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Political Pop

Rivalries at the Eurovision Song Contest have reached new heights.

Russia’s contestant has been banned from this year’s Eurovision Song Contest – and that’s just the way Moscow wanted it. Politics has always been part of Eurovision, but it has never been this overt.

© REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

National tensions have long played a role in the Eurovision Song Contest. Although the official rules state there should be no “lyrics, speeches [or] gestures of a political or similar nature,” that hasn’t stopped allegiances and rivalries from affecting the outcome. Those who say it’s about the music are kidding themselves.

The politics were subtle until the 1990s. Which language was a country singing in? Was the color of an outfit meant to symbolize an independence movement? Why were Scandinavian countries always voting for each other? It was never too serious. But that all changed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. As the countries beyond the iron curtain joined Eurovision, the number of contestants tripled in size over the ensuing 15 years.

The new entrants brought with them an enthusiasm that breathed fresh life into a contest that had become staid and old-fashioned. But they also brought their many conflicts. Eurovision was established in 1956 to celebrate peace among Western European nations after a horrible war. Now there are countries competing while they are at war with each other.

The new era dawned in 1991. Yugoslavia, the only Communist country to participate in Eurovision during the Cold War, was represented by a woman named Baby Doll. They had just hosted the contest the previous year in Zagreb, having won in 1989. But as Baby Doll prepared to represent her country in Rome, she got the news that Yugoslavia was about to disappear. The contest had already been moved from the originally planned venue in San Remo, Italy, because of worries about its proximity to the Balkans, which were spiraling into war.

The new countries formed by the break-up entered the contest while peace settlements were still being finalized. And yet they continued voting for each other and still do so today. The former Yugoslav countries have become the most predictable voting bloc in the contest.

Moscow’s Trap for Kiev

Since then, tensions in Eastern Europe have become a regular feature of the contest, culminating in this year’s remarkable developments.

The stage was set last May, when Ukrainian contestant Jamala scored a shock win with a song about Crimea. Russia was furious. It wasn’t explicitly about Russia’s 2014 invasion and annexation of the Ukrainian territory. Instead, it was an emotionally intense song about the Soviet Union’s mass deportations of Crimean Tatars to Siberia in 1944.

The Kremlin did not see an innocent historical tale in the song. They saw a protest against the current Russian actions in Crimea, by a singer they say has close ties to Ukrainian nationalists. The Russian media and political elite were enraged. The winning country always hosts the contest the following year, and it was widely expected Russia would refuse to participate in this year’s contest in Kiev.

Russia kept the organizers guessing. For months they would not say whether they would participate. Finally on March 12, just one day before the deadline to submit an entry, Moscow suddenly announced they would submit the song ‘Flame is Burning,’ to be sung by Julia Samoilova. She is a former finalist on the Russian version of XFactor.

Had Russia relented? Had they decided to extend an olive branch, and stand by their insistence (made vociferously in objection to last year’s win) that the contest should remain free from politics? At first it looked that way. The song is completely innocuous. Samoilova is a sweet girl who has been in a wheelchair since childhood, suffering from spinal muscular atrophy.

But it soon emerged that all was not as it appeared. Samoilova had performed a concert in Crimea in 2015, a year after Russia’s annexation – which is still considered illegal by most of the world. Under Ukrainian law, anyone who has visited the territory under Russian occupation has violated Ukrainian law and is not allowed to enter the country.

Your Move, Ukraine

Moscow certainly knew they were putting Kiev in a difficult situation by selecting an artist who had performed in Crimea. Either Kiev would climb down from the ban, exempting Samoilova from the law during her visit for Eurovision, or they would ban a sweet girl in a wheelchair from participating in the contest. In the end Ukraine took the bait, announcing that she cannot enter. Russia pulled out of this year’s contest and there is speculation they may never return.

After a bearded drag queen from Austria won the contest in 2014, politicians in Moscow were enraged and called for Russia to quit. Plans were made to revive the old cold war alternative to Eurovision – Intervision – as a family-friendly alternative. The plans never got off the ground, but many Eurovision watchers think this year’s developments will give the Russian government the pretext to make Russia’s public broadcaster permanently pull out and start a new contest.

