Zakaria: The geopolitics of the Eurovision Song Contest
Azerbaijan triumphed in the Eurovision Song Contest in 2011 and hosted the continent-wide cultural event in 2012.
March 19th, 2012
05:00 AM ET

Zakaria: The geopolitics of the Eurovision Song Contest

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

What caught my eye this week was a dispute between two members of a grand old European alliance. The alliance isn't NATO; it's not the
Arctic Council nor the Euro Zone, nor the EU. I'm talking about the annual Eurovision Song Contest.

It's camp; it's cheesy; but it's a huge hit across the pond. Every year, dozens of countries send their top performers to an American Idol-style music competition. More than a 100 million viewers tune in to vote for their favorites. The one rule: you can't vote for your own country.

And so the tradition has continued since the 1950s.

Abba won for "Waterloo" in 1974. Celine Dion made a splash in 1988 representing Switzerland. But somewhere along the way the contest became known less for big names, and more for kitsch: Sequined costumes, outlandish productions, the works.

Now, despite its name, Eurovision is not just a European competition. Algeria participates and so does Israel. This year's host is Azerbaijan. And that's why Eurovision is in the news this week.

First some background: Azerbaijan has long clashed with Armenia. In 1994, the two countries ended a years-long war over the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh. But tensions flared up again recently when an Armenian soldier was shot to death at the border.

So with Azerbaijan as the host, Armenia is  pulling out of the Eurovision party. The intrusion of politics into these kinds of events is not new. Music competitions, like big sporting events, are often proxies for larger disputes or trends. When Moscow hosted Eurovision in 2009, Georgia was reluctant to take part because it had just fought a war with Russia.

But music can unify, too. That same year, Israel's entry featured a duet with an Arab and Israeli Jew.

For me, the fascinating thing about Eurovision is not the performances or the music. It's the politics and public psychology. Here at GPS, we plotted the capital cities of the winning countries from the past two decades on a longitudinal graph - yeah, that's the kind of thing we do in our spare time. We found that in the 1990s, the winners tended to be from Western Europe - Dublin or London. But by the late 2000s, the winners mostly came from the East - Moscow and Kiev. Europe's center of gravity is clearly moving East.

And these voters have interesting tendencies. In 2003, Britain got exactly zero votes - that was the year the Blair government supported the war in Iraq. Votes aren't always conscious political choices. But we saw trends. Greeks always vote for Cypriots. The Cypriots return the favor. Viewers from former Warsaw-Pact countries often vote as a bloc. So do members of the former Yugoslavia. In 2007, Serbia won after picking up maximum points from Bosnia-Herzigovina, Croatia, Macedona, Montenegro, and Slovenia. All in all, this is an interesting window into Europe.

So it got me thinking. We have American Idol here in the U.S., and we have "The Voice". But perhaps what we really need is our own Eurovision - an "Americavision".

Will people from red states strategically vote for each other? Will the two coasts create an alliance? Will there be a North-South divide?

I hope a TV executive somewhere is watching. Remember to credit us with the idea - and maybe send a few royalties our way.

For more of my thoughts throughout the week, I invite you to follow me on Facebook and Twitter and to visit the Global Public Square every day. Also, for more What in the World? pieces, click here.


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