Italy will host the final of the 66th Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday night with a country particularly absent: Russia was excluded from the competition in February after its invasion of Ukraine. Despite the competition organizers’ insistence that the competition is a non-political event, the conflict in Europe seems to dominate the public vote.
Investments are already being made in the result for 2022 Eurovision Song Contest final, which takes place on May 14 in Turin, Italy. Sweden and last year’s winner Italy is among the bookmaker’s favorites, with both countries participating in soaring love ballads that usually fall well in the competition. Another favorite to win is Ukrainerepresented by a less traditional front figure: the folk rap group Kalush Orchestra.
Ukraine’s status among the favorites is undeniably linked to the war being waged on its territory by Russia. Since Russian troops entered Ukraine on February 24, Russia has faced international sanctions and been banned from competing in sports competitions around the world. The day after the invasion, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which owns the rights to Eurovision, announced that Russia will be banned from the 2022 competition.
“In light of the unprecedented crisis in Ukraine, the inclusion of a Russian entry in this year’s competition would make the competition in disrepute,” the EBU said in a statement.
Songs are often rejected from the Eurovision Song Contest because they are too political, but it is rare to see a country disqualified for its political stance. The last time this happened was almost 30 years ago, in 1993. Following UN sanctions, Yugoslavia, led by Slobodan Milosevic, was banned from Eurovision at the height of the Yugoslav wars.
“The only thing you can do”
The decision to ban Russia this year was not controversial among fans. “Most fans thought it was the only thing to do,” said Simon Bennett, chairman of OGAE International, a Eurovision fan group with national committees in 43 countries. “No one was happy [the ban] at all, but most thought it would not be appropriate for Russia to compete. “
The EBU also quickly reached agreement on Russia, said Eurovision historian Dean Vuletic. “Pressure came from within the EBU, especially from the Nordic countries, which threatened not to participate if Russia was allowed to stay,” he explained. “And it was more important for Eurovision to have Sweden than Russia.”
Sweden is one of Eurovision’s most productive winners, having won the competition six times, best known in 1974 with ABBA’s “Waterloo”.
The exclusion of Russia this year is the accumulation of years of tensions with Ukraine that have taken place on the Eurovision stage. In 2014, Russia was not officially excluded from the event after its annexation of Crimea, but was hindered by Ukraine in the coming years.
The next time Ukraine participated in the competition after the annexation was in 2016, when it was represented by Jamala, a singer of Crimean Tatar origin. Her song ‘1944’, which commemorates the historic deportation of her people from Crimea, went on to win the competition.
As the winner, Ukraine hosted the competition the following year and tensions with Russia increased. Ukrainian organizers refused to allow Russia’s entry, disabled singer Yulia Samoilova, into the country because she had performed in Crimea since the annexation and therefore had violated Ukrainian law. Russia refused to send another artist or participate remotely, which meant a de facto exclusion from the final.
Tensions between the two countries were also visible in previous Eurovision contests. “It started much earlier, with the Orange Revolution,” Vuletic said. In 2004-2005, a presidential election that was widely considered rigged in favor of pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych provoked protests in Ukraine. “One of the spokesmen [for the revolution] was the singer Ruslana “, said Vuletic. The same year Ruslana won the Eurovision final in 2004 with her song” Wild Dances “.
When the competition was held in Ukraine the following year, Ukraine had a pro-European president, Viktor Yushchenko, who attended the event to praise the winner and praise European values. Ruslana went on to become a Member of Parliament and was heavily involved in Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution in 2014, in protest of a government decision not to sign a political union and a free trade agreement with the European Union.
“The definition of soft force”
Despite the EBU’s best efforts, it seems that countries are willing to use the Eurovision Song Contest for political purposes. “The motives are similar in sports and Eurovision,” explained Lukas Aubin, a specialist in Russia and geopolitics in sports. “These events are a way for countries to highlight their national identity, construct a story and improve their image. It is the definition of soft power.”
Ukraine is not the only country doing this. “Russia has been instrumentalizing the Eurovision Song Contest for a long time, investing a lot of money in participating, producing very lavish contributions, with expensive stage effects,” Vuletic said. In 2009, Russia spent more than any previous host country when it hosted the Eurovision final in Moscow. Since then, only Azerbaijan has spent more.
In 2022, Russian authorities have taken a more critical stance on Eurovision and its LBGT values in particular, indicating a change in attitude. “The competition is very popular in Russia and in the former Soviet Union,” Aubin said. “But the authorities in Russia are opportunistic and want to participate in Eurovision to show their best side. Then as soon as they are criticized or excluded, they play the victim and criticize the competition.”
When Ukraine won the content of Jamala in 2016, “it was seen as an insult in Moscow,” Aubin said. This year, exclusion from the competition fits well into a Russian story that the Western world is hostile to Russia. In the end, “Eurovision is seen as a weapon of Western soft power,” Aubin said. As such, Russia’s relationship with the West defines its attitude towards Eurovision.
“For the benefit of Ukraine”
At the same time, Ukraine continues to use the competition to create its own image on the international stage. It’s entrance this year is a mix of rap and traditional Ukrainian music titled “Stefania”. “The song was created before the war, but in this context it has taken a patriotic turn,” said Vuletic.
In the song, the lyrics are aimed at a mother. The group sings: “I will always find my way home, even if all roads are destroyed.” It is difficult to avoid pairing the words with the images of destruction that have come from Ukraine in recent months.
At the same time, Ukrainian authorities have emphasized that the members of the group have been given special permission to travel to Italy for the competition, while other Ukrainian men in their age group have been banned from leaving the country, should they be needed for the war effort.
For many, it will be impossible to separate Ukraine’s Eurovision appearance from the context of the war.
“The public telecommunications vote will probably be overwhelming in favor of Ukraine showing support,” Bennett said. Public voting will open after the acts have been performed in Saturday’s final, but half of all points will be given by a professional jury, which is more difficult to predict. Especially as the Ukrainian contribution is not a typical audience-friendly Eurovision. “If it was a normal year, we would not talk about Ukraine winning,” Bennett said.
Win or not, the group is expected to perform well when their moment comes in the final in Turin. The event is usually attended by more than 200 million people in over 30 countries each year. As such, “Ukraine does not need to win the Eurovision Song Contest to win over Russia here,” Vuletic said. “It won the day Russia was banned.”
This article is translated from the original in French.