The Eurovision Song Contest is one of the longest running annual television shows in the world, launched in May, 1956, in Switzerland. Eurovision’s most famous winners are probably ABBA who won the contest in 1974. This year’s show took place in Stockholm and was broadcast to some 50 countries across the world, including the USA and China. The final outcome of the contest is decided by a 50:50 split between national juries and public voting from all 42 participating countries.

An important rule is that viewers from a particular country cannot vote for the song representing their own country. So, the most intriguing question has always been who is supporting whom, in terms of the public’s vote. What made this year’s competition even more intriguing was its political context. That is, it turned out to be much more than a song contest, but rather a heated contest of national and political pride between Russia and Ukraine.

Ukraine won this year’s Eurovision Song Contest with a song titled “1944” performed by an ethnic Crimean Tatar who goes by the stage name Jamala. Australia finished second, while Russia, which according to BBC was considered the bookies’ favourite to win, took the third place. The song “1944” is about the deportation of Crimean Tatars under Stalin. More specifically, it references the year when Stalin deported almost the entire Tatar ethnic group from their native region of Crimea in what was then the Soviet Union.

Indeed, Jamala’s song is highly politically motivated. It is not only a reminder of one of the most dramatic Soviet policies. Today, Russia is accused of oppressing Crimean Tatars, following the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. So, no one could deny the song brings up a very sensitive issue. This is not to question the quality of the song, but it rather questions the contest itself: is it about entertainment or it is more about politics? According to the Rules of the Eurovision Song Contest, the lyrics and/or performance of the songs shall not bring the contest into disrepute. No lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature are permitted during the contest.

Jamala’s song, however, definitely brought the contest into disrepute. This is illustrated by most of the international news headlines following the announcement of the results. A politically charged song by Ukraine’s Susana Jamaladinova that draws attention to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea won Eurovision contest edging out performances by Russia and Australia, reported Financial Times. The emotional “1944” by Ms Jamaladinova stood out from Eurovision’s traditional kitsch pop entries and has been criticised in Russia for breaking contest rules by being political, noted the FT’s correspondent in Kiev, Roman Olearchyk.

The 2016 Eurovision Song Contest has invited questions and controversy like never before, commented Tony Wesolowsky from Radio Free Europe. According to Wesolowsky, the organizers concluded that Jamala’s song dealt with a historical event and was therefore not political. In 2009, however, a year after Russia and Georgia fought over the breakaway of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Tbilisi’s entry was rejected as overtly political.

“What we have witnessed is an incredible amount of genuine connoisseurs of Jamala’s talent, supporters of independent Ukraine, and allies of the Crimean Tatar people,” wrote on Facebook Refat Chubarov, Chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People (the highest representative body of the Crimean Tatar Muslim community), cited by the BBC’s Russian Service. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko also praised Jamala with her victory and expressed his gratitude for her performance. “Truth, as always, has prevailed,” commented Poroshenko on Facebook, while the mayor of Kiev Vitali Klitschko urged Ukrainians to get ready for the 2017 Eurovision contest (as whichever country wins gets to host the next year’s competition).

Russia, certainly, seems irritated by the fact that its contestant Sergey Lazarev lost the first place, despite the initial hints of his victory and the huge investments made into his performance. Komsomolskaya Pravda’s website called on the organizers of the contest to “review” Jamala’s victory after a prankster told Russian TV that Jamala had admitted her song is political, reported BBC. “A blatantly political song by Ukraine – which should not have been allowed in the contest in the first place as it clearly broke the European Broadcasting Union’s ‘No Politics’ rules – was declared the ‘winner’ of the Eurovision Song Contest, even though the country which got the most votes from the general public was Russia,” commented for Russia Today the blogger Neil Clark.

According to Clark, genuine Eurovision fans, who believe the contest should simply be about voting for the best song regardless of what one thinks of that country politically, “are appalled at what happened.” In line with Clark’s argument, Chairman of the Russian Upper House committee for foreign affairs, Konstantin Kosachev, commented that it was geopolitics that influenced the contest.

The viewers’ vote, however, has demonstrated discrepancies between what governments/juries and people think about Russia’s and Ukraine’s entries. While the Ukrainian public gave Russia’s song the maximum 12 points and it won the viewers’ vote, the juries from Russia and Ukraine did not award each other any points. As reported by Lenta ru, large numbers of the Russian public voted for the Ukrainian song as well, awarding it 10 points and the second place. What these discrepancies demonstrate is that a lot of the existing hatred and divisions are only politically motivated. When it comes to stand together, the public of Russia and Ukraine can do it. What can be expected next year, however, when Ukraine hosts the contest – more politics or more entertainment – remains to be seen.


Katarina Koleva is a PhD student at NPSIA and Managing Director at iAffairs.

Featured Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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