Azerbaijan, Eurovision and National Branding
The Republic of Azerbaijan is a relatively unknown country in the Caucasus region straddling Eastern Europe and Western Asia, being most notable for its conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region and its significant oil export industry. As a state of former-USSR, Azerbaijan is viewed with a certain level of scepticism by the West, and unlike nations such as Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, it does not have significant ties to other European countries to bring it ‘in line’ with Western ideals. Thus, Azerbaijan utilises the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) in order to project a particular image of itself to the West, constructing an identity for itself through its participation.
Nation branding is crucial for any nation to achieve cultural diplomacy as it improves a nation’s image and soft power, which is a country’s ability to attract others through ‘cultural and ideological ideals’ (Kim, 2012). This is especially important in the case of Azerbaijan, as rampant globalisation has meant that that self-promotion within a Eurocentric sphere can have far reaching effects through technological means. It is crucial that Azerbaijan is able to brand itself well – the act of nation branding can help generate significant economic benefits for nations, as it is able to lure ‘foreign investment, facilitate trade, improve private-sector competitiveness (and) even secure geopolitical influence’ (Teslik, 2007). Azerbaijan is a small developing economy, and participation in the ESC is an attempt to involve itself globally for economic and social benefits.
The use of song is not limited to the sphere of Eurovision when a nation seeks to brand itself globally. A successful, if somewhat accidental, example of this is the song ‘Gangnam Style’, performed by the South Korean rapper PSY. This particular song became the nation’s largest cultural export, even in spite of significant government investment into diplomatic, sporting and cultural events which were designed to bolster South Korea’s international image. In his paper, Kim argues that global citizens would much prefer to ‘watch and read the actual culture’, rather than one adulterated by government influences in an attempt to present a filtered image of Korea.
This is not dissimilar to Azerbaijan’s entry to the Eurovision Song Contest in 2011, where the song ‘Running Scared’ seems to portray a brand of ‘national innocence’. Its lyrics suggest that Azerbaijan is ‘scared of life’ and ‘scared of breathing’ (Eurovision Song Contest, 2011), and must run away – there is a self-victimising lilt to the song, and there is an insinuation to the European audience that Azerbaijan is distancing itself from its former Soviet ‘master’, even though Azerbaijan ‘adore(s) you’. By distancing itself from ‘Mother Russia’, Azerbaijan creates an image of itself as willing to join Europe and become a more cosmopolitan and modern nation, moving away from the harsh dictatorship and unjust society imposed by the former regime. What is notable being that whilst this is not the ‘actual culture’ of Azerbaijan, the Azeri government is able to exploit Western ignorance in order to assert this performance as a cultural norm. The song goes on to assert Azerbaijan’s need for Europe, with lyrics stating ‘Oh God, I need you – there’s nothing left for me to say’. These lyrics affirm Azerbaijan’s commitment to improvement, in spite of its actual record for human rights and global justice, which is dire by international standards.
Azerbaijan’s construction of image in the Eurovision Song Contest is one which is developed from the minutest of details, beginning from the choice of public broadcaster to its annual song and performer selection. Initially, a state-controlled television broadcaster, AzTV, wished to join the EBU in order to be able to participate in the ESC, but had its application declined due to significant connections to the government which may have been exploited in the competition. As a result, the only public television broadcaster in Azerbaijan (ITV) then applied for and gained entry to the EBU in 2008. The issue with ITV’s involvement is that it is still bound to many of the wishes of the Azeri government due to the fact that it is a public broadcaster, and hence is reliant upon the government for public funding. Additionally, the Azeri government has a significant level of influence upon the national song and performer selection each year due to the implementation of a unique national selection process, where the song and performer are chosen separately. In choosing its performers, a national song competition is held, where notable Azeri musicians are chosen from music schools in Azerbaijan and abroad. In this competition, singers are chosen for their ability to sing Eurovision, pop and Middle-Eastern songs, allowing selectors to choose singers who are able to appeal to the niche Eurovision audience. The song is commissioned separately, who use Swedish song writers to construct a song which helps to portray Azerbaijan in a significantly positive light.
Evan Potter’s theory on public diplomacy suggests that nation states need to present a ‘distinct national voice’ (Potter, 2004) when self-branding in the global sphere and how well this message is projected can determine how successful a nation is. In a report for the British government, Simon Anholt notes that when nation branding ‘is to persuade people to change their minds about a country, advertising becomes propaganda, which most people instinctively recognise and resist.’ (Anholt, 2008) For Azerbaijan, this is not the case – there is no significant stereotype to which it can be attributed, and thus the act of nation branding serves Azerbaijan differently. By participating in and winning Eurovision in 2011, Azerbaijan was able to significantly boost its presence in the public sphere, with many people now ascribing Eurovision as a part of Azerbaijan’s international identity. Whilst Anholt believes that ‘national reputation truly cannot be constructed’, it can be argued that the Azeri government built the foundations for the song contest to be a part of its national identity in the way in which it aggressively pursued its inclusion in the contest and its upward progression in the competition towards its victory in 2011. The identification of Azerbaijan as a Eurovision victor establishes a sense of European-ness and hence creates a brand which is associated with a greater sense of progressiveness and a vision to reform.
The way in which nations are branded can occur in a multitude of ways, and the hosting of the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012 was one of the ways in which Azerbaijan was able to significantly bolster its self-promotion in the world stage. Azerbaijan, and Baku in particular, have invested heavily in promoting itself internationally since the late 2000s, hosting sporting events such as the 2005 World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships, the 2007 Wrestling World championships and the 2012 FIFA Women’s World Cup, with the city investing significant financial capital into hosting these events. The issue with these events is that due to their nature, these events are significantly niche and unable to draw significant international attention to Baku, and hence Azerbaijan. This changed with the hosting of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, as the contest brought significant Western attention to the nation, which allowed it to successfully portray a sense of itself to the world. When Estonia hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in 2002, it also used the show for national branding, with Wolther stating that Estonian Television was able to create a symbolic representation of Estonia which placed it ‘among the Scandinavian countries with impressions of pine forests, saunas and Nordic clichés.’ As a result, this allowed it to distance itself from its identity as a former Soviet nation, and made itself more synonymous with the stereotypes of Scandinavia, as opposed to Russia.