Eurovision has always been a political performance forum
On May 14, the final of the Eurovision Song Contest 2022 took place in Italy. Twenty-five countries participated, spanning the globe from Iceland to Australia. At the end of the four-hour contest, Ukraine was crowned the winner – a particularly poignant victory as the war-torn country continues to defend itself against Russian invasion.
Before the final, many believed that the Ukrainian song “Stefania”, performed by the Kalush Orchestra, would win the competition. The song and the costumes were rooted in Ukrainian folklore. The performance was energetic, with creative staging and emotional lyrics in Ukrainian.
Observers also anticipated solidarity votes for Ukraine from its European brethren. They understood that even though the competition prides itself on being “apolitical”, Eurovision has always been rooted in politics – from voting to performances. The performances have often reflected political thinking and reacted to the climate on the continent, while also providing an opportunity for countries facing threats to their sovereignty – such as Ukraine – to show resolve.
Eurovision began in Switzerland in 1956, with just seven Western European countries taking part and 10 broadcasting the contest live on television. The aim of the competition was to promote post-war cooperation between European states and encourage cross-border television broadcasts. In the years that followed, the competition expanded, with other Western European countries beginning to participate, as well as countries such as Turkey, Israel and Yugoslavia.
During the Cold War, Soviet bloc countries were not allowed to participate. To enter the contest, countries had to – and still have to – be part of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). This was not an option for most Eastern European countries, as the EBU was a public service media organization, which made it incompatible with the media structures of most European countries. of the East under Soviet influence.
But after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, as changes rapidly swept across Eastern Europe, the competition quickly moved to include newly independent countries, with most joining by 1994. Organizers have organized the Eurovision Song Contest 1990 in Zagreb – the first contest to take place in Eastern Europe. While political messages and performances are discouraged and sometimes banned during the contest, many songs contained themes of European unity and references to the revolutions of the previous autumn. The winner was Italy’s “Insieme: 1992” containing the English hook “uniting, uniting Europe”.
References to unity themes and historical events of 1989, however, did not guarantee success. Norway‘s entry on the Brandenburg Gate, for example, came last and Austria’s entry on no more walls ended halfway through this year -the. But the events of 1989 had a huge influence on the competition.
After the fall of communist regimes across the Soviet bloc, Eastern European countries flocked to the contest. But as the political division of Europe ended, a new war began. In 1993, due to United Nations sanctions for its aggression in Bosnia, Yugoslavia was not allowed to participate in the contest. But Bosnia continued to compete despite the war, receiving huge applause for every performance between 1993 and 1995, much like Ukraine this year.
In 1993, Bosnia ranked 16th with their song “Sva bol svijeta [All the Pain in the World].” As Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo, was under siege, the Bosnian jury again called for the contest to cast their votes. There was a crackling connection. The phone line was cut. But the jury managed to give its points to other countries live on the air. It was crucial to show Europe and the rest of the world that Bosnia still held on, sharing its culture with the rest of Europe while fighting for its independence.
Beyond conflicts and wars, the 1990s also marked a big change in Eurovision voting rules. Prior to the late 1990s, specialist juries from each participating country awarded performance points, ranging from one to eight, then 10 and 12, to all entries they deemed worthy. In the late 1990s, however, the contest introduced televoting for home viewers. Viewers could now vote for their favorite entries, but not for candidates from their own country. In 2004, televoting became mandatory in all participating countries and viewers could phone in to vote for their favorite songs.
But with televoting came accusations of biased voting, often referred to as “block voting.” Some of these accusations had merit. Most years, Cyprus and Greece give each other the top votes, usually followed by groans or boos from the audience. The countries of the former Yugoslavia also generally give each other high voices. The Nordic countries all favor entries from each other. In 2009 accusations of block voting grew so strong – mostly from the UK – that the Eurovision Song Contest had to reintroduce juries alongside televised voting. With the UK being one of the contest’s biggest financial backers, it wields considerable influence.
With political division and issues of inclusion and exclusion governing the contest for most of its life, Russia and Ukraine have become the subject of the most recent political controversies at Eurovision. In 2004, Ukraine won the competition with “Wild Dances” by Ruslana. This allowed the country to host Eurovision in 2005, and he took the opportunity to present the anthem of the Orange Revolution, “Razom nas bahato [Together we are many].” The song placed 19th in the final out of 24 finalists.
In 2016, Ukraine again won the competition with the song “1944” by Jamala. The song described Stalin’s deportations of Crimean Tatars and clearly referred to Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea. But despite Eurovision discouraging political songs, organizers allowed the song to be performed – and she won – after the EBU deemed it “historic” rather than political.
In 2017, Ukraine again hosted Eurovision. After the Ukrainian broadcaster discovered that the Russian candidate had given a concert in Crimea, she was banned from entering Ukraine. The organizers offered to let her play via satellite video, but Russia refused and withdrew from the contest. The EBU has issued an official warning to Ukraine. He threatened to ban them from future contests. But in the end, Ukraine refused to budge and suffered no repercussions.
On February 25, the EBU banned Russia from this year’s contest because of its invasion of Ukraine. In his statement, the The EBU wrote that “in light of the unprecedented crisis in Ukraine, the inclusion of a Russian entry in this year’s contest would bring the competition into disrepute”. Even so, the EBU warned it was still an “apolitical” organization.
The first Ukrainian contestant, Alina Pash, had to withdraw after a trip to Crimea in 2015 was revealed. Before the competition, the new Ukrainian competitors, Kalush Orchestra, were clear favorites to win.
The jury’s initial vote left Ukraine comfortably in fourth place out of 25 finalists. Then came televoting. Twenty-eight of the 40 participating countries gave Ukraine the best points, catapulting them to first place with an impressive 631 points. Two-thirds of those votes came from viewers across Europe.
Although Ukraine is unlikely to host the contest next May, as is the norm for the winner, victory is of major significance for the country. Ukrainian commentator Timur Miroshnychenko announced the result of a bomb shelter, quickly bursting into tears. It sent an important message to Europe and the world: Ukraine continues to fight for its freedoms and national identity, on the front line and by highlighting its cultural contributions and sovereignty.
Throughout its history, Eurovision has offered significant critiques of cultural and political inclusion and exclusion, despite organizers’ claims that it is apolitical. Politics dictated wins and losses. Politics can lead to the best votes or the famous “null points”. And the pageant has always offered a place for political performance – a chance to signal the enduring strength and pride of a beleaguered nation.