According to the rules of the Eurovision Song Contest, “The performance and/or lyrics of a song “must not bring the Contest into disrepute”. No lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature are permitted.” While this rule is meant to keep the world’s biggest musical event free of politics, the reality is that the two go hand in hand. And I’m saying that as a huge Eurovision fan myself. With just two months before the 62nd edition of the contest kicks off in Kyiv, a controversy has made international headlines. On March 22, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) announced that this year’s Russian representative had been banned from entering Ukraine for three years, effectively making her unable to compete in Kyiv. However, this is not the first time that politics have sneaked their way into the contest.
In 1968, Cliff Richards looked all but set for a Eurovision victory for the United Kingdom with “Congratulations”. That was until Massiel from Spain beat him to victory by one point with “La La La”. The victory was unexpected and controversial. Firstly, Massiel was brought in to replace Joan Manuel Serrat, whose request to sing in Catalan rather than Spanish was denied the Francoist regime. In May 2008, Spanish film-maker Montse Fernández Villa claimed in his documentary 1968. Yo viví el mayo español, that the contest was rigged by Franco, who would have sent state television officials all across Europe to buy television series and to contract unknown artists. This claim was based on a statement by José María Íñigo, a then employee at TVE (Spain’s public broadcaster) and current commentator for the Eurovision, although he later said that his words were taken out of context. Spain hosted the contest in 1969, from which Austria withdrew because of the fascist regime in power.
Believe it or not, one Eurovision song actually started a revolution! Portugal’s entry in 1974 “E Depois do Adeus” (And after the farewell) was used as one of the two signals to start the Carnation Revolution against the Estado Novo regime, which was ultimately successful in restoring democracy to Portugal. It failed to inspire the juries though, finishing in joint last place.
Israel v the Arab World
The original non-European country taking part in Eurovision before it was cool (sorry Australia!), Israel has been a regular fixture at the contest since 1973. However, their presence has often caused some diplomatic problems from time to time. Their first participation came a year after the murder of 12 Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich. Long-standing commentator for the BBC, Terry Wogan, noted that audience were asked not to stand when applauding songs, as they risked being shot by security forces.
The 1979 marked the first time that the contest was held in Israel. Turkey had selected the Marta Rita Epik to represent the country with the song “Seviyorum” (I Love You) However, many Arab countries expressed their disgust at a Muslim country competing in a contest held in a predominantly Jewish country and pressured Turkey into withdrawing. One of these countries was Jordan, who abruptly cut their transmission of the previous year’s contest short when it became apparent that Israel was going to win. Turkey gave into the pressure and skipped the contest. However, 20 years later, they did compete in the 1999 contest, held once again in the Israeli capital of Jerusalem.
Many Arab countries that are eligible to participate in the contest refuse because of Israel. Tunisia was due to participate in 1977, even being drawn to perform fourth. However, they withdrew giving no official reason, though it is widely speculated that Israel’s participation was to blame. Three years later, Israel had to withdraw because the contest date clashed with their Remembrance Day. In the same year, Morocco made their first, and so far only appearance at the contest, with Samira Said finishing second last with “Bitaqat Hub” (Love Card). Once Israel announced their return to the contest the following year, Morocco promptly withdrew.
For the contest’s 50th running, Lebanon announced that it would be making its debut at the contest. The Lebanese broadcaster, Télé-Liban internally selected Aline Lahoud to sing “Quand tout s’enfuit” (When everything flees). Unfortunately, there was the small problem of Israel. Lebanese law forbids any transmission of Israeli material and the rules of the contest state that all broadcasters must broadcast all competing songs in their entirety. Unable to promise broadcasting the Israeli entry, Lebanon were forced to withdraw and were banned for three years from competing. As of 2017, they have made no attempt to return. As for Israel, Shiri Maimon finished fourth in the final with “HaSheket She’Nishar” (The Silence That Remains), their best result since Dana International won with “Diva” in 1998.
Israel faced criticism not from without but from within in 2009. The selection of Noa (a Jewish Israeli) and Mira Awad (an Israeli Arab) caused backlash from both Israelis and Palestinians. Awad was the first Arab Israeli to represent Israel. On the Israeli side, some right-wing politicians deemed her unworthy to represent a Jewish and demanded she return her Israeli citizenship. A petition was circulated by Palestinian and Arab intellectuals calling on Awad not to take part, accusing her of being a fig leaf to cover up the Israeli government’s actions in Gaza and the West Bank. This failed to deter Noa and Awad and they went to place 16th in the final with “There Must Be Another Way”, the first Israeli entry to feature Arabic lyrics.
Georgia v Russia
For the 2009 contest in Moscow, Georgia selected Stephane and 3G with “We Don’t Want to Put In”. Eyebrows were immediately raised at the song’s blatant dig at Russian president, Vladimir Putin, especially since Georgia and Russia had been at war the previous year over the South Ossetia region. Georgia withdraw after they refused to change their song. As luck would have it, one of the members of that group, Tamara Gachechiladze, will represent Georgia this year with the song “Keep the Faith”.
