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Planting Apricot Stones: Armenia-Azerbaijan Relations Through the Lens of Eurovision

Image via Getty Images/AFP

Nestled within the religious, political, and cultural crossroads of the Caucasus mountains, Armenia and Azerbaijan appear to be eternally locked in a heated ethnic struggle. More than a century ago, deep-seated tensions within the region manifested themselves in the brutal Armenian genocide, in which as many as 1.2 million ethnic Armenians living in present-day eastern Türkiye were murdered by the Young Turks-controlled government in the fading Ottoman Empire. Türkiye and Azerbaijan still refuse to recognize the events as a genocide.

Today, those same tensions are woefully unresolved, flaring up most significantly in Nagorno-Karabakh. The region, situated in what is internationally recognized as southwest Azerbaijan, has historically been inhabited mainly by ethnic Armenians and was long governed by the Armenia-backed breakaway Republic of Artsakh. In the past, Russia has played an active role in keeping the peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia, but with the war in Ukraine, its attention has turned elsewhere. Encouraged by Russia’s relative absence, the Turkish-backed Azerbaijani military invaded Nagorno-Karabakh in 2023. Ultimately, Azerbaijan regained control of the region and forced the breakaway government to dissolve. Over 100,000 ethnic Armenians fled to Armenia, fearing a renewed genocide.

The Nagorno-Karabakh dispute is only the most recent episode in a conflict that has raged since Armenia and Azerbaijan joined the Soviet Union in 1922. In recent decades, both countries have begun to court broader international political backing through what is perhaps an unlikely medium: the Eurovision Song Contest. Their approaches have differed, certainly—Azerbaijan has turned to chicanery—but the art presented in the contest invariably reveals the absurdity at the center of the conflict.

Held annually since 1956, Eurovision is a unique and widely-viewed international spectacle. Representative artists from roughly 40 (mostly) European countries present a song every year as up to 200 million viewers watch, vote on, and revel in 25 to 26 final performances, ultimately crowning one winner. The final scores are tabulated through a combination of jury and public votes from each country, with the winning nation traditionally hosting the contest the following year. Each country’s entry is managed by their public broadcaster, which in many countries creates a direct connection between Eurovision and the national government. 

For both Armenia and Azerbaijan, having debuted at the contest in 2006 and 2008 respectively, Eurovision provides a valuable staging ground for the countries to gain soft power. With their entries, they can appeal to the consciences of tens of millions of voting Europeans, with the broader goal of tying the earned international sympathy to more favorable foreign relations.

For Armenia, this appeal is contained in the art itself. The messaging is often unmistakably political despite Eurovision’s ban on political entries. For example, Armenia’s 2010 entry, Eva Rivas’ “Apricot Stone,” is a poignant message to the Armenian diaspora. The lyrics describe a forlorn little girl being given apricots by her mother, endowed with the responsibility to plant the leftover seeds and rear her own apricots—a clear allusion to homeland, family, and legacy. The lyrics even indirectly invoke the conflict with Azerbaijan, as Rivas triumphantly sings, “Now I’m not afraid of violent winds. They may blow, they can’t win.” The impact of this appeal to the diaspora cannot be overstated, as figures such as Kim Kardashian, a fourth-generation Armenian American, front lobbying campaigns demanding US assistance to Armenia.

Armenia’s 2015 and 2018 entries both indirectly invoke the Armenian genocide. The former features Armenians from five continents demanding “don’t deny” (alluding to Azerbaijan and Türkiye’s refusal to recognize the genocide), while the latter employs the aforementioned “wind” imagery. The lyrics of its 2022 entry, “Snap” by Rosa Linn, were not overtly political, and the song enjoyed considerable commercial success after Eurovision. However, while performing at the iHeartRadio Music Festival, Rosa Linn sported a jacket with the words “Stop the blockade” etched across her back (in reference to Azerbaijan’s blockade of humanitarian support to Nagorno-Karabakh) and “#Artsakh” along the sleeve. In a global news environment where Armenia is usually pushed aside, Eurovision provides the country with unique exposure. It’s a place where, for at least three minutes, Armenian culture, music, talent, and, subliminally, political interests, are in the spotlight.

