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Eurovision has always been a forum for political performance

The song competition has long traced historical and political developments across Europe

Members of the band Kalush Orchestra onstage with the winner's trophy and a Ukrainian flag after winning the Eurovision Song contest on May 14 on behalf of Ukraine at the Pala Alpitour venue in Turin. (Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images)
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Almost every year since 1956, people from across Europe and beyond have gathered under one roof for an event that promises a celebration of European unity and culