Azerbaijan is set to host next year's Eurovision Song Contest, an American Idol-type show watched by 125 million European TV viewers this year, when the little-known country was the surprise winner. But will the expressed willingness of Azerbaijan to let its arch-enemy Armenia take part in the 2012 competition produce a breakthrough, where international negotiators and military threats have failed? Will "pop music diplomacy" postpone a war, thanks to an Armenian singer named Lucia Moon?
The answer to the first question is probably not, given the still-heated climate of Azerbaijan-Armenia relations after the failure of recent internationally-led talks. The Israelis and Palestinians seem closer to okaying a return to 1967 borders than Azerbaijan and Armenia -- two former Soviet bloc countries -- are to settling their dispute over the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh, an area the size of Delaware in the Southern Caucasus neighbored by Georgia, Turkey and Iran.
But the prolific, Los Angeles-based vocalist Moon (see her on YouTube) or whomever Armenia chooses to represent it for Eurovision in Azerbaijan's capital of Baku, would at least represent a partial thaw, a new step forward, a reason for the two countries that hate one another to stop and listen, in place of the stalemate and military buildups over the past 17 years that sometimes result in casualties.
That Azerbaijan signaled in early summer that Armenia might be allowed to participate in the high-profile, 55-year-old Eurovision song competition is in itself an unexpected, positive development. In June, Azerbaijan's Ministry of Culture and Tourism made an incredible statement, given the countries' mutual animosity: "Armenian representatives have equal rights with contestants from other countries in the contest and there are no special problems here."
Two weeks later, Azerbaijan Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov said his country was ready to provide security for an Armenian delegation during the four-day Eurovision contest. But Azimov added that the guarantee of security for Armenia was simply one of Eurovision's terms for Baku to host the event.
The Eurovision opportunity comes at a time of heightened tensions as the two sides maintain armed forces at the edges of the disputed land. Some believe that the sides are now preparing for a new war over Nagorno-Karabakh, following the concerted but doomed diplomatic efforts this summer, including a special summit organized by Russia and attempts by the United States and France.
Armenia, insisting on historic claims to the territory before the Soviet Union took over both Armenia and Azerbaijan after World War I, gained control in 1994 and still occupies it. The country did so in defiance of four resolutions by the United Nations Security Council insisting it withdraw. Its early-1990s war Azerbaijan over the land resulted in 30,000 deaths and 1 million people displaced, and the two remain bitter enemies. Of the 188,000 people who live there, about 75 percent are ethnic Armenian and 25 percent are Azeri.
Armenia has not budged since taking over Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan is unrelenting its opposition to conceding any territory to Armenia. Both nations regularly trade spiteful, often petty accusations in state-sponsored news reports and other media outlets. For example, Azerbaijan officials this month lodged an objection with Google Maps after protesting against Microsoft Maps over the use of some Armenian names for Azerbaijan villages in the disputed region. Armenia's media often publishes embarrassing stories involving its rival country and frequently accuses Azerbaijan of stoking anti-Armenian feelings at home and abroad.
The fact that next year's Eurovision will be on Azerbaijan soil is a new historical twist. Both peoples and governments will have to at least tolerate one another. Baku will have to keep Armenia's visitors safe. Small numbers of Azeris and Armenians have in the past voted for each other's Eurovision entries, including one Azeri in 2009 who was questioned by Azerbaijan authorities, citing "national security," about his pro-Armenia vote that year.
Will there be more votes for each other's countries' songs this time? Will more viewers in both nations ignore the Nagorno-Karabakh feud long enough to consider their rival's representative performer on their merits? How will the audience at the live concert in Baku, presumably mostly Azeris, react to the Armenian's performances?
Eurovision is an annual, four-day televised event where viewers in mainly European countries -- and eastern places like Azerbaijan and Armenia, and Israel -- watch and vote by phone for their favorite song among entries from 43 countries. This year, Azerbaijan's male-female duo of Ell & Nikki won in host city Dusseldorf, Germany, with a light, conventional pop song, "Running Scared," sung in English. Armenia's entry, Emma, did not make it past the semi-finals. Italy placed second, Sweden third. The country with the winning song gets to host the next Eurovision.
Why did Ell & Nikki of little Azerbaijan, of the far Caucasus region, win over the likes of Germany, France, Italy, Spain and 38 other countries? For one thing, they were heavily favored in the voting by nations bordering or close to Azerbaijan. Russia and Turkey gave Azerbaijan the maximum 12 first-choice votes each, a significant factor in Azerbaijan's song placing first among the 24 finalists.
While I was in Baku in May after the late-night results were in for Eurovision, scores of Azeris celebrated during impromptu rallies downtown. As pedestrians or inside cars, they rejoiced loudly, some waving and even kissing Azeri flags. It added to a string of good luck for Azerbaijan. The country's been booming commercially for years thanks to billions in revenues from state-owned oil and gas exports to Europe and Russia. Armenia, in contrast, is not as fortunate. It is comparatively poor and lacks Azerbaijan's cash-rich resources. That has added to the rivalry.
What is sure to happen is that in the months leading up to Eurovision's live broadcast in Baku next May 22-26 , Azerbaijan's at-times repressive regime will have the world's news media, and the millions of music fans, focusing on the former Soviet republic. Like its one-time Communist ruler once did, Azerbaijan clamps down hard on, and often jails, domestic critics, rights activists and journalists. The lack of civil liberties that much of Europe takes for granted won't make for good public relations for Azerbaijan, even as it seeks to broaden its appeal among foreign investors, business people and tourists.
Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev may wonder if Eurovision is worth the pain of the scrutiny from Western media outlets about his rule, his use of pre-dawn arrests of would-be protesters and of military troops to quell even the smallest demonstrations by students, social media activists and opposition party members. Freedom House in 2009 said that Azerbaijan officials "severely limit press freedom in practice" and considerable parts of the economy "are controlled by a corrupt elite." With a large international news presence, plus an estimated 60,000 expected to attend Eurovision live in Baku, local activists are banking on drawing attention to their plight.
But perhaps for a four-day period next May, Azerbaijan and its guest Armenia might enjoy a brief, springtime pause in the harsh rhetoric, criticism and physical injury that dominates their relationship. In the months ahead before next May, in anticipation of the big broadcast, both might think twice about launching another war. Beyond that, barring a miracle solution, it's not likely to last.
Jeff Burbank is a California-based author, freelance writer, college instructor and former Fulbright Scholar in Baku. His views are his own and are not based on those of the Fulbright program.