MOSCOW — In any other year, in any other international song contest, Polina Gagarina and her uplifting ballad, “A Million Voices,” might be the odds-on favorite.
But in 2015, there’s just something about Russia’s representative to the Eurovision Song Contest singing about starting fresh and linking arms in peace and harmony that is sticking in Europe’s craw, after watching Russian-backed separatists battle with government troops for control of eastern Ukraine for the last year.
And when sanctions and diplomacy won’t do, Europe can always be trusted to settle its political scores in the arena of an annual singing competition.
Or as one watcher from Estonia tweeted:
The Eurovision Song Contest, for the uninitiated, is an annual competition between top European singing acts -- although first-time viewers might be forgiven for assuming the campy parade of questionably singable tunes is really an excuse to display the latest in ostentatious outfits and wind machine technology.
Each eligible country – the list includes a rather expansive definition of Europe that extends out to Israel and Azerbaijan, and this year, for the first time, includes Australia – can nominate and send one representatives to the competition, now in its 60th year. Twenty finalists are culled from the submissions over two semi-final rounds, and then each country votes for their favorites – a country’s votes are split 50-50 between regular viewers texting or telephoning in their picks, and a national jury of musical experts. The champion’s homeland gets the honor of hosting the next year’s competition.
The ostensibly democratic practice routinely falls prey to political preferences, as some countries have a pattern of voting for their historical and geographical allies, and against their enemies. The pull of politics even influences the newcomers, such as this watcher from Australia:
The final round of the contest isn't until Saturday, but the anti-Russian politics were already out in full force in Vienna during Tuesday's semi-final round, during which Russia's song was performed.
Gagarina had barely belted out the first few lines of her song before members of the audience raised rainbow-colored flags, holding them in front of the television cameras as the singer launched into the opening chorus of her song, in protest against Russia's policies regarding gays.
Western countries have been critical of homophobia in Russia, which recently adopted a law banning gay “propaganda,” and where a recent poll found that 84 percent of Russians oppose gay marriage.
The issue is especially close to the heart of this year’s Eurovision contest, which is taking place in Austria because drag queen Conchita Wurst – played by openly gay performer Thomas Neuwirth, who told the Guardian last year the contest is “like the gay Olympics – won in 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin called Wurst an “abomination” in the aftermath of the competition.
The criticism of Russia’s Ukraine policy also dominated the Twittersphere during the song.
Some watchers tried to work Russian weapons in Ukraine into the lyrics.
Others warned of that there was historical precedent singing a peaceful song should be taken as a warning of plans for potential occupation.
Overall, the protests over Russia's policies were far more genteel at this year's Eurovision contest compared to last year, when Russia's performer was openly booed by the crowd.
Last year, Ukraine also eked out a sixth-place finish, one spot before Russia's seventh. That won't happen this year, as Ukraine did not send a team, for, as one reporter pointed out, obvious reasons.
Russia has only ever won the Eurovision song contest in 2008, just a few months before it went to war with Georgia, though it has come up with some pretty unique contributions over the years, most memorably 2012's band of rural babushkas singing “Party for Everybody.” (They also lost to Sweden.)
But for all the anti-Russian vitriol, reviews of Gagarina herself were overwhelmingly positive. So could Russia win in spite of everything Saturday? Either way, there shouldn't be any lasting hard feelings because it's just a song contest, as this fan of Russia from Scotland reminds.
Sure we do.