The Eurovision Song Contest, the latest edition of which takes place in Rotterdam in the Netherlands this week, is political by definition: it’s a competition between artists competing under names of states. The competition's organiser, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), has become increasingly wary of entrants – ie states – using the musical stage to blast political messages to unwitting audiences.
This year has seen Belarus disqualified from the competition, now in its 65th year, after its musical submissions were repeatedly rejected for being too overtly political, appearing to openly mock pro-democracy protesters challenging the regime of Alexander Lukashenko.
Sometimes the political grievances being aired musically at Eurovision are petty and small. At other times, they reflect the defining geopolitical divides of 21st century Europe. But always there is something faintly ridiculous about the machinations of serious statespeople being hauled into the outrageously over-the-top court of Eurovision, and having their stubbornness stripped bare.
The event has always held a particular meaning in Eastern Europe, for the countries behind the former Iron Curtain. During the Cold War era, attempts were made to create, not a rival Eurovision, but a counter event to try and nurture the growing liberalisation of the culturally sterile Communist Bloc and encourage cooperation with the West.
“Intervision” existed in two spells, from 1965-68 in Czechoslovakia and again from 1977-80 in Poland. Both times it was run by members of a liberal media that was growing in confidence as it sought distance from the Kremlin’s cultural arbiters, and both times it was crushed when the establishment hit back, first after the deadly culmination of the Prague Spring protests of 1968, then through the imposition of martial law in Poland in 1981 in retaliation against the Solidarity trade union movement.
“In 1968, there was a purge of the Czechoslovak media,” says Dean Vuletic, a Eurovision expert and academic who teaches the world’s only university course on the contest at New York University. “That included the people who were behind Intervision. It had been a response to Stalinism and all of its restrictions. The invasion of Czechoslovakia in ’68 was a response to this growing cultural liberalisation, and Intervision was a part of that.”
Small wonder that Eurovision has inherited a meaning in Eastern Europe that goes beyond the lyrics, the costumes and the choreography. The breakup of the USSR in 1991 and the international disputes that followed added means and motive to the opportunity provided by Eurovision to air their dirty laundry to an audience of millions.
Azerbaijan and Armenia
Armenia's entry at the 2009 contest, Inga and Anush. Photo: DMITRY KOSTYUKOV/AFP via Getty Images
A feature of the political pushbacks made by countries is that they tend to be out of proportion with the scale of the perceived offence, often with farcical consequences.
The republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan, situated out on Europe’s margins, are bitter enemies, locked in a cycle of hate at the political level that trickles downwards to grassroots society. Their distaste for each other is wearily omnipresent in the political and psychological makeup of the two countries, so much so that Azerbaijan has refused entry visas to anybody with an Armenian-sounding name.
In 2009, police in the Azerbaijani capital Baku called several people in for questioning after they had allegedly voted for Armenia’s Eurovision entry, “Jan Jan”, performed at the Moscow final by the pop duo Inga and Anush. One Azeri man who was interrogated told Radio Free Europe he was accused by authorities of being unpatriotic, and was told he was being investigated as “a national security threat” after he was one of 43 people in the country who voted for the country’s neighbour. Another of those questioned reported being told: “You have no sense of ethnic pride. How come you voted for Armenia?”
“Armenia and Azerbaijan are two states that always give each other zero points,” says Vuletic. “You can bet on it, just as you can bet on Greece and Cyprus giving each other 12 points. The incident with Azerbaijan’s security services in 2009 pushed the EBU to publish new rules on people’s freedom to vote. So the Union has responded to some of these situations.”
It wasn’t the last time that the two warring states would come to blows over Eurovision. In 2012, Baku hosted the contest after the vocal duo, Ell and Nikki, had won the previous instalment in Dusseldorf, Germany. Not only did the event bring the spotlight down on Azerbaijan’s maligned human rights record, including the forcible removal of low-income families in order to make way for the magnificent Crystal Hall that hosted the event, Armenia withdrew its entry in the weeks leading up to the contest, citing security concerns. But there was a yet more ludicrous twist.
“In 2012, the Azerbaijani government promised it would conduct an internal investigation into why Russia had been given no points,” says Vuletic. “That was after the Russian foreign minister complained about Azerbaijan’s voting during a visit to Baku.
