Post-Eurovision intrigues in the Caucasus: what happened in the public vote?

When I was a kid, Ireland won the Eurovision four times in five years (between 1992 and 1996). In retrospect, those were the golden years, leading us into the economic boom of the Celtic Tiger and the political windfall of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. I remember ditches filled with primroses; I remember waking up to find cows wandering around the garden and staring in our front window. But it was also a time of uncertainty and change. I remember hearing the heady debates on the car radio, as Ireland squeaked towards a referendum on divorce – our second attempt, and one which only passed by a margin of less than 10,000 votes. The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, a novel about a battered woman (as they were then called), was at that time controversial enough to be discussed by ten-year-olds in the school playground.

To try to sum the rest of it up briefly: I remember the assassination of Veronica Guerin, an investigative journalist, and the shooting of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe; I remember, though I didn’t understand them at the time, the Moriarty, Mahon and McCracken Tribunals[1]; I remember hearing about ‘illegitimate’ babies, born in secret and then abandoned by their mothers (the fathers having abandoned them long before); I remember the ground-breaking TV series that was Father Ted, and the remarkably rapid decline of the Catholic Church in Ireland; I remember when an IRA bomb exploded in a shopping centre in Omagh, killing 29 people; I remember a moment of national crisis when pop star Steven Gately made the sensational announcement that he was gay; in short, I remember a lot of things, and either all of them are connected, or none are.

What brings all this to mind this evening is the fallout from Eurovision 2014. Now, there are those of you who will say that Eurovision is a giant waste of time – a series of mediocre but costly performances designed to give us a false sense of shared identity and to distract us from the less pleasant things that are going on in our communities. There are also those of you who will say that the question of sexuality has been exploited for too long now by European political elites, who merely want to whip up domestic support for their foreign economic and military policies. There is a measure of truth in both these arguments. Yet at the same time, from where I’ve been watching, Eurovision has provided a rare, focused glimpse into the controversies sweeping Europe, from the Atlantic coastline to the farther reaches of the Eurasian steppe. And here, in the small nations of the South Caucasus, which are facing every bit and more of a hard time as Ireland did in the ’80s and ’90s, it has certainly been much more than an evening of questionable musical entertainment with a superficial veneer of politics.

It was almost inevitable that this Eurovision would be billed in advance as a showdown between East and West, or rather, the West and Putin. While the media focus, as during the Sochi Olympics, was predominantly on gay rights, the voting patterns were also somehow expected to reflect public outcry against the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. And so, one by one, each country took its turn to pronounce judgement on a 25 year old Austrian drag queen (with a beard), conscious that this was an opportunity to send a strong message to the Russian president about the enduring nature of Europe’s liberal and egalitarian values, as well as our lack of respect for Russia’s so-called fraternal relations (bratskie otnoshenie) with the unhappy family of post-Soviet nations. In one way, that is exactly what happened. Conchita won, and thousands of people felt, at least for an instant, that they had secured an important victory over the Kremlin’s draconian anti-gay laws (as they are known in the West), or the Duma’s[2] law against the propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors (as it’s known in Russia). Everybody went to bed happy; only a handful of Eurovision nerds felt the need to carry out a detailed post-mortem the next day.

At least, that was what happened in one part of the Europe. Here, it’s different. Here, people haven’t yet learned to take Eurovision lightly – or rather, they don’t have that luxury. In addition, the Eurovision spats between Georgia and Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, have become notorious over recent years. I woke up with the certain knowledge that my Facebook feed would be flooded with commentary, and I felt that it would be too much of a perfect storm – a rare illustration of the interdependent nature of constructions of ethnicity and gender – to ignore. In the end, my feelings of anxiety gave way to pleasant surprise. I admit that a couple of people had chosen to express distaste, dissatisfaction and aversion over the results. But the rest – the overwhelming majority – were warmly supportive, not just of Conchita’s victory, but of her whole personality. They were also roundly critical of how their own countries appeared to have voted.

Given that a lot of my friends here are active in the sphere of human rights, especially women’s rights, it’s not that surprising that they should be celebrating. But human rights in the Caucasus is not necessarily seen as synonymous with LGBT rights – and many women’s right activists who I’ve met have told me that they feel unable to openly defend LGBT rights, though they support those who do. In any case, some of these who commented late last night and early this morning were people who I had never seen make any kind of online statement about freedom of sexuality – not last week, when LGBT activists in Yerevan marked the two year anniversary of the DIY-bar arson attack, not last January, when a 20 year old gay rights activist in Baku committed suicide, not last year, when a peaceful rally on the International Day Against Homophobia was violently attacked by thousands of nationalists in Tbilisi.