Armenia v Azerbaijan
Armenia and Azerbaijan engaged in a bloody war between 1988 and 1994 over Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway state within Azerbaijan that has a mostly Armenian population. A ceasefire was agreed but not a peace treaty, so the two countries are still technically at war. Their disputes often spill over to the Eurovision.
In 2009, the Armenian postcard shown before the entry had to be altered when the Azeri delegation complained that it featured the “We Are Our Mountains” monument, located in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia retaliated by having their spokesperson read out the Armenian votes in front of a giant billboard with the monument on it. There were also reports of the Armenian entry being censored by the Azeri broadcaster and of 43 Azeris that voted for Armenia being interrogated by the police.
When Ell & Nikki claimed the trophy for Azerbaijan in 2011, Armenia’s participation was cast into doubt. The Azeri government responded by guaranteeing the Armenian delegation’s safety and Armenia confirmed their participation in January 2012. However, a group of Armenian artists called for a boycott of the contest following the death of an Armenian soldier on the Azeri border in February 2012. The president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, added fuel to the already blazing fire by stating that Azerbaijan’s “main enemies are the Armenians of the world” during a speech in the same month. In March, Armenia decided to withdraw, feeling that they could not compete in a country where they “will be greeted as an enemy”. Armenia later returned in 2013.
2015 marked the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, the systematic killing of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire. Armenia used their Eurovision entry that year to commemorate this event by sending the supergroup Genealogy, a group consisting of five members from the Armenian diaspora and one from Armenia proper. Azerbaijan, who along with their close ally Turkey deny the genocide, objected to the song “Don’t Deny”, as it was perceived as a call for recognition of the genocide. The song was later changed to “Face the Shadow”, although the Armenian delegation continued to deny any political content.
Russia v Ukraine
Relations between Russia and Ukraine have been less than friendly ever since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and pro-Russian insurgency in Eastern Ukraine. For these reasons, Ukraine chose to withdraw from the 2015 contest. They returned with strength the following year, winning the contest and beating the pre-contest favourite, Sergey Lazarev of Russia. However, their win was controversial to say the least, not just because the song won neither the jury nor public vote. The Ukrainian entrant, Jamala, was a Crimean Tatar, a Turkic ethnic group native to the Crimean peninsula that were forcibly expelled from their homelands to Central Asia by Stalin. Her song “1944” references not only this event but also the situation of modern day Crimean Tatars fleeing to mainland Ukraine after the Russian annexation. Those who have remained have reported oppression under the new Russian government. Despite its heavily political message, the song was cleared to compete by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). Russia was highly critical of this decision, especially after it ended up winning.
Fast forward to this year and for many people, it was unclear whether Russia would enter this year’s contest due to it being held in Ukraine. However, one day before the Head of Delegation meeting, in which the final versions of all competing songs are presented to the EBU, Russia announced that they had selected the song “Flame is Burning” sung by Yuliya Samoylova, a singer who was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy as a child. This resulted in her having to use a wheelchair since a young age. The selection of this singer sparked a lot of conversations, with some praising Russia for selecting a singer that fits the contest’s motto this year: “Celebrate Diversity” while others accused Russia of using a singer in a wheelchair to deflect any potential booing that they might face over the Crimea situation or their poor LGBT rights record. However, the banning of a contestant from a country in which the contest was due to take place is unprecedented. The ban is due to Yuliya performing in Crimea in 2015, while it was under Russian control. According to Ukrainian law, entry to Crimea is only allowed via Ukraine and with permission from the Ukrainian government. The EBU expressed their disappointment at the decision of UA:PBC (the host broadcaster of this year’s contest) and suggested that Yuliya could still perform via satellite from Russia, which was quickly refused by Channel One, the Russian broadcaster. At the moment, it looks increasingly unlikely that we will see Russia participating in Kyiv unless they pick another participant and fast.
Will we ever separate politics from the Eurovision?
In my opinion, no. Music has always been used to express our feelings and to make sense of the world around us. We use it to express love for one another, our frustration at our governments’ action or inaction, our darkest feelings and our most joyous moments. Also, since the Eurovision was founded to re-unite a war-torn Europe, Eurovision has been used as a way for countries to vent their frustrations at each other. I see it as like the sport boycotts of South Africa during the apartheid regime or the recent “Stop Israeli Apartheid the Red Card” protests when Maccabi Tel-Aviv played Dundalk in the Europa League last year. Sport is an easy target for people to protest against what was going on in faraway places, since they can’t do anything themselves to change the situation. Eurovision will stop having political incidents when governments stop fighting amongst each other. When will that happen? Who knows?