The diplomatic spat between Russia and Azerbaijan over the Eurovision song contest illustrates a strange truth: In the lands of the former Soviet Union, bad pop is big politics.
To an uninitiated viewer, the Eurovision contest is a silly display of overblown musical schlock that bears little relation to actual pop charts. Other than Swedish band ABBA and Swiss siren Celine Dion, few winners in its 57-year history have gone on to distinguished careers.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, however, the contest gained status in the new post-Soviet nations. Economically and politically weakened, they wanted to excel in something tangible. Eurovision took on the importance of a politicized sporting event.
Consider Russia's reaction in 2008, when pop singer Dima Bilan took first place at Eurovision, adding to the victories of Russian teams in UEFA soccer and international hockey championships. "Soccer, Hockey, Bilan -- We've Got a Victorious Plan!" read the triumphant headline in the pro-Kremlin newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda.
Eurovision winners are determined by viewers' telephone and text-message votes and, since 2009, by the votes of national "professional juries." The post-Soviet nations have a collective advantage because they vote heavily for one another's entrants, to the detriment of other contestants.
Since 2000, Russia has won the contest once and had three runners-up. Ukraine won once and came in second twice. Azerbaijan won in 2011 and took second place this year. Ireland, which holds the all-time record of seven wins, has not seen a single first-place finish in the 21st century.
Russia's performance this year fell short of expectations. The country's entrant, singer Dina Garipova, came in fifth. Russian officials studying the voting charts were shocked to discover that Garipova had received zero points from Azerbaijan, while the latter's entrant, crooner Farid Mammadov, received the maximum possible 12 points from Russia.
Moscow was not shy about venting its anger. "Ten points were stolen from the Russian contestant," said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at a joint press conference with his Azerbaijani counterpart, Elmar Mamedyarov. "We will coordinate our actions with the Azerbaijani side so that this outrageous action is not left without a response."
A flustered Mamedyarov said that the televoting results from his nation's three mobile operators had put Russia in second place after Ukraine (which took third place in the final standings). The Azerbaijani minister said he had no idea what had happened with the votes.
Russia wasn't the only former Soviet nation that felt wronged. Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, no stranger to rigged elections, denounced Russia's zero vote for Belarussian contestant Alyona Lanskaya, who came in 16th. "I know what you feel, Alyona, about the way Russia voted," he told the singer. "This demonstrates how politicized and falsified this contest is."
Contest organizers offered a plausible explanation for the voting results. "The combination of televotes and jury votes, each bearing a 50 percent influence on the outcome, did not result in a top 10 position for Russia in the overall result from Azerbaijan," said Jon Ola Sand, the contest's executive supervisor. "Therefore, Azerbaijan awarded Russia no points." Something similar must have happened to Lanskaya in Russia. Both results go against the recent years' trend of post-Soviet nations backing their neighbors, but, if Sand is correct, not against Eurovision's rules.
It would be hard to imagine the British foreign minister or the president of France getting so upset over a song contest. The crucial difference is that Russia, Azerbaijan and Belarus are all effectively dictatorships.
"The dictators have cleverly used sport as propaganda," John R. Tunis wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1936. "No sensible person believes that a victory for the United States at the coming Olympic Games would furnish proof of American racial, intellectual, moral or physical superiority. Not so in dictatorship countries. In an international football match the national honor is at stake."
The Eurovision contest is, to the rulers in Moscow, Baku and Minsk, just another proving ground meant for testing both the national mettle and the strength of international alliances. The absence of votes for one another's singers suggests, to a paranoid dictator, a troubling disloyalty. Whether the songs please the ear simply doesn't matter.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is the Moscow correspondent for the World View blog and a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)