‘Non-political’ Eurovision contest caught in diplomatic crosshairs, again


Organisers of the Eurovision Song Contest take special care to steer the music event clear of politics, but this year was peppered with – and, according to some, even hijacked by – geopolitics.


Russians cried foul as they saw their bookmaker’s favourite candidate Sergey Lazarev settle for third place, while a Ukrainian singing about the crimes inflicted on her family by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin raised the Eurovision trophy on Saturday evening.

Songstress Jamala won with “1944”, a tune about deportations of ethnic minority Tatars from the Crimean peninsula during World War II. Herself of Crimean Tatar descent, Jamala has previously drawn parallels between the deportations seven decades ago and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The invasion of Russian troops and the eventual takeover of the peninsula from Ukraine provoked Western condemnation and was opposed by many in the region’s Tatar community.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko rushed to Twitter to congratulate Jamala after her victory in Stockholm. “Today her voice spoke to the world on behalf of the entire Ukrainian people. The truth, as always, prevailed!” he wrote.

It was not a sentiment that was shared in the Russian capital.

Konstantin Kosachev, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the upper house of the Russian parliament, fumed on Facebook: “Geopolitics won on aggregate. Political meddling triumphed over fair competition.”

Another Duma member, Franz Klintzevich, suggested Russia should boycott next year’s event, which would be exploited by Ukraine to advance its political agenda. As per Eurovision rules, Jamala’s victory affords Ukraine the right to host next year’s musical extravaganza.

Mixing supersized live performances, plenty of kitsch, patriotic fervour and votes from professional jurors and TV viewers, the annual competition remains a mystery to many outside, and even inside, the continent. But it is viewed by more than 200 million people worldwide – more than the Super Bowl.

Another ingredient of the Eurovision recipe is politics, even if the competition’s guidelines say they are off limits and organizers wage an incessant war against creeping agendas. This year was no different, and the Ukraine vs Russia hiccup was not an isolated one.

Disputed flag

During the event’s first semi-final on May 11, Armenian contestant Iveta Mukuchyan sparked controversy by unfurling the flag of Nagorno-Karabakh, a region bitterly disputed between her country and neighbouring Azerbaijan.

The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) that organises Eurovision swiftly scolded Armenia, calling the brazen display a “serious breach” of rules banning “messages promoting any organisation, institution, political cause”. The EBU went as far as to warn the Armenian delegation that it could be excluded from next year or from future contests.

“Armenia and Azerbaijan frequently use the Eurovision to wage a proxy war,” noted William Lee Adams, a London-based journalist and Eurovision expert. He said Azerbaijani contestant Samra tried to brush off questions by journalists about the incident, but “you could tell she was seething”.

Other politically-tinged performances included Greek band Argo’s song “Utopian Land”, which could have been interpreted as a call for Greeks strangled by European lenders to reclaim their past greatness, and Bosnia-Herzegovina offering a critique of the way Europe has been treating war-weary refugees.

On the sidelines of the televised contest, there was some commotion in France over its own candidate, Amir.

First, Junior Minister for Development André Vallini expressed outrage that Amir’s song “J’ai cherché” featured a chorus sung in English. Second, Amir was forced to respond to a question about a petition to exclude him from the Eurovision because of his dual French-Israeli citizenship.

“[The Eurovision] is a rebuke not just to anti-Semitism, but to a tendency that is sweeping across Europe and that we want to counter,” the singer told French tabloid VSD about the petition that collected some 700 signatures before it was suddenly taken offline.

Always political

The international contest runs over with examples of political drama over the years.
“Politics has always been there, and always will be,” Adams said, noting that as soon as a single person stepped on a stage to represent an entire country in front of millions of viewers, he or she became an unofficial spokesperson for their homeland whether or not they wanted to.

“How can you pull those things apart?” he said when asked if the Ukrainian song was more political or more personal, as Eurovision organisers have suggested in response to accusations they turned a blind eye to blatantly political lyrics. “History is intrinsically political, culture is intrinsically political, whether you want it or not.”

The Eurovision expert said that the contest turns political even before a single note is played as countries decide to participate, or sometimes, drop out in protest.

The presence of an Israeli delegation each year has long kept countries like Morocco and Lebanon away, he said.

Sometimes performances become political charged with no prior intention. It was the case of Ukraine’s 2012 contestant, Gaitana, a singer of both Ukrainian and Congolese descent. Conservative elements within Ukraine questioned her ability to faithfully represent the country.

Ironically, she sang “Be My Guest”, ostensibly about accepting foreigners. “Gaitana became a political figure although she had no intention of doing so,” Adams remarked.

Nation branding

Ukraine’s surprise triumph over the weekend sets the stage for another diplomatic showdown next year, with Russia likely to repeat concerns it will be the target of Western European prejudices.

Adams thinks it is unlikely that Russia will pull out of the famous song contest, as lawmaker Klintzevich has already suggested.

The event gives competing countries an incomparable opportunity for nation branding, one that Moscow has keenly exploited in the past.

Caught in conflicts in Georgia and Ukraine, Russia has entered songs about peace. And this year’s contestant was supposed to go a long way in countering perceptions that Russia is anti-LGBT.

“Russia comes to the party to play,” Adams said, noting the fiercely competitive country routinely finishes in the Eurovision’s top three. “I don’t think they want to give the impression they are weak.”

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