousands of refugees had been displaced, and multiple war crimes had been committed on both sides, with the territory becoming de facto part of Armenia as the self-declared Republic of Artsakh.

Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. Now a ghost town since Azerbaijan’s invasion. (Vmakenas; licensed under Creative Commons)

Following a short, inconclusive war in 2016, Azerbaijan launched a major invasion in 2020. Making heavy use of drone and missile strikes, Azeri forces quickly conquered most of Nagorno-Karabakh. The capital city, Stepanakert, remained in Armenian hands but blockaded by Azerbaijan. In 2023 Azerbaijan attacked again, overwhelming the defenders and forcing the entire Armenian population – 100,000 people –  to flee to refugee camps in Armenia. The centuries-old Armenian community of Nagorno-Karabakh simply ceased to exist. Stepanakert is now a ghost town.

Azerbaijan itself is a dictatorship. Reporters Without Borders ranks the country 151st out of 180 for press freedom, alleging that, “Journalists who resist harassment, blackmail or bribery attempts, are thrown into prison under absurd pretexts.” Azerbaijan’s Eurovision acts have used their platforms to praise the regime, notably 2021’s Efendi. After the 2020 war she posed in military garb on her Instagram and posted, “#KarabakhisAzerbaijan, V for Victory.”  In November 2023, after the ethnic cleansing of Stepanakert, she posted, “happy victory, dear Azerbaijan” along with a photo of her draped in the Azerbaijan flag.

Serbia’s National Final

Serbian broadcaster RTS has had something of a near-miss when generating controversy this year. At the National Final, more than a few eyebrows were raised by the song ‘Gnezdo Orlovo‘ (‘Eagle’s Nest‘) by Breskvica. The song includes the lyrics “Thunder, lightning, hail falls and knocks down the eagle’s nest” and “the blackbirds will be gone.” The flag of Albania is a double-headed black eagle, and the lyrics could be interpreted as a call to ethnically cleanse the majority Albanian population of Kosovo.

Are these the “black birds” who “will be gone”?

Breskvica herself has stated she was “shocked” by the suggestion that the song is about genocide, before going on to tell Index magazine, “I’m not going to comment excessively. …The song is about the fight between good and evil. Whoever wants to interpret the song…Everyone can find their own message in that song.” That said, during her performance she was dressed in angel wings and a feather head dress, flanked by musicians bearing traditional Serbian instruments. It certainly looked and felt like a nationalist anthem.

Serbia is currently undergoing both democratic decline and rising tensions with Kosovo. Freedom House has described the 2022 elections as “characterized by media bias and allegations of misuse of public resources” with “numerous irregularities during the campaign and on election day.” Although there have been EU-brokered moves towards normalising Serbia-Kosovo relations, in September 2023 a gun battle in the Kosovo village of Bjanska left a Kosovar police officer and three Serb militants dead. Within such a context, it’s surprising and disturbing that the broadcaster RTS thought it appropriate to include such a song.

Breskvica’s song won the televote, but was knocked into second place by Teya Dora’s song ‘Ramonda,’ which scored more highly with the juries. Ramonda also contains some nationalist subtext, the ramonda flower playing a similar role in Serbia to the poppy in British war memorials. However, Teya Dora’s song does not contain any apparent references to genocide.

Following the selection, death threats were sent to Sajsi MC, the only juror not to award any points to Gnesdo Orlovo. A protest was organised outside the offices of RTS for not selecting the song, which Breskvica publicly supported. However, only two people actually turned up at the protest and found themselves outnumbered by journalists. Needless to say, if Gnesdo Orlovo had been selected for Eurovision, it would have almost certainly have fallen foul of the rules against political lyrics. It also would have prompted a (justifiably) outraged response from the Albanian delegation. As with Belarus in 2021 and Israel in 2023, it seems inevitable that Serbia would have been told to change the song or face disqualification.

Questions To Be Asked

It’s worth noting that where such controversies have occurred this year (Israel, Azerbaijan, Serbia) or in previous years (Russia, Belarus) it always seems to involve the broadcasters of nations where democracy is either absent or in decline. Israel often claims to be a beacon of democracy surrounded by authoritarian regimes, but in the past year the country has been in crisis due to attempts by the Netanyahu government to undermine the judiciary. It’s also a nation where Israeli Arabs face ongoing discrimination. And that’s before we even begin to talk about the slaughter in Gaza or the attacks on Palestinians by settlers in the West Bank.

There’s also been times when a broadcaster’s withdrawal from the contest has been preceded by democratic decline in their nation. Hungary and Turkey are rather obvious examples. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise as authoritarian regimes are usually deeply LGBT-phobic and misogynistic. Eurovision’s joyful displays of inclusion and empowerment are not what a scowling tyrant wants to hear.

All this raises the question of whether the EBU should be more stringent about the Eurovision Song Contest’s entry list. It might be that a broadcaster ought to represent a nation that meets certain standards of democracy, human rights and respect for international law as measured by external agencies before the Song Contest entry is accepted. Such a decision would undoubtedly have financial implications for a Contest already under monetary strain. It would also rule out the return of either Hungary or Turkey for the foreseeable future.

However, as such incidents pile up, this may be a discussion that needs to happen.

About The Author: Phil Dore

Phil Dore is a nurse living in Cardiff, and host of the Eurovision Wars podcast, which explores the intersection of Eurovision and geopolitics. He is on Bluesky and zarathustraspake on Instagram.

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2 responses to “The Other Controversies Impacting 2024’s Eurovision Song Contest”

  1. Demi says:

    Finally someone who says it like it is.

  2. Cyril L. says:

    Excellent article. I wish a large number of people on X would read it…

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