With a combination of the kitsch of Eurovision and the lofty sentiments of pan-Turkic brotherhood, the Turkic-speaking world’s first international song contest, Turkvision, made its debut. Azerbaijan won the inaugural contest, besting 23 other competitors from across the Turkic world – from the powerhouse host Turkey to tiny Shoria, a region of 14,000 in western Siberia.
The creation of Turkvision followed Turkey’s 2012 announcement that it was withdrawing from future Eurovision contests because it deemed the voting method – which combines votes from a jury and public voting by phone – unfair. Turkvision instead used a method relying solely on a jury containing representatives from all 24 participating regions because the organizers believed that “Eurovision’s scoring [system] is political,” said Cem Özsancak, a Turkvision spokesman.
Turkvision’s scoring system could not prevent controversy. When Azerbaijan’s Farid Hasanov won with his power pop song “Yaşa” (Live) on December 22, the reaction online was negative enough that the spokesman for the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Elman Abdullaev, took to Twitter to defend the win. “Dear all, another victory for #Azerbaijan in #turkvizyon #Turkvision. Congratulations! I especially salute those who r happy for our victory,” Abdullaev tweeted.
Abdullaev later added on Twitter: “I see some people r upset with our victory. Pls get used to more victories by #Azerbaijan. I feel pity for you. #turkvizyon #Turkvision2013.”
Perhaps the most obvious difference between Turkvision and Eurovision was that the displays of campy sexuality that have become a hallmark of the European contests were nowhere to be seen in the Turkic competition. While many of the Turkic countries’ recent Eurovision entries have been just as sexualized as their western competitors’ – Azerbaijan’s 2008 entry, featuring a befeathered, falsetto-singing angel and writhing, scantily clad dancers comes to mind – all the performers at Turkvision were conspicuously wholesome.
Kyrgyzstan’s clean-cut, tie-wearing boy band, Choro, looked like a Turkic version of The Monkees, while the entry from Russia’s Altai Republic, Artyr Marlujokov, wore white tails as he performed his powerful bass paean to his homeland, “My Altai.” Elegant floor-length gowns, often with Turkic motifs, prevailed among the female performers. (One notable exception: Tuva’s Saylık Ommun, whose energetic rock throat singing and Tuvan-themed mini-dress and headgear suggested an Altaic Bjork.)
And Eurovision has never seen the likes of Shoria’s Childyz Tannakesheva, whose elaborate golden gown and regal bearing evoked a medieval queen, and whose performance included lengthy interludes of throat-singing and animal sounds.
Turkey’s withdrawal from Eurovision and its invention of Turkvision comes as many observers see Turkey “drifting Eastward.”
The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have downgraded once-strong ties with Israel, seemingly snubbed NATO in the decision to buy a Chinese air defense system and tried to increase presence of Islamic values in public life. But organizers sought to play down any political implication of Turkvision.
At the same time, the contest has refocused attention on the concept of pan-Turkism. Pan-Turkic efforts have diminished significantly since the early post-Soviet period, when Turkey’s government sought to draw into its orbit the ex-Soviet Turkic states – Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – and Russian minorities like Tatars. Those efforts “didn’t go anywhere because Turkey had little to offer these states in terms of economic and political benefits” and because “Turkey’s efforts at being a ‘big brother’ was reminiscent of Soviet paternalism,” said Jenny White, a scholar at the University of Stockholm’s Institute for Turkish Studies, in an email to EurasiaNet.
In addition, pan-Turkism has declined as a result of the rise of the AKP. The notion of Turkic solidarity is more common to Kemalist thinking, with its emphasis on the Central Asian racial origin of “Turkishness,” than to the AKP, which sees Turkishness through the lens of the former Ottoman Empire and Sunni Islam, White added.
In spite of rhetoric favored by Turkish and Azerbaijani government officials that the 21st century will be a century of the Turkic-speaking world, “political interest [in pan-Turkism] is low, both due to the AKP and the fact that Azerbaijan and Central Asia are carving their own path in world affairs and don’t see much need for solidarity of a Turkic universe,” said Hugh Pope, a Turkey analyst with the International Crisis Group and author of a book on pan-Turkic ties of the early post-Soviet period, Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World.
“This kind of thing [cultural events like Turkvision] is where the Turkic world lives, the politics of the Turkic world have never added up to much, with the possible exception of Azerbaijan and Turkey,” Pope told EurasiaNet, adding that even in that case Turkey’s support for Baku in its conflict with Armenia is also substantially driven by the large amount of Azerbaijani investment in Turkey. “No one wants to upset such a big investor,” Pope said.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer, who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.