Russian authorities have finally found a case of alleged voting fraud that they can get really incensed about.
No, it's not the 2011 Duma elections, which experts from across Russia's political spectrum now agree were probably falsified on a huge scale. That has never been the subject of official outrage, or even investigation.
This is something far more important: the continental song competition, Eurovision.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists yesterday that he was "outraged" to learn that the voting system in neighboring Azerbaijan had eliminated the votes cast for Russian Eurovision contestant Dina Garipova in that country. Voters registering their preferences by cellphone had given a second-place finish to Ms. Garipova – which should have given her 10 points in the overall contest – but they had somehow disappeared in the reporting process.
"We can’t be happy with the fact that 10 points were stolen from our participant, primarily in terms of how this event is organized," Mr. Lavrov said during a previously scheduled joint press conference in Baku with Azeri Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov.
"We have agreed with Elmar Mammadyarov that we will discuss joint measures to ensure that this outrageous action will not go unanswered," Lavrov added.
The head of Azerbaijan's broadcasting company, Jamil Guliyev, quickly acknowledged that some sort of mistake had occurred.
"We sincerely hope that this case, which was probably initiated by some groups, would not cast a shadow on brotherly relations of Azeri and Russian people," he told journalists.
Contestant: Why the fuss?
The mammothly popular annual singing contest, held last Saturday in Malmo, Sweden, featured contestants from 39 countries from the Atlantic to the shores of the Caspian Sea. An estimated 125 million TV viewers, each cheering for their country's contestants as avidly as any football team, tuned in to the Eurovision finals, plus countless more around the world via Internet streaming.
Competition for the honor of hosting Eurovision is almost as serious as for the Olympics, and Russia went wild when Moscow won the right to stage the event back in 2009.
The winner of each year's multinational contest is determined by a complicated system – which is supposed to be foolproof – in which each country votes for all entries except their own.
Votes cast by TV viewers in each country by cellphone (or through social media such as Facebook) makes up half the decision, while a national panel of judges makes the other half. At the end of the process, each country submits a ranking for all contestants – except its own – by giving 12 points to the winner, 10 points to the runner-up, and so on. The results, totaled for all of Europe, determine the overall winner.
The missing 10 points from Azerbaijan didn't affect Garipova's standing, and she graciously told the Russian media today that it would be better to drop the rising demand for an international investigation into the alleged vote-rigging scandal.
"To be honest, I don’t know why an investigation is needed," Garipova said. "I am satisfied with the result of the contest."
Eurovision's organizers said in a statement that they will take swift action to preserve the event's apolitical nature and prevent any future abuses. But the scandal is far from dying down in Russia.
Some Russian conservatives claim it's just another example of Western "double standards," in which those who never miss an opportunity to lecture Russia about human rights and democracy turn out to be dirty themselves.
Perhaps tongue-in-cheek, Mr. Markov went on: "In general it's better when we non-Europeans are accusing them of falsifying elections than when they are accusing us…. And here [with Eurovision] we have such a fraud, and the whole world has seen it with their own eyes."
Viktor Shenderovich, once a top political satirist who was exiled from the mainstream media after Vladimir Putin came to power, says the Russian response, and particularly Lavrov's official outrage over a singing contest, is an unseemly display that reveals a persecution complex at the heart of Kremlin behavior.
"This comes from the inferiority complex than haunts our state, which is really funny when you recall that we're a country the size of a continent that has a vast nuclear arsenal," Mr. Shenderovich says.
"When a mature adult from the Foreign Ministry starts taking such things seriously, well, it can only mean that we have lost any sense of self-irony. On the surface it looks silly, but when you examine the roots of this affair you can't help feeling sad…. Whenever Russia feels it's been shortchanged in anything, be it a song contest or a sporting event, our people immediately begin claiming that there's a plot against us. But, as the old Russian saying goes, 'a bad dancer's boots are always too tight,'" he adds.