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Russia and Ukraine are at it again, this time over a Eurovision song

Ukraine’s Jamala reacts on winning the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest final at the Ericsson Globe Arena in Stockholm, Sweden. (Maja Suslin/TT News Agency via AP)
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At first glance, Eurovision, the sort-of-European song competition hosted by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), appears to be all flashy pop, high-tech special effects and pageantry. It’s a cross between American Idol, the Olympics and UEFA EURO, the soccer championship. It’s supposed to be fun, but it tends to revive old nationalist feuds and churn up some new ones.

“The whole point of it, of course, to sneer at the foreigners,” said the late Terry Wogan, who for years provided color commentary on Eurovision for the BBC. 

The Jerusalem Post described it as “almost a hyper-concentrated version of nativist American stereotypes about weird, campy Europeans” which “seems tailor-made to win votes for Donald Trump, though the finale was shown on the gay-friendly Logo network, probably not a popular station with his base.”

It was indeed broadcast live from Stockholm in the United States for the first time this year on Logo, and the annual showdown returned with characteristic sensory overload — from Australia’s ballad atop a glistening blue cube to Cyprus’s rock song from cages obscured by smoke.

(Yes, oddly, Australia competes in Eurovision. Of course, the U.S., though closer to Europe than Australia, does not participate, but its broadcast for the first time and the appearance of Justin Timberlake in Stockholm raised some concern about how long that will last. After all, Donald Trump loves pageants.)

Such elements have made Eurovision one of the most popular television spectacles in the world, netting roughly 200 million viewers last year. Underneath the dramatic costumes and showmanship, however, the Eurovision Song Contest is a distinctly political affair, even as its rules suggest otherwise.

Eastern European nations tend to vote for competitors from Eastern Europe, for example. The British and the Irish compete, but the main appeal of the contest in those countries is the often-snarky commentary provided by local hosts like this year’s Graham Norton in the U.K., who said of the German contestant,Maybe I’m just old and grumpy, but there isn’t a single thing about this woman that doesn’t annoy me.”

“No lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature shall be permitted,” says the event’s website. “No messages promoting any organisation, institution, political cause or other…” Following Ukraine’s win on Saturday, some are already saying that these guidelines were flouted.

Jamala, who belongs to the Crimean Tatar ethnic group, triumphed with a song called “1944” about Joseph Stalin’s mass deportation of Tatars from the Crimean Peninsula during World War II. While there is no specific reference to the Soviet Union, the song evokes the heartbreak of that time, when Tatars were forcibly removed from their homes en masse because they were perceived as Nazi collaborators.

“Where is your heart?” crooned Jamala, whose real name is Susana Jamaladynova. “Humanity rise./ You think you are gods/ But everyone dies.”

The singer’s message was a personal one. She told the BBC that her great-grandmother and her five children were among the 250,000 Tatars uprooted and sent on trains “like animals” to Central Asia.

But it was not the historical reference that most rankled Eurovision’s Russian viewers. In an interview with the Guardian, Jamala acknowledged that the song is also about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Most of her family lives on the peninsula.

“Of course it’s about 2014 as well,” she said. “These two years have added so much sadness to my life. Imagine — you’re a creative person, a singer, but you can’t go home for two years. You see your grandfather on Skype, who is 90 years old and ill, but you can’t visit him. What am I supposed to do: just sing nice songs and forget about it? Of course I can’t do that.”

Eurovision organizers said the song did not break the rules.

Jamala’s win, the result of a combination of popular votes and judges’ selections, was greeted by elation in her country. The Associated Press reported that Ukrainian President Petro Peroshenko tweeted:”her voice spoke to the world on behalf of the entire Ukrainian people. The truth, as always, prevailed!”

Celebrants saw the result as a precious moment of hope for the Ukrainian people.

“I am so happy,” Nastya, a barista in Kiev, told the AP. “It is a small victory for Ukraine; it strengthens the spirit of our people.”

Eurovision aired on the same weekend as Ukraine’s annual day of remembrance for victims of political repression at the hands of the Soviet regime.

The response was quite different in Russia, whose representative, Sergey Lazarev, came in second place. Lazarev, who performed “You Are the Only One” before a backdrop of beguiling graphics, garnered the most popular votes, but was less favored by the jury.

The competition is a matter of national pride among Russians, including Putin himself. The president visited a Eurovision rehearsal in 2009, when the event was held in Moscow, and reportedly told a television executive that the show was “of high importance for the country.”

To groom Lazarev for success, Russia hired top songwriters and voice coaches to work with the singer.

Karen Fricker, a Canadian university professor, told the BBC that Russia’s investment in Eurovision reflects its political attitudes: “You could make an argument to say that while there is lot of antagonism between Russia and the rest of the world, a platform in order to show that Russia can do Europe even better than Europe…is itself a very strong gesture of political and cultural power.”

Lazarev himself told the BBC that Russians view Eurovision as “the Olympic Games in music.”

This passion has not been returned in recent years. The Russian competitors were booed in 2014 and last year, supposedly because members of the studio audience disapproved of the Crimea annexation.

Russia and Ukraine are far from alone in the inescapable politics of Eurovision. Despite the broadcasters’ best efforts to promote a vision of unity (including not only European countries, but also the several non-European participants), tensions onstage and on screen have reflected real-world conflict since the contest began in 1956.

As the historian Catherine Baker detailed in The Conversation, songs lyrics have always been the subject of controversy, as have latent hostilities between represented countries.

In 2005, Lebanon withdrew from the competition because it does not recognize Israel, and contest rules dictate that participating broadcasters must air the entire program. Likewise, the Jordanian broadcaster attempted to erase Israel’s participation in 1978 by instead showing viewers a screen of flowers during the Israel contestant’s performance. When Israel ended up winning, the Jordanian broadcaster told viewers that first place went to Belgium, who was actually the runner-up.

Georgia was banned in 2009 because because its song “We Don’t Wanma Put In” was viewed as a commentary on the Russo-Georgian war and a critique of Putin. In 2007, some pointed out that Ukraine’s song, “Dancing Lasha Tumbai,” sounded a lot like “Russia, goodbye.”

This year, Russians viewed Ukraine’s win as a particular affront.

Customarily, the next year’s Eurovision is hosted by the country that wins the year before. So Ukraine gets the privilege (and the expense) of the extravaganza in 2017.

According to CNN, Russian Senator Frants Klintsevich told reporters he thought Ukraine would politicize next year’s contest “to the maximum.”

Konstantin Kosachev, who heads the Russian parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote on Facebook: “Geopolitics won on aggregate. Political meddling triumphed over fair competition.”

A google search on the night of Eurovision revealed one of the most frequently asked questions to be: “Why is Australia in Eurovision?” a question rephrased in an editorial piece on the web site of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation as “Why is Australia ruining Eurovision?”

“We’re treating it like the America’s Cup, instead of a multinational karaoke competition designed by Liberace,” wrote Dominic Knight.

Eurovision is sponsored and run by broadcasters, not governments. By way of an answer, Helen Kellie of Australia’s “multi-cultural broadcasting company, SBS, said: “It’s our way of celebrating migrant Australia and multiculturalism, and it’s also a lot of fun.”

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