Armenia Withdraws from Eurovision and Belarus Probably Should

I hate it when the real world sticks its nose into the Eurovision Song Contest because now I have to start off by saying my views presented below do not necessarily reflect those of my employers.

Last Friday, I woke up to the news that Armenia withdrew from this year’s competition. Armenia went to war with Azerbaijan last September over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. The public diplomacy battles over that area have cropped up numerous times since both countries began participating in the Song Contest. A notable example: in 2016, Iveta Mukuchyan held up a Nagorno-Karabakh flag in the green room.

The war itself ended in November, and the aftermath was seen by many Armenians as a humiliation. Anti-government protests rocked the country after a cease-fire was signed that seemed to greatly favor Azerbaijan. Recently, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has warned about the possibility of a military coup, although it’s hard to tell if that is legit or if it is just an attempt to shore up support against the protests. Given all of this, Armenia’s withdrawal wasn’t a surprise.

The other country I was expecting to bow out of the 2021 Song Contest was Belarus. Protests erupted there after August 9’s presidential election, in which longtime President Alexander Lukashenko claimed he received 80% of the vote. Leading into the election, he either jailed or forced into exile potential rivals. His main opposition candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, had no political experience, but ended up drawing large number of supporters anyway. After Lukashenko declared victory, Tsikhanouskaya fled to Lithuania while workers went on strike. Lukashenko has tried to crack down on protests, which has lead to thousands of arrests.

As U.S. and the E.U. has rejected his legitimacy, Lukashenko has had to turn to Russia for financial help. While Russian President Vladimir Putin may be fine loaning his neighbor money, he has warned the U.S. and the E.U. to stay out of Belarus as Russia does the same.

Meanwhile, the Estonia-based Belarusian Culture Solidarity Foundation called for the European Broadcasting Union to tear up Belarus’s state-run broadcaster BRTC’s membership. As an example of the government’s control over the network, the foundation cited BRTC’s reaction to criticism by last year’s Belorussian Eurovision representative VAL. According to a BRTC statement:

The VAL group will not go to Eurovision 2021 and this is not because something ‘broke’ at BTRC or because censorship is raging, but because the artists of the VAL group have no conscience.

Fortunately for BRTC, they found a perfectly willing representative for this year’s Song Contest: Galasy ZMesta.

Not surprisingly, the band is solidly pro-Lukashenko, and the lyrics to their song “Ya Nauchu Tebya (I’ll Teach You)” seem to be telling the anti-government protesters that they will teach them all a lesson about opposing the president:

This is not “I Love Belarus” propaganda. It’s a band and a broadcaster kissing up to the head of state by mocking those who oppose him.

All of which is why it’s sort of hard, given BTRC’s continued membership, to take it seriously when the EBU tweets stuff like this:

Lest you think I am some blustery American buttinsky, let me talk about the USAGM. Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Radio Free Asia are managed by a government bureau called the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM). VOA is owned by the U.S. government, while RFE/RL and RFA are independent news agencies that receive government funding.

The ex-president of the United States had installed as the head of USAGM a political appointee who tried to turn the independently-run news agencies into mouthpieces for the president during his reelection campaign. He sought to dissolve oversight boards at the independent agencies, investigate the political leanings of reporters, and fired senior executives at USAGM that opposed this and replaced them with loyalists to the president.

After a lawsuit was filed against the USAGM, a federal judge imposed injunctions to prevent further actions. Once the new administration took office in January, the acting CEO of USAGM fired any appointees that had refused to resign after the transition.

Free, independent media is an important thing, and we’ve lived for four years with someone who did his damnedest to undermine that every chance he got. The damage done is far reaching, not just in the U.S. but around the world. And yet I still have hope that free, independent media will survive and prosper.

So long as those who fancy themselves promoters of free, independent media act on their convictions.

Update (11 March 2021): Here’s why the video link above doesn’t work:

I am curious what the EBU means by “recent reactions to the proposed entry risk bringing the reputation of the ESC into disrepute.” Given that Belarus’s entry was posted to the official Eurovision YouTube site seemingly without vetting it, I would argue that Eurovisions fans should have the ability to petition the EBU to remove it. But I also don’t know how nasty some of those tweets got.

Still, the right choice was made and now we just wait to see if Belarus submits an appropriate song or if they just pull out altogether. I am hoping for the latter.

Update (26 March 2021): The EBU confirmed that Belarus has been dropped from this year’s Song Contest: