Russia vs. Azerbaijan: the Eurovision edition

Russia's Dina Garipova performs during the final of the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest in Malmo, Sweden, on May 18, 2013.
John MacDougall

LONDON, UK — The foreign ministers of Russia and Azerbaijan had a lot to talk about at their joint press conference in Moscow Tuesday: transport of Azeri oil, peace negotiations in restive Nagorno-Karabakh — and the vocal merits of a 22-year-old Russian pop singer.

A diplomatic row is brewing in the former Soviet bloc over the final results of Saturday’s Eurovision Song Contest, an annual Continent-wide sing-off featuring pop ballads, backup dancers, unapologetic camp and a confetti budget that must be the equivalent of Bulgaria’s GDP.

At the reveal of each country’s telephone votes at the end of Saturday’s live broadcast, Russia awarded 12 points — the maximum a country can give a performance — to its neighbor Azerbaijan.

But although Russian singer Dina Garipova came in second in Azerbaijan’s phone votes, Azerbaijan awarded Russia zero points — not the 10 a country usually gives its second choice.

Garipova finished fifth, 17 points behind fourth-place Sweden, so the 10 points would not have made any difference. This did not stop Russia from elevating the issue to the ministerial level.

When asked about the scandal at Tuesday’s press conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov fumed over the country’s “stolen votes.”

“We will coordinate our joint efforts to make sure this outrageous action does not go unanswered,” Lavrov said, according to an unofficial translation, as his Azeri counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov sat shame-facedly on the dais next to him.

Azerbaijan is no less outraged.

“Where did the votes go? How did they disappear?” said Mammadyarov, who insisted that records from the country’s three main cellphone operators revealed that Azeri voters had put Russia second, after Ukraine. Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev has announced an official inquiry into the tally.

Meanwhile, tongue-in-cheek Twitter users in Cyrillic pointed out that it was nice to see Russia suddenly so concerned about counting votes.

To an uninitiated American audience, it is difficult to expand the complicated and long-standing relationship Europe has with the Eurovision Song Contest.

More from GlobalPost: Can Eurovision save Europe?

The most famous Eurovision winner is ABBA, whose 1974 victory with “Waterloo” launched the Swedish group’s career and pretty much defines Eurovision aesthetic. (Other notable contestants include Celine Dion, who won for Switzerland in 1988, and the Russian pop duo t.A.T.u — the girls who used to make out with each other — who placed third in 2003.)

Performances veer wildly between painfully earnest and outrageously camp. This year’s winner was rosy-cheeked Emmelie de Forest of Denmark, whose catchy single “Only Teardrops” would be perfectly at home on a pop chart.

Romania, in contrast, sent a falsetto-singing glampire named Cezar who writhed amid a cavorting circle of seemingly-nude backup dancers.

Some nations send only their top guns. Italian entrant Marco Mengoni and his song “The Essential” have been topping charts at home for months already already. Germany sent the pop singer Cascada, whose 2009 single “Evacuate the Dance Floor” you have almost certainly heard if you have been to a dance club or walked past a Hot Topic clothing store in the last three years.

Britain treats Eurovision as kind of a big campy joke, sending past-their-prime pop stars like Engelbert Humperdinck in 2012 and Bonnie Tyler this year. Eurovision voters punished this flippancy by placing Tyler near the bottom Saturday.

The furor over this year’s voting is only the latest example of how a contest founded in 1956 to heal a war-torn continent has been unable to keep itself above geopolitics.

Since telephone voting began in the late 1990s, countries have traditionally awarded their points to their geographic neighbors. A look at the voting tables over the years reveal certain allegiances and enmities: Armenia, Cyprus and Greece, for example, tend not to vote for Turkish singers.

Votes have not been immune to serious political realities, particularly in the former Soviet republics. Azeri authorities hauled in for questioning the 43 people who dared to vote for Armenia in 2009. The same year, Georgia was disqualified when it refused to pull a song with anti-Putin lyrics under Russian protest.

Belarus received no points at all from Russia this year, a snub that infuriated its dictatorial president Alexander Lukashenko. In April, a question about Eurovision from a university audience reduced Lukashenko to sounding like a bitter prom queen runner-up.

“Maybe, I take this contest too close to heart,” he said, according to the official state news agency. “I know that this contest is not objective at all. Any state, if needed, can give you any number of points, and what you see on the screen, these points and so on — everything is fake, a show.”

A country’s telephone votes count for 50 percent of the final points it awards. The other half is determined by the verdict of a national Eurovision jury, which is where Azerbaijan’s votes for Russia may have gone missing.

“Any form of political pressure on professional juries that could lead to anything other than an independent evaluation of the participating entries is a violation of the Rules of the Eurovision Song Contest, and will be duly dealt with,” Eurovision organizers said in a statement.