The Struggle to Keep the Ukraine War Out of the Eurovision
The rules say politics has no place in the Eurovision Song Contest. But for the past 20 years messages protesting Russia's actions have snuck in, and it may be impossible to keep them out of this week’s contest.
On February 25, just one day after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, long-time observers of the Eurovision Song Contest were stunned when organizers announced Russia would be banned from this year’s contest.
The European Broadcasting Union, the umbrella group of European and Mediterranean public broadcasters which organizes the contest, is at pains every year to stress that the contest is apolitical. For years they have tolerated Russia’s presence despite invasions and repressions at home, even using special technology to drown out the audience booing during the country’s performance each year (due both to Moscow’s aggressive geopolitics and its repression of LGBT people at home). So, for Eurovision to be the first cultural or sporting event to ban Russia after the invasion was surprising.
But the ban has put the EBU and Italian broadcaster RAI, which is staging this year’s show in Turin after the country won last year’s contest, in an uncomfortable position. Despite the ban (the first in the contest’s history aside from the one imposed on Yugoslavia during the Balkan Wars), organizers are still intent on keeping politics out of this year’s contest. At the same time, there is a recognition that the return of war to the European continent has to be somehow acknowledged. People still remember how the Yugoslav wars next door were awkwardly ignored in the Eurovision finals of the 1990s. Organizers are trying to strike a delicate balance, but it’s an uphill struggle. One possible solution has been found—farming out the politics to the European Commission. It will for the first time have a stand at the “Eurovision Village,” an area for fans, telling people about what the European Union is doing to help Ukraine, among other things. They are hosting a “Concert for Peace” on Monday. It is the first time the EU has been involved with Eurovision.
A History of Anti-Russian Songs
The truth is Eurovision has always been a contest infused with politics, and each year the EBU’s quixotic attempts to keep it out is a recurring losing battle. Sometimes the conflicts have been linguistic, such as France’s decades-long insistence that every country sing in its national language. That was finally put a stop to in 1999 when Northern and Eastern Europe—who wanted to sing in English—rebelled after the United Kingdom and Ireland won five out of six years in a row (the one exception being a song from Norway with no words).
At other times the conflicts have been more serious, as in 1968 when Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco, allegedly bribed juries to vote for his entry instead of Britain’s. There was the scandal over Arab countries refusing to broadcast Israel’s entry (with Jordan even pretending Belgium was the winner when Israel won in 1978), eventually ending all participation in the contest when told they had to air the whole show or none of it. Sometimes scandals are domestic, for instance about the suitability of a singer chosen by the national broadcaster—as in 2018 with a bizarre controversy about the ethnic origin of Cyprus’ singer, a Greek pop star of Albanian origin.
In recent years, most of Eurovision’s political scandals have involved Russia. In 2007, Russia complained that Ukraine’s entry “Lasha Tumbai,” which came second, was supposed to sound like “Russia goodbye” (ask any Ukrainian and they’ll agree). Then in 2009, just after Russia’s invasion of Georgia, Georgia’s entry “We Don’t Wanna Put In” was disqualified by the EBU for violating the contest’s rules against political lyrics (that one was too on the nose).
This year, the runner-up in Romania’s national final, written just as an invasion of Ukraine looked increasingly likely, was about a woman freeing herself from a toxic relationship with a Russian man in Moscow telling him “I’m not your Russian doll, you ain’t a Russian spy.” It is widely believed that it wasn’t chosen for fear it would be disqualified, leaving Romania with no song. In 2016, two years after Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, Ukraine won the contest with Jamala’s “1944” about Stalin’s deportation of Crimean Tartars. It was a thinly veiled reference to Russia’s more recent actions in Crimea (a big part of why it received so many votes) and Russia once again complained. EBU General Director Ingrid Deltenre was later tricked by Russian prank callers, thinking she was speaking with Ukraine’s prime minister, telling them she learned of the political content of Jamala’s song too late and she would have disqualified it if she had heard it earlier (the EBU has never confirmed the authenticity of the audio).
The following year, when Ukraine hosted the contest in Kyiv, was the most political in Eurovision history. Ukraine banned Russia’s singer from entering the country because she had performed in occupied Crimea, in a series of events that may have been orchestrated by Russia to make Ukraine lose the right to host the conference. In the call with the Russian pranksters, Deltenre purportedly threatened to move the contest to Berlin if Ukraine didn’t drop its ban on the Russian singer. In the end, the EBU didn’t go through with the threat.
Not all controversies have involved Russia however. The 2019 contest, held in Israel amid boycott campaigns, security threats, and rocket attacks, was also an intensely political year. In 2015 Armenia was forced to change its song after the original was deemed to be a reference to Turkey’s Armenian genocide. Flags have been a source of constant controversy. Officially only flags of a participating country can be waived, with two exceptions: the EU flag and the rainbow LGBT flag. This rules out unrecognized countries like Kosovo, Palestine, or the Basque Country. The rule is often broken, with consequences. In 2016 Armenia’s singer got in trouble for waving the flag of Nagorno-Karabakh.
How Much Is Too Much?
In theory, the Ukrainian flag can be waived with impunity this year since it is participating, but waving the Russian flag may be deemed a political statement. So far in rehearsals in Turin, Ukraine’s entrants, Kalush Orchestra, are dressing in traditional folk costumes and illuminating the arena in blue and yellow, but are not making any overtly political statement. The bookies have their song, “Stefania,” as the favorite to win with 45 percent odds. There is little doubt that Ukraine will come first in the public vote, for political reasons rather than the song, which is good but wouldn’t be winning material in a normal year.
But the bookies may be forgetting that the public vote only accounts for 50 percent of the final result. The other half comes from national juries made up of music experts, a system put in place in 2013 precisely to prevent political and bloc voting (which had reached such a state by 2008 that the legendary BBC broadcaster Terry Wogan quit live on air). If the juries don’t block Ukraine from winning only for political reasons rather than the strength of their song, people will question why the juries are there at all.
Ukraine winning this year is a nightmare scenario for the organizers, and not only because they would hardly relish hosting next year’s contest in what may still be a war zone. It would be a nakedly political result, after so many years of EBU efforts to take politics and bloc voting out of the contest. It would also seem like an overtly political act hostile to Russia, and there are still hopes that Russia can one day rejoin the contest in peacetime. Russian politicians are once again calling for Russia to pull out of the contest and revive the old Cold War Eastern bloc alternative to the Eurovision, Intervision. There were already aborted attempts to relaunch it in 2014 and 2015 after the win by Austria’s Conchita Wurst, a bearded drag queen, enraged Russian politicians. But the Eurovision remains extremely popular in Russia among the public.
The essential question is this: How much Ukraine is too much Ukraine in this year’s contest? How much does the audience want to be reminded of the war? And where is the line between acknowledging the tragedy of the war and turning the contest into a pro-Ukraine rally? Jamala, who won the contest in 2014 with her veiled song about the Crimea invasion, told Dutch TV she has not been invited to perform at this year’s show in Turin. Nor has Ukraine’s other winner Ruslana (2004), unsurprising given her long history of outspoken commentary about Russia and possible jitters about what she might do on stage.
Instead, former Italian winners of Eurovision such as Gigliola Cinquetti (1964) will be performing. This is, after all, supposed to be Italy’s moment in the spotlight. But inevitably, Ukraine is going to be on everyone’s minds this year—no matter what efforts are made to keep politics out of the contest.
Dave Keating is an American journalist based in Brussels covering European politics for France24.