First held in May 1956 in neutral Switzerland, the history of the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) is intensely geopolitical.
Last year, the Ukrainian entry 1944 sung by Susana Jamaladinova, also known as Jamala, won the competition just pipping the surprise inclusion of Australia and the Russian competitor who was placed third. Jamala’s victory was controversial because of allegations she had already publicly performed 1944 in 2015. One of the regulations governing the ESC (rule 1.2.1a) places restrictions on public exposure of a proposed entry in order to ensure that all contestants operate on a level-playing field.
More controversially, the lyrics from 1944 upset Russian listeners because they explicitly confront a decision by Stalin in 1944 to transport more than 240,000 ethnic Tatars from the Crimea region. As an ethnic Tatar from Kyrgyzstan, her lyrics included ‘They kill you all. They kill you all. And say “We’re not guilty, Not guilty.”’ After her victory, she wrapped herself around both the Tatar and Ukrainian flags.
There is history here. In 2009, the Georgian entry We Don’t Wanna Put In was banned for being overtly political (Putin – put in). Georgia refused to change the lyrics as a protest against the short war with Russia in 2008. Georgia was barred from the competition hosted in Moscow that year. Eight years later, Russia was unhappy with the Ukrainian song and its 2016 victory meant that there was some doubt as to whether it would wish to participate in the 2017 ESC. Russian media produced a string of strongly worded articles condemning the result and struggled to accept that the Russian entry came third. It's hard not to detect a proxy war between the two countries.
It all seemed so different in the more optimistic 1990s. Russia became a member of the European Broadcasting Union in 1993. A Swiss-based body, the EBU was established in 1950 to encourage wider European television cooperation of major events such as the ESC and Olympic Games. For many decades, Cold War antagonisms meant that it was overwhelmingly a western European membership body. Russia’s ESC entry in 1994 was indicative of a wider post-Cold War shift. In 2008, Russia won for the first time and placed second in recent competitions, namely 2012 and 2015.
In March 2017, Russia confirmed it would participate in Kiev. The chosen entry was Yulia Samoylova. A wheelchair user, she was to have sung Flame is Burning and the lyrics suggest that the song was a celebration of the power of the Russian-speaking peoples to achieve greatness. Chiming with President Putin’s vision of Russia as a restored great power, her song has already provoked a backlash from Ukrainian media and political sources.
What provoked their collective ire was the revelation that she had performed in Crimea in 2015. As a consequence, it was being argued that she might represent a ‘security threat’ to Ukraine, which remains embroiled in a dispute with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine has already banned more than 100 Russian cultural figures, including singers, who have been judged to be disrespectful to Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.
What Ukraine feared was that the proposed Russian entry was just another element in Russia’s ongoing campaign to destabilise the country. But after a Ukrainian victory commemorating the wartime deportation of Tatars by Stalin, it was always going to be unlikely that the Russians would not respond to what they would perceive as bare-faced provocation. The situation finally came to a head on 22 March when Samoylova was also barred from entering Ukraine for three years, effectively removing her from the ESC.
The Russian-Ukrainian spate, however, is not unique in the geopolitical history of the ESC. As British viewers know, hosts including the late Terry Wogan and more recently Graham Norton were never reticent in pointing out bloc and strategic forms of popular and jury voting.
As a form of popular geopolitics, the ESC has also become a very public site to challenge sexual prejudices. In 2013, Finnish performer Krista Siegfrids song Marry Me was intended to be a protest against the prohibition on same-sex marriage. She performed the first ‘lesbian kiss’ on the ESC. Given that the competition enjoys live coverage, the ‘kiss’ was controversial and revealed interesting fault-lines between socially liberal and conservative European publics. In 1990, the Israeli Dana International was the first transsexual-winner and provoked outrage from conservative and orthodox Israeli citizens. In 2014, Austrian drag-queen Conchita Wurst won, and provoked President Putin to complain that the ESC was a ‘Europe-wide gay parade’.
The ESC has been a victim of its own popularity. With the ending of the Cold War, the number of entrants increased markedly in the 1990s and led to the introduction of semi-finals. But the ESC also provided a stage for newly independent states to partake in popular nationalism. More competition also created new tensions as long-term financial contributors such as Germany found themselves unable to qualify in 1996. The rules were changed in 2000 to ensure that the UK, Germany, Spain and France always qualified for the final because they helped to fund it.
Intended to be a showcase for European unity, the ESC rarely fails to deliver insights into the contested geopolitics of past, present and even future Europe. The 2017 competition promises to be no different.
This was published in the May 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.