A Kyrgyz in a Mongol warrior princess getup won the Turkvision song contest in the third iteration of the event that brings together Turkic peoples from across Eurasia in a musical celebration of a shared culture.
But this year’s contest, held in Istanbul on Saturday, was held without Tatars, Yakuts, Tuvans, or Bashkirs, as Moscow forbade Russia’s Turkic peoples from taking part in the contest amid the country’s ongoing row with Ankara. Russian-Turkish relations remain caught in a downward spiral since Turkish military jets shot down a Russian fighter in late November.
There was little information released about the Russian ban; the conference organizers and Turksoy, the Ankara-based Turkic cultural organization under whose auspices Turkvision operates, did not respond to EurasiaNet’s requests for comment.
At least eleven Turkic regions of Russia had declared an intention to perform this year, according to an accounting by the website Eurovoix: the republics of Altai, Bashkortostan, Crimea, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia (represented by a joint entry), Khakassia, Tatarstan, Tuva, and Yakutia; Stavropol Krai; and entries representing Moscow and the Kumyk minority of Dagestan.
The downing of the Russian Su-24 in late November, however, prompted a host of retaliatory measures by Russia against Turkey, and Turkvision was not spared. Three days after the incident, Russia’s Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky sent a telegram to the Russian regions that wanted to participate in Turksoy recommending that they “immediately suspend contacts with that international organization and not participate in its events.” The Russian Ministry of Culture press service did not respond to a request from EurasiaNet for comment.
While the Culture Ministry statement did not mention Turkvision, all the Russian regions announced in the following days that they would not be participating in the contest. The last to drop out was Tatarstan whose entrant, the all-female vocal pop group Yamle Qizlar, said they found out they could not go on December 3.
“For five days or so we had known that we probably wouldn’t be going, but we knew that all the regions except Tatarstan had dropped out, and we hoped that something would change,” said one group member, Gulnaz Battalova, in an interview with local news website Realnoe Vremya. “No one forbade us, but the Tatarstan government advised us not to go – you never know what sort of consequences there could be. We don’t want any problems for Tatarstan.”
“Until the end we believed we had a chance to fight to win this prestigious contest,” said Aigul Akhmadeeva, one of the contest organizers in the republic of Bashkortostan, in an interview with local news website proufu.ru. “After Medinsky’s announcement all our hopes were dashed. This is the only contest in which we can tell the world about ourselves. Now we’re hurt and annoyed, but we hope we’ll be able to compete next year... We, the Turkic people, should be in contact with one another in spite of the political situation.”
Turkvision was not free of politics. While the Russians’ absence was not mentioned during the show, the contest did for the first time have an entrant from Syria, Adil San, a member of the Turkmen minority that has been at the center of the Turkey-Russia conflict. Russia’s bombing of Turkmen militia groups in northwestern Syria has been a cause celebre in Turkey, which likely played a significant role in Turkey’s decision to shoot down the Russian jet. After his performance, San gave a short speech: “Good evening, Turkic world, greetings from the Syrian Turkmens who are fighting against oppression. Turkey is the mother of the Turkmens.”
This year’s contest suffered from the lack of the Russian participants, who in the first two iterations of Turkvision have produced some of its most memorable moments. Many of the European entries feature Turkish diaspora members singing heartfelt, keyboard-backed Turkish ballads, and the post-Soviet republics have tended toward Russian-influenced pop. Russia’s regions, meanwhile, have produced some of the most self-consciously Turkic and original performances with martial rhythms, hunting and warrior imagery, and throat singing and animal imitations.
Kyrgyzstan’s Jiidesh Idrisova, however, took up that mantle in her winning performance; she and her backup hip-hop dancers dressed in fur-and-leather Mongol-inspired costumes and her pop song, Kim Bilet, featured both throat singing and auto-tuned vocals. Kazakhstan placed second and Turkey third. An ex-Soviet republic has now won every Turkvision; Azerbaijan won the inaugural contest in 2013 and Kazakhstan won last year.
The Russia-Turkey dispute was not even the first major problem for this year’s Turkvision. The contest was originally scheduled to take place in Mary, Turkmenistan. In August, without explanation, the venue of the contest was changed to Istanbul. Next year’s Turkvision is scheduled to take place in Baku.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC-based freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East. He is the editor of EurasiaNet's Bug Pit blog.