EuroVision, the annual international singing contest in which the nations of Europe set aside their political differences and come together in the spirit of mutual respect and neighborly goodwill, has been marred this year by a decades-old grudge on the part of one of the contest’s tiniest participants. Armenia has decided to withdraw because this year’s competition is being hosted in Baku, Azerbaijan. The official reason cited by Armenia Public Television is concern for the safety of the country’s delegation while in the Azeri capital. But astute observers of the region know Armenia’s true motivation is calling attention to its long-simmering territorial ambition.
In modern times, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been rivals going back to the early part of the 20th century, when the two nations fought a war over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, situated on the eastern border between them. Victorious British troops occupying the Caucasus after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, assigned the territory to Azerbaijan. Soon after, the Soviet Red Army invaded the region and the Caucasus nations were absorbed into the Soviet Union. In 1921, Josef Stalin, then the People’s Commissar for Nationalities, set up a committee to resolve the dispute. The committee voted first in favor of Armenia, and then reversed itself a day later.
Tensions over the region flared up again at the demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Armenia and Azerbaijan declared their independence, and almost immediately resumed fighting over the disputed land. The Nagorno-Karabakh War lasted from 1988 through 1994, and is estimated to have resulted in the death of over 25,000 people, most of them Azeris. Armenia took control of the region and today still occupies about 20 percent of Azerbaijani territory. The Bishkek Protocol, negotiated by Russia, froze the conflict in favor of ongoing peace talks. Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence within Azerbaijan, and peacekeeping troops were ordered, although these have never been deployed due to disagreements over which third party countries would participate.
As Armenia looks backward at past grievances, Azerbaijan has taken the EuroVision contest as an opportunity to build on its future. More than 100 million people in more than 40 countries are expected to tune in, and Baku is pulling out all the stops to put on a good show. Some international observers say that the country has gone too far, seizing property, albeit with compensation, and razing structures to make way for the newly built Crystal Hall, where the finals will take place. If true, Azerbaijan should restrain instincts that can lead to allegations of totalitarian practices and respect private property. In any case, the increased focus on Azerbaijan as the contest draws near will ultimately redound to the benefit of those Azeris already inclined toward Europe and seeking greater alliances with the West.
By contrast, Armenia will miss the chance to show its better face to Europe and a wider world. Given the well-known history between the two neighbors, attending the competition in its rival’s capital would have been viewed as a powerful gesture of good faith. A song competition is unlikely to be the salve that soothes a century of conflict, but Armenia – viewed as the aggressor in the dispute – may have been looked upon in a different light. Instead, it will be looked upon as a sore loser, unable to break free of the chains institutionalized by years of communist rule. If one thing matters more than any other in international diplomacy, it is the ability to move beyond intractable disputes such as Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijan was willing to do so. It removed visa restrictions to allow Armenia’s delegation to travel to Baku and guaranteed their safety during the competition. The result will be that the capitals of Europe will look more favorably on Baku than on Yerevan during EuroVision and beyond.
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