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Has Eurovision Woken Up From Its Azerbaijani Nightmare?

Fans celebrate in Baku during the final of the Eurovision Song Contest held in the Azerbaijani capital in May 2012, thanks to the country's victory a year earlier.
Fans celebrate in Baku during the final of the Eurovision Song Contest held in the Azerbaijani capital in May 2012, thanks to the country's victory a year earlier.
The Eurovision Song Contest has announced rule changes it says are aimed at making the notoriously contentious voting process more transparent.

Organizers from the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) describe the anti-cheating measures as part of an "evolving tradition, which adapts to the spirit of [the] time."

They come following allegations that 2011 winner Azerbaijan has repeatedly engaged in vote-buying, the latest threat to a competition that remains popular among European viewers despite detractors' cries of political favoritism and serial offenses to good taste.

Some 26 countries take part in the annual Eurovision competition, which attracts an estimated 125 million TV viewers and is decided half by juries and half by viewer texts and phone calls.

As the organizers continue their own probe, the rule changes include broadcasting the names of the five national jurors ahead of the semifinals as well as their rankings -- which account for half of a country's points in the final tabulation -- immediately after the final. They also ban jurors from serving year after year.

Multiple reports suggest that an investigation sparked by this year's contest -- the third year running that undersize Malta gave Baku's entry the maximum 12 points -- uncovered offers of big cash or reciprocity in exchange for votes. (Malta's public broadcaster, which officially selects jurors, rejected the suggestion that it did anything wrong.)

Azerbaijani officials have dismissed as baseless allegations that they sought to buy votes in the contest, which provided a glamorous forum for President Ilham Aliyev's administration to show off his host country in 2012 but also attracted questions about Azerbaijan's rights record.

The Aliyev administration's record in connection with the contest is not without its blemishes -- from indications that the first family benefited enormously from projects ahead of its hosting duties in 2012; to its treatment of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community that has historically embraced Eurovision; to its failure to get its human rights act together even after the international spotlight (and the Eurovision's Swedish victor) highlighted the abuses under Aliyev.

But in fact, Baku went on the offensive following this year's competition in Sweden, complaining that phone and text votes from Azerbaijani viewers should have ensured at least 10 points for the Russian entrant but that none were assigned.

Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov vowed at a joint press conference three days after the 2013 final (won by Denmark) that their countries would investigate the "outrageous" development.

The head of Azerbaijan's state broadcaster, Camil Guliyev, stopped short of affixing blame for the goose-egging but was blunt about concerns that it could adversely affect Azerbaijani national interests. Guliyev -- summoning up language normally reserved for cases of methed-up envoys being discovered in felonious, parking-garage trysts with cross-dressed, recidivist organ smugglers -- said he sincerely hoped the incident would "not cast a shadow over the brotherly relations of the Russian and Azerbaijani peoples."

Eurovision organizers EBU insist their investigation is ongoing and will result in "the required action" if wrongdoing is confirmed.

Turkey is among the past entrants to have withdrawn from Eurovision over what it regards as a deck stacked against it and other players.

But Ankara last week took its protest a step further, with the Turkish public broadcaster TRT announcing details of "Turkvision," a contest pitting musical acts from 20 states and regions with Turkic minorities against each other. A Eurovision fanblog cited Russia's Republic of Tatarstan and Ukraine's Republic of Crimea among the participants. Bosnia-Herzegovina is also fielding an act, while invitations are said to have been extended to North Cyprus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan (no word on Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan).

It's not the first such imitator (the list is too long to include here), and at least one observer suggests it's not new but has simply been a long time in the pipeline.

And organizers have rejected suggestions that Turkvision is purely and simply a snub of Eurovision. But few people appear to believe that, despite assurances from Turkish Education Minister Nabi Avci:

“Turkvision does not need to be compared to Eurovision. It will have its place in the Turkic world with its own brand value. Whether we participate or not in Eurovision, I hope that Turkvision will move forward in its own path, growing and expanding year by year,” Avcı said, adding that the initial idea was to create a meeting space for young musicians.

Azerbaijan is already hedging its bets by joining the Turkvision lineup. Baku's winning performers from 2011, Nigar Jamal and Farid Mamadov, even turned up for Turkvision's inaugural announcement in Eskisehir, Turkey, where the semifinals and finals are slated for December.

-- Andy Heil

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