Azerbaijan, meanwhile, has pursued Eurovision success by outsourcing talent and refusing to acknowledge its bordering enemy wherever possible. The country frequently employs Swedish, Dutch, and British songwriters to compose its entries, including the 2011 winning number, “Running Scared.” Its Eurovision singers generally have pretty, congenial faces, impressive social media followings, and a modern “pop star” look—all of which lend themselves to de facto cultural ambassadorship. 2021’s Efendi is a prime example, winning fans on stage with a bumping Dutch-produced dance track, then taking to social media with the message “Stop Armenian terror” and a photoshoot in recently conquered Karabakh territory. The mere 43 viewers in Azerbaijan who dared to vote for Armenia in 2009 were brought in for questioning as a “matter of national security,” and the country’s national broadcaster blatantly refused to show Armenia’s 2021 Junior Eurovision winning performance.

They have also sought to corrupt the integrity of the competition: In 2013, Lithuanian journalists unearthed alleged clandestine Azerbaijani efforts to buy votes from local students in Vilnius. The journalists did so by going undercover, secretly filming a meeting with a Russian-speaking operative, Sergei, in which they feigned the intention of voting for Azerbaijan in exchange for payment. The footage suggested that similar vote buying schemes were simultaneously occurring in 15 different countries, many of which did end up giving the vaunted maximum of 12 points to the Azerbaijani Eurovision entry. However, no connection between the operatives and the Azerbaijani broadcaster has been proven. Sergei also made the broad claim that “all countries who want to win do it” in reference to his vote buying plot—a concerning statement considering Azerbaijan’s victory just two years earlier. These murky details are further compounded by the lack of detailed public voting results from 2013 and Azerbaijan’s comparatively minimal success following a presumed crackdown by the Eurovision’s governing body after the alleged scandal. Similarly, in 2022, Azerbaijan was one of six countries caught participating in a jury vote corruption scheme in the semi-final.

Ironically, a controversy surrounding Armenia’s 2009 entry, “Jan-Jan,” shows that the two neighbors, sworn political enemies, are perhaps more alike than they would like to admit. The performers, Inga and Anush Arshakyan, were accused of appropriating traditional Azerbaijani song and dress, with one YouTube commenter alleging that the performers “came out wearing Azerbaijani clothes.” But their ornate braids, outfits fashioned from deep blue velvet, and swaying duduk, were not solely Armenian, or Azerbaijani, or even Turkish. Rather, they represented the broader Caucasus region. Nevertheless, confronted with the dazzling glee of “Jan-Jan,” reminiscent of the Azerbaijani local hit, “Nakhchivani,” many Azerbaijani people automatically assumed Armenian theft rather than cultural similarity. 

That reality is difficult for governments like Azerbaijan, who weaponize art and culture to stoke their own nationalist individualism, to process. Nationalist governments, particularly those with a defined ethnic “enemy,” often disseminate the idea of shared values, history, and legend coalescing around a single defined homeland. But ethnicity and culture are not and never have been that simple. Modern nation-states have ironed out ethnic boundaries through force, using language and religion to paint endemic inhabitants as genetic “others.” 

Erasure and suppression of language, tradition, and religion are grave issues, and the “Jan-Jan” case does not discredit the very real threat of cultural genocide in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. However, it does challenge the flawed notion at the center of ethnic nationalism: that one group is fundamentally different from another due to entirely disparate cultural and genetic histories.

To this effect, despite all of its utility in politically weaponizing culture, the Eurovision stage still leaves a resounding message of harmony. It shows viewers that inflexible nationalist and cultural divisions are in large part arbitrary. This is why the Azerbaijani government, whose political rhetoric depends heavily on reclaiming their ancestral homeland, felt so threatened by its own citizens recognizing and appreciating regional cultural similarities in 2009. It’s also central to what makes Eurovision so beautiful: Two bejeweled sisters joyously belting “everybody move your body” can threaten despotic ideology. It’s a truth perfectly encapsulated by the aforementioned Azerbaijani residents who voted for Armenia’s entry. Those 43 Azerbaijani voters, the threat of detainment looming over their heads, couldn’t help but reach across that unfordable border and rejoice in what, impossibly, is shared.