“There is this idea in Eastern Europe that voting is rigged, but they accuse Western European countries of this too. The Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, has used Western vote rigging at Eurovision as a riposte to Western allegations of parliamentary and presidential vote rigging in his country.”
One of the men questioned in 2009, Rovshan Nasirli, summed up the obtuse attitude of the Azerbaijani authorities: “If you don't want people to vote for Armenia, then why are you in the same contest with them?”
Russian and Ukraine
Jamala celebrates winning the 2016 Eurovision, representing Ukraine. Photo: Michael Campanella/Getty Images
In May 2016, diplomatic relations between Russia and Ukraine were at a nadir. A popular revolution had ousted the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, from power in 2013, and the country’s young population had taken steps to steer their country towards Western Europe. Russia responded by sponsoring a rebellion in the Russian-speaking Donbas and sending troops to actively annex the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea to the Russian Federation.
Ukraine’s Eurovision entry that year at the final in Stockholm was Jamala, a 32-year-old singer born in Osh in Kyrgyzstan. During the 1940s, the Central Asian republic had been the destination for almost 200,000 Crimean Tatars deported from the peninsula by Stalin, a kind of punitive revenge based on the leader’s paranoid and false conviction that ethnic Tatars had collaborated with the Nazis during World War Two. One of those deported to Osh was Jamala’s great-grandmother. When the chance to represent Ukraine at Eurovision presented itself, for the young star it was a perfect storm.
Though the song “1944” was explicitly about the deportations, in the context of Russia’s activities in Crimea it was diplomatically explosive, and the parallels with the present day were barely disguised.
“I never thought that my song could offend or outrage anybody,” says Jamala. “During this period, there were many high-profile headlines in the Russian media, which certainly helped to spread international interest in “1944”. The New York Times, The Telegraph, Spiegel and other major publications from all over the world wrote to me with requests. They were trying to understand what caused such a resonance in this song.”
In the weeks leading up to the contest, Jamala was repeatedly made to defend “1944” against charges it was a political anthem taking aim at Russia.
“In the chorus, I literally sing about my great-grandmother, who was so young with children in her arms. It was personal.” she says. “This is not about politics, this is about a terrible page in the history of the Crimean Tatar people and my own family.”
Officials in Russia were unconvinced. One Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson suggested caustically that Ukraine might like to consider entering a song calling for the deposing of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad the following year. Ultimately “1944” wasn’t deemed to have violated the EBU’s protocols.
“A Eurovision song must contain a message,” says Jamala. “Whether it's about love, tolerance, world peace, cleanliness on the planet, equality, historical events or the salvation of dolphins. Just remember Abba’s song, which, in addition to a love story, tells about the famous Battle of Waterloo.”
As if this wasn’t enough drama, “1944” went on to win the 2016 contest after a tense run-off against the Russian entry. One government insider in Moscow said of the result, “it wasn’t Jamala that won Eurovision; it was politics that beat art.”
“Unexpectedly for me, I became a symbol of the Crimean issue,” says Jamala. “Probably just because I am a Crimean Tatar. Because I sincerely root for my people, for my homeland.
“I think it is always important to separate the people who live in this or that country and the policy of their governments.”
Russia and Ukraine (again)
Yuliya Samoylova at a Eurovision rehearsal in 2018. Photo: Vyacheslav Prokofyev\TASS via Getty Images
Jamala’s victory teed up an even more contentious impasse the following year. With the final of the 2017 edition scheduled to take place in Kyiv, Russia’s state broadcaster had a decision to make, and it made one; their selection to represent the country was Yuliya Samoylova, a 28-year-old singer from Ukhta in the country’s northwest.
In 2015, Samoylova gave a live performance in the recently annexed Crimea, in contravention of a Ukrainian state order prohibiting all travel to the peninsular whilst it remained under Russian control. It forced the government in Kyiv to make a call with the full glare of the world’s spotlight on them; ban Samoylova, a wheelchair user whose selection promised to bring diversity to the Eurovision stage, or appearing to bend to the Russians.