But what was even more surprising was the news that emerged later in the day: that the public vote for Conchita in all three countries had far exceeded that of the juries (the final scores are a combination of the ‘televotes’ texted in by viewers, and a five-person panel consisting of music industry professionals). The disparity between the public votes and the votes by jury is striking: in Armenia, the judges placed Conchita second-last, while the public voted her into the second position overall. In Azerbaijan, judges likewise ranked Austria second-last, but the public voted her into third place, enough to earn her a single point in the final tally. The Georgian vote was different. Last night, I almost fell off my chair when I saw that Georgia had given Conchita ten points (or second place); today that was explained by this message which appeared on the official Eurovision website: “The voting of Georgia in the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest was based on 100% televoting. In case of technical issues with jury voting, or in case of a breach of rules and/or procedures, the Rules of the Eurovision Song Contest state that 100% televoting shall apply.” In Russia, just so you know, televoters gave Conchita third place, while the jury ranked her eleventh out of twenty-five.

So, what does it all mean? There are many layers of explanation, and perhaps many different explanations, for what happened. Maybe Eurovision was boycotted by all but a liberal few – I haven’t seen the numbers for what percentage of the population either tuned in or voted for their favourite. Maybe people voted for Conchita as a general sign of protest and rebellion, against Russia, against the Customs Union, against conformity, against injustice, against dictatorship, against oppression. Maybe they enjoyed the act of subversion without necessarily appreciating the radical integrity of the performance. Maybe they see no contradiction between supporting Conchita Wurst in Eurovision, and continuing to marginalise LGBT issues in their everyday lives. Maybe they see the contradiction, but feel powerless to overcome it. Maybe they feel safe casting an anonymous Eurovision vote for a distant, bearded, drag queen, and unsafe taking a public stance against homophobia in their own neighbourhood, school or workplace. As Oscar Wilde once said, “give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.”

Whatever it means, it’s a sure sign that the rhetoric of Euro-Sodom, homo-fascism, liberasty[3] and gaypolitik (yes, those terms are all enjoying great currency in the Russian language press and social media at the moment) does not hold complete sway over the population here. But why, really, should any of us be surprised by that? The average citizen of the Caucasus or Russia, at least in my experience, is just as politically savvy as their western European counterpart, if not more so. The trouble is, they’re also far more cynical, and far more scared of vocalising protest – with good reason. Everyone is so used to internalising their personal and political opinions all of the bloody time here that it’s hardly surprising they should acquiesce when the state or society puts extra pressure on gay people to internalise their sexual orientation.

It’s also a timely reminder that this story we’re being spoon-fed, the new Cold War saga (“now with gay people!”), is far from the simple tale it’s made out to be – that of civilised, tolerant Europe versus the savage Russian bear-people. Yes, there is a insidious attempt going on, as exposed here and here by Ukrainian NGO Gay Alliance, to manipulate sexual politics for the sake of nationalist agendas. Homophobic attacks, physical and verbal, do go virtually unchecked in this part of the world. Many people grow up feeling ashamed of their sexuality, eventually facing the choice between emigration or living in a kind of internal exile. Thankfully, there are also many people who see this situation for what it is, and refuse to play into the hands of the hetero-political entrepreneurs over something as silly as a song contest. Perhaps they are fighting a losing battle – but perhaps we can help by beginning to realise, and act on, the interconnectedness of all things, and the correlation between sexual freedom and freedom from injustice and corruption.

By evoking my nostalgia for 1990s Ireland in the opening paragraph of this text, I don’t mean to draw facile parallels between my country as it was then, and the South Caucasus as it is now. There are as many differences as there are similarities. But all the same, twenty years ago, who could have predicted the transformation Ireland would undergo over the course of a single decade? Who could have looked at what was happening and realised the almost imperceptible links between one thing and another, or how deep an impression all of it would leave on those of us who were children at the time?

One last thing. I don’t believe that the people in these countries voted for Conchita because all their prejudices were suddenly stripped away by the power of her song. I believe they voted for her because they relished the opportunity to show the rest of Europe that there are people here who value freedom and tolerance. Just as the changes in Ireland didn’t happen overnight, but followed decades of painstaking struggle, with the vocal minority often outweighing the silent majority, the changes here (and there will be changes, that’s for sure) are going to be the result of complex, locally-driven processes – with, just occasionally, an unexpected flashpoint occurring around a bearded lady.

 

[1] A series of public inquiries into political corruption, usually named after the judges who presided over them. At the time it seemed that they would never end.

[2] The Russian legislature, as opposed to the personal office of the president.

[3] A combination of liberal and pederasty, the latter being widely used as a derogatory term for homosexuals in Russia. In Armenia, women’s rights advocates have recently earned the moniker ‘genderasty’ for their troubles.

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31 thoughts on “Post-Eurovision intrigues in the Caucasus: what happened in the public vote?

  1. Wow, that first paragraph really brought me back! We were so different then… Great post! I loved the bit about the neo-Cold War fable we’re being spoon-fed. You’ve nailed it.

    • Thanks Iain! Yeah, something about the Eurovision-induced hysteria over here reminds me so much of that period between Italia 90 and Riverdance…I think it’s about wanting to put your country on the map for something other than crisis and conflict, something I can definitely sympathise with. You don’t think I’m being a little overly-optimistic about human nature though?

  2. Great post, thanks for sharing, I watched with my 19 year old daughter, a politics student in the UK, who wondered whether Eurovision over the years would make for an interesting thesis.

  3. Awesome post. I love Eurovision and look forward to it every year, and I was delighted that Conchita won – she represented everything that I love about the spirit of the contest. I was, however, also a little appalled at the way the Russian twins were booed during the voting – every year the dark side of Eurovision rears it’s ugly head. I think you’re absolutely right in everything you said – congrats on bring Freshly Pressed!

    • Thanks Suzie – yeah, it is a shame about the booing. Russia is threatening to pull out of the contest and organise a rival one, which if it happens would be a real shame for everyone involved.

  4. As Oscar Wilde once said, “give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.”

    Well, he’ll tell you what he really thinks, at least. Whether that’s the truth will depend on what kind of human being is under that mask. A twisted, ugly individual will show you their inner ugliness. A good person will show you their goodness.

    Someone in a mask will show you what’s really under the other mask, the one they wear every day.

  5. Totally intriguing article. I actually wrote an article about this on my blogger. Anyhow I am looking for more support on wordpress, would you mind following me? I have already followed your brilliant blog ! Bravo!

  6. “I don’t believe that the people in these countries voted for Conchita because all their prejudices were suddenly stripped away by the power of her song”.

    Her song? His song is more correct. He is a man who wants to attract other men.

    In fact the beautiful couple from Netherlands had a better song. But because of a massive international campaign among gay people Conchita received more votes.

    The newspapers here in Norway try to make homosexuality a new fashion.
    What good can this massive campaign do to society? Nothing, absolutely nothing.

    • Personally, I prefer to use female pronouns when referring to Conchita, and male when referring to Tom Neuwirth. I am not a fan of the binary gender system and I believe whole-heartedly in the power of drag to change the way people think…of course, as your comment shows, it doesn’t convince everyone.

  7. I had no idea that Georgia voted that way for Conchita. I want to be thrilled about it, but I’m still very skeptical (and curious what went wrong with the jury voting) … I just spent the last year working in microfinance in the Caucasus, and ultimately left because I couldn’t bear the sexism and homophobia any longer. So, to read about the recent Eurovision winner through this lens is very interesting for me.

    I actually just wrote (again) about the May 17 attacks on anti-homophobia demonstrators in Tbilisi, in light of the approaching anniversary. I’m no expert on gender/sexuality in that part of the world (or any), but I was deeply affected by these events and it was one of many things that eventually drove me out of there.

    http://thesoulshines.wordpress.com/2014/05/15/remembering-may-17/

    • Hi Meghan, thanks for your comment and for sharing the article you wrote. To be honest, I’m still at a loss to explain the Eurovision outcome in light of May 17…I guess that more than anything it points to increasing polarisation in society. Like you say in your post, there are a lot of people in Georgia who “would never approve of this kind of hatred” – the question is, how far are they willing to go to affirm their positive support for minorities? My sense is that a lot of people in this region are getting tired of religious and political leaders manipulating these issues and interfering in people’s lives…something which I hope will lead to an increase in the numbers of people actively demonstrating against homophobia in future, but like you say, I really can’t be sure.

      • Thanks Sinead. You raised a very interesting point: even if many people denounce the violence, would they do anything proactively to support the LGBT community? I think the answer is a resounding “no”, at least in Georgia. The church is growing in reach and power. Since I moved to Georgia, I’ve seen a dozen new Orthodox churches pop up in Tbilisi. No one speaks against the church; it’s akin to speaking out against Georgia, being a traitor.

        Another issue I did not touch on in my post is the fact that even my girlfriends who were disgusted by the violence thought that the demonstrators were out of line. They said they were intentionally provoking violence to make Georgia look bad to the West. That they were probably non-Georgian, non-gay, and paid by western “pro-gay” organizations to spread homosexuality in Georgia. I heard this from dozens of educated Georgian colleagues.

        So, my hopes for progress are dim. I do hope a similar shift occurs, like what happened in Ireland and so many other countries, but somehow… Georgia feels different to me. The attachment to Orthodoxy is so incredibly strong. I truly believe that homophobia is becoming worse, much more vocal at least, in Georgia, and the opposition is being beaten (literally) and silenced. I’m very worried for Georgia.

        On a related note my friends in Tbilisi just posted this on Facebook: http://www.tabula.ge/en/story/83261-police-officers-demanded-information-on-lgbt-employed-in-caf-gallery

        Anyway, thank you for writing about this Sinead, and congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

      • Just thought I’d post this here as well for anyone who might be following the conversation: http://identoba.com/2014/05/15/idaho/. It highlights just how dire the current situation is, but it also makes explicit the links between this and the dirty politics around the Eurasian Union, something that could be said for Armenia and Ukraine as well. I agree with you that there is a long, long way to go before most people will consider it their responsibility to take a stand against homophobia (let alone celebrate queer identities) but I think that if an attitudinal shift is going to happen it will be in the context of broader opposition to forced Eurasian integration and Russian authoritarianism. I’ll be keeping an eye out for further anomalies or signs of change and I hope we can continue this conversation in future!

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