Eurovision, the campy-yet-surprisingly-popular pan-European song contest, is set to take place in May. And much as in previous years, the event will likely be filled with cheesy songs, debatable costumes – and simmering geopolitical tension.
For a taste of the latter, look no further than Ukraine's planned entry this year, a slow-burning pop song by an artist called Jamala. A hint of the song's intent is included in its title: "1944." The first line, sung in English, makes things even clearer. "When strangers are coming, they come to your house," Jamala sings, "they kill you all inside, [saying] 'We're not guilty, not guilty.'"
Jamala has told journalists that the song is inspired by her own great-grandmother's experience being deported from Crimea by Joseph Stalin. At the tail end of World War II, the Soviet leader had ordered the mass expulsion of the Crimean Tatar population from the region for their perceived disloyalty. Hundreds of thousands of Tatars were forced from the Crimean Peninsula, with as many as half dying along the way. It was only after the fall of the Soviet Union that they were allowed to return, despite having roots in the region that stretch back centuries.
It's an unusual choice for a song, but while the subject matter may be historical, for many Ukrainians it likely conjured up more modern event: The 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine by Russia, largely against the wishes of the peninsula's Tatar minority, who understandably have reservations about Moscow. While the song's lyrics do not mention the present-day situation, the implication seems clear. "This song ... is precisely what we are all suffering in Ukraine today," one of the judges who voted for the song, singer and former Eurovision winner Ruslana, said on Sunday, according to Agence France-Presse.
Speaking to Reuters, Jamala, 32, explained that her own family decided to stay in Crimea after the annexation, refusing to be forced to leave again. She has not seen them since summer 2014, the news agency reported. "It is very scary even to think that something may happen to them because of me feeling so free here," she said. "I understand that my every word may harm them there."
A number of Russian lawmakers have offered responses to the song choice, with Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the Duma committee for relations with former Soviet states, calling it a "political choice" while Vadim Dengin, head of the Information Committee in the State Duma, suggested it was designed to "offend Russia." According to Russian news agency RIA Novosti, Ruslan Balbec, vice premier of the Crimean government, urged Kiev not to turn the "authoritative international cultural competition" into a "choreographed political performance."
It is unclear whether the song will be allowed to enter Eurovision. In theory at least, political lyrics are banned. In 2009, shortly after the two nations went to war, Georgia was forced to pull out of the competition after submitting a song with lyrics that clearly mocked Russian President Vladimir Putin – that song was called "We Don't Wanna Put In."
Both Russia and Ukraine have won the contest just one previous time in the past. Last year, Russia's hopes of winning the event faced an additional hurdle of nationalistic pride from its neighbors, many of whom voted against the Russian entry, a ballad called "A Million Voices."
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