Journalists at 15min.lt—a Lithuanian news site—have released video footage that they claim demonstrates Azerbaijan’s efforts at vote-buying ahead of Eurovision 2013.
The newspaper sent undercover journalists to meet with a man going by the name of “Sergei”. During the secretly-filmed meeting, which you can watch below, he details an elaborate cash-for-votes scheme in which multiple groups of 10 people are given five phones each and told to vote for Azerbaijan five to 10 times from each phone. “We’ve done this before, in different countries,” he says, adding that victory in the contest costs “millions.” The footage is in Russian. But 15min.lt has released the English-language transcription, which we’ve re-printed below.
We don’t want to jump to any conclusions and must emphasize that 15min.lt’s allegations remain allegations at this point. Nothing has been proven. It’s unclear if (and how) they established that “Sergei” was actually a representative of Azerbaijan. It’s possible he is merely a diehard fan who came up with a creative (if questionable) way to support his favourite. There is no way for us to independently verify that this video is real.
However, if the video is real, it suggests that vote-fixing is widespread. “Sergei” claims that “all countries that want to win do it” and he says he has sent his people “to about 15 countries”.
Speaking to the Swedish media, Jan Ola Sand, the executive supervisor of the Eurovision Song Contest, says theories on vote-buying have been swirling for years and that “footage” is usually a scam. “We get approached by people who say it, but there is no one who wants to verify it and come forward and then we have no means to do anything.” he said. “I have not seen the clip so I have no comment. We have a very good system and I am quite sure that we have a good result. We have no reason to believe that someone has cheated.”
Some have claimed that Armenians dreamed up this scandal as part of the ongoing political schism between the two countries, which frequently rears its head at Eurovision.
The video was published five minutes after the Eurovision finale started on Saturday evening, perhaps as a way of de-railing support for Azerbaijan as people hurredly Googled “Farid Mammadov”. Some people now believe the video is being used to prevent Azerbaijan being named the winner should something go wrong with Denmark’s victory. They point out that the video is receiving a lot of attention after Dutch journalists leveled accusations of plagiarism against winner Emmelie de Forest. Were Emmelie to be disqualified, that might prompt the EBU to name Farid Mammadov the winner—something Azerbaijan’s detractors could not live with. This seems rather far-fetched. The EBU hasn’t objected to Emmelie’s entry, and the reason the vote-buying story is now circulating on the Internet is because it only came to light on Saturday.
Amid all this speculation and finger-pointing Wiwibloggs only knows this: Azerbaijan had a great song in 2013 and it didn’t need to buy extra votes. Farid did really well with the Wiwi Jury.
To learn more about vote-buying at Eurovision, read our interview with the head of Eurovision’s voting system.
Sergei: The conditions are as follows: we gather groups of ten people each, we’ll now be going to your university and then to a street. In a word, if we do it in one place, we will simply overload phone networks and our voting will be blocked. The technology requires multiple groups of ten people. The groups must be at least one kilometer apart. Each of the ten persons in a group must have five phones. Any phones. One phone with their own SIM card – we’ll just pay to top up the account – and the other four provided by us. At 10 PM, the entire group must sit in one place where there is a TV set. Last time, one group was staying in the Panorama mall (in Vilnius, where the meeting with the vote buyers took place, – 15min) and they were asked to leave at 11 PM, so this place is not very suitable. You can do it at home. One of our men will stay with the group, to supervise, since we are paying money for this. The voting starts sometime between 11:30 and 12 PM. One group will be staying in our motel, another one in student halls, one more in a café. Think about a place that would suit you.
15min: And how many groups like that are there in total?
Sergei: How many groups have we got? Eight to ten. You are one of our groups. Think of a place.
Second man: The most important thing is that you have a TV set. It’s even better in an apartment, since no one will ask you to leave, less trouble. We’ll sit together and watch Eurovision.
Sergei: So we meet up, we give you phone cards. I can give them right now, but you’re less than ten here. You will need to activate the cards and top up the accounts. We sit, watch telly, see the performances. When the voting starts, it lasts only fifteen minutes. You need to vote 5 to 10 times from each phone.
15min: But according to the rules, you can vote up to 20 times from one phone.
Sergei: You can vote 20 times, but it won’t work. Only Tele Maxima (mobile service provider) allows 20 votes.
15min: 20 times won’t work because it’s too expensive or because there’s not enough time?
Sergei: Service providers would get suspicious. A network overload. We’ve done this before, in different countries. That is how the technology works. Otherwise we could have groups of 20 people, give then 10 phones and have them send 20 text messages each. But that would just overload the network and produce no result. Understood? The phone number for voting will be on TV. The phone number is 1479, you will need to text “20”, because that is the number of our performance. The text costs 2 litas (0.7 euro). Once the voting is over, we collect your SIM cards, check how many texts have been sent, and pay everyone individually.
15min: Will you indeed pay?
Sergei produces a thick bundle of 500-euro notes.
15min: Are these real?
Sergei: Smell it if you want, touch. I can pay you in litas, if you so prefer (produces a bundle of litas notes).
15min: But we agreed to be paid in euros.
Sergei: Some of your fellows asked for litas. It’s the same for us. 10 people per group, 20 euros each, that means 200 euros – you can divide it up among yourselves.
Second man: You will have one of our men among you. Me, for example. And you won’t let me go before I pay you, right?
Sergei: We have already invested a lot of money into phones and SIM cards. One hundred people, five cards each, then top them up, 10 litas each. We’ve already spent 2,000 euros.
Second man: Big money.
15min: But yours is a good song – it could win even without all this.
Sergei: Obviously, it could.
Second man: Well, this is how we support it.
Sergei: All countries that want to win do it. Our people work in Latvia, Estonia. We have the entire Baltics covered, you understand?
15min: What about Belarus and Ukraine?
Sergei: Ukraine, Croatia, Switzerland. We’ve sent out our people to about fifteen countries.
15min: And everyone votes for money?
Sergei: Of course for money.
Second man: They voted during the semi-finals for money, too. We did the semi-finals as a rehearsal. Students were voting. Those students who worked in the semi-finals have now formed two groups instead of one.
Sergei: After all, we paid them what was agreed, they liked it, so they invited their friends to join. It’s best when you use cheap phones, no need for iPhones (takes out his phone to demonstrate). You can borrow it for two hours from your friends, mother, father.
Second man: I think we should wrap it up, girls are waiting for us elsewhere.
Sergei: Where will you be doing this?
15min: We haven’t arranged that yet.
Sergei: We’ll call you, let’s keep in touch, since you speak good Russian. You need to activate the SIM cards soon, because if you do it right before the show, service providers can block them. We will call you and arrange things – either here or at someone’s home. We’ll bring the cards, top them up, and leave the person who’ll stay with you. Understood? That’s it. If you can, put down your names on this piece of paper. I’ll be paying them money – and I need to report to my superiors.
15min: This is all unofficial?
Sergei: Completely unofficial. We have our clients. They do not want it to be official, to avoid talks about them having hired someone. You can put fake last names if you wish, we don’t care. Just give your true first names. I’ll be paying money later and give receipts to the clients – I need them to see that people were duly paid.
15min: Can I ask you – how much does it cost to win in the Eurovision?
Sergei: Hard to tell. I’m only in charge of Lithuania. All in all, probably quite much, millions. This is politics, after all.
15min: And how could we make sure that Lithuanians win?
Second man: You cannot vote for yourselves. You must recruit other countries. Just like we in Belarus cannot vote for Belarus.