Again context was key. The Kremlin stood accused of undermining the stability of the Ukrainian state via its covert financing and arming of rebels in the country’s eastern Donbas region, and their forcing of Kyiv into an emotional squeeze whereby there were only two options, both of them wrong, was cunningly pitched.
“Probably I am a naive girl,” says Samoylova. “I have always been out of politics. So I didn’t think that a performance in Crimea would cause problems. But Eurovision has become a kind of bargaining chip in terms of politics. We are talking not about creativity, but about interstate affairs, as diplomats.
“But I wouldn't change anything. I would perform in Crimea, sing in Kyiv, arrange a show in Berlin or London. I am an artist. Let artists be out of politics, can we?”
Kyiv banned Samoylova, and Moscow quickly countered by announcing Russia’s national broadcaster would not show the event, rubber stamping Russia’s exclusion.
Ukraine lost on all fronts. The authorities were condemned by the EBU for “undermining the integrity and non-political nature of the contest”, though this seemed unfair given the deliberate way in which Russia had set the government up to fall. The move also made a kind of low-level martyr of Samoylova.
“Now, you and I act as peacemakers together when we talk about the freedom of creativity and about songs without borders,” she says. “I do not know how to be angry for a long time. Of course, it was sad, Eurovision is my dream. However, I don't feel angry. You see, there are really more important things in life than political games.
“The only thing that my family and I were afraid of were scary people in the comments on my social media accounts. They threatened to spray me with hydrochloric acid in my face, beat me, and wished me death. Haters, as terrorists, have no nationality, I believe.”
Georgia and Russia
Stephane and 3G, Georgia's 2009 Eurovision entry. Photo: VANO SHLAMOV/AFP via Getty Images
Eurovision spats have tended to follow on the heels of military conflict, lending those engagements a faintly ridiculous air, and so it proved in 2009 following Russia’s brief six-day war with its southern neighbour Georgia.
The pair went to war in August 2008 over the status of Georgia’s separatist enclave, South Ossetia, which it has always claimed to be a puppet state of Moscow, artificially propped up to provide Russia with an illegal stake in Georgia’s affairs. Vladimir Putin, then Russia’s prime minister, reinforced his country’s commitment to South Ossetia’s “independence” by formally recognising the breakaway, leading to the severance of diplomatic ties between the two states and entrenching a centuries-old distrust.
In early 2009, the Georgian state broadcaster announced its entry for the Moscow-hosted competition, and the dye was cast; “We Don’t Wanna Put In”, to be performed by the pop group Stephane and 3G, had “diplomatic incident” oozing from its pores, with the lyrics not-so-cunningly crafted to sound like ‘We don’t want Putin’.
This was unpalatable to the Russians in their own backyard, and the EBU concurred that the song contravened its rules on politicised lyrics. They insisted Georgia select another entry, and true to the recalcitrance of Eastern European diplomacy, Tbilisi refused. The EBU booted them out.
“It’s important to remember that entries appear under the name of states,” says Vuletic of the Russia-Georgia fall-out. “Even though it’s broadcasters who put them forward, they compete as states. That was amended in the 1960s because viewers didn’t associate so well with the song titles, so now it’s all about the countries. That’s what people tune in for. It was deliberate.
“It’s why governments now see Eurovision as a tool of cultural diplomacy. It’s why it provokes such strong political reactions.”
Georgia’s state broadcaster argued that pressure had been placed by Moscow on the EBU, but this was one of those rare incidents when Russia didn’t need to whisper in any ears to get its way. “We Don’t Wanna Put In” was as close to an outright middle finger Tbilisi could have come up with, short of actually burning a Russian tricolour on the Moscow stage, and the EBU’s hands were tied.
“The real change with all this had come in the 1990s, when the EBU sought to make Eurovision a more commercial event, in part to combat rising costs,” says Vuletic. “So at that time, they brought in new rules, one of which was not bringing the contest into disrepute.
“That’s been taken as meaning that there shouldn’t be entries carrying political messages. They made the rules explicit in 2005 after the Ukrainian entry was explicitly referencing the [anti-Russian] Orange Revolution.
“The EBU insist that this is not a political event. They don’t want to scare away advertisers. If you start getting songs that are politically offensive then advertisers are going to distance themselves. It has to be marketable.”