This is not the first time Eurovision has been hit by Russia-Ukraine tensions. In 2007, shortly after the ‘Orange Revolution’ protesting Russian influence in Ukraine, Kiev fielded a song called “Lasha Tumbai,” which means nothing in any language but many in Russia interpreted as being meant to sound like “Russia goodbye.” The EBU considered banning it from the contest, but in the end concluded there was no firm evidence that it was meant as a provocation. Russians would remember the perceived slight.

A History of Spats

Western European countries had their share of drama in the four decades before the Eastern expansion. There was the time in 1968 when Spanish dictator Francisco Franco allegedly bribed national juries to vote for Massiel’s ‘La la la’ over Cliff Richard’s ‘Congratulations.’ There was the Eurovision language battle in the 1970s, when countries led by Sweden tried to sing in English, prompting France to insist on a requirement that each country had to sing in its national language. That lasted until 1999, when a five-year string of wins by Ireland and the UK finally convinced France to end the ban on non-native languages. The UK never won the song contest again.

West Germany was never able to win the contest until 1982, and could only do so by singing a song about peace and love. Because of the presence of Israel in the contest, no Arab country has ever participated – except in 1980 when Morocco participated, taking advantage of Israel’s absence that year.

Still, this all seems like child’s play now. Since 1991 the contest has become so dominated by Eastern European allegiances and rivalries that it prompted Terry Wogan, the commentator for the British broadcast of the contest for four decades, to quit live on air in 2008.

Bloc voting – the phenomenon of countries with close geographic or cultural ties voting for each other regardless of musical merit – became more than just an amusing sideshow in the 2000s. The sheer number of new countries in the East meant that Western Europe was being crowded out. By 2008, when Russia won with a very mediocre song thanks to Slavic bloc voting, Wogan had seen enough. He declared that Eurovision was “no longer a musical contest” and had instead become an Eastern European game of favorites.

“At least the voting used to be on the songs,” he said. “Now it is really about national prejudice. As far as the Eastern bloc countries are concerned they are voting for each other.” He later followed through on his threat and quit his long-standing hosting gig, even though the rules were subsequently changed to lessen the impact of political voting by re-introducing national juries of music experts (the contest had for many years been determined entirely by public phone voting).

Eastern Conflict

The Eastern bloc voting may have been somewhat allayed by the rule change, but Eastern politics were not. In 2009 Moscow hosted the conference. It was a year after the Russia-Georgia war, and Georgia tried to sneak a political entry in with a song called “We Don’t Wanna Put In”. The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which organizes the contest, balked. They said the phrase had no meaning in English and was clearly a reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin. They banned it from the contest.

The Caucasus region has been a breeding ground for Eurovision conflict. During the 2009 contest Azerbaijan was accused of having obscured the phone number displayed to vote for its neighbor Armenia during the broadcast (the two countries are locked in a running conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory). Azerbaijan authorities then allegedly interrogated citizens who had voted for Armenia anyway. Azerbaijan denied conducting the interrogations but nonetheless, the EBU fined the country €2,700 euros.

Two years later, Azerbaijan won the contest. As its capital Baku was preparing to host in 2012, its neighbor Armenia had to withdraw because Armenians are not allowed to enter Azerbaijan. In what was perhaps an act of revenge, four years later the Armenian contestant waved a flag for the territory the two countries are fighting over during the broadcast – an act for which she was reprimanded.

Armenia infuriated its neighbor Turkey in 2015 by fielding a song called ‘Don’t Deny’ that slipped past the EBU censors despite being quite clearly about the Turkish genocide of Armenians during World War I. Turkey was not there to object, however, having permanently pulled out of the contest in 2013. This was ostensibly because of objections to the voting system, but was more likely due to the discomfort of Turkey’s increasingly Islamic government with participating in a contest alongside Israel.

Perhaps it was naive to think that a contest between nations could ever be truly free of politics. In many ways, Eurovision ended up being even more political than the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA). But for many viewers, it is the politics that makes the contest so thrilling. And for them, the cup runneth over in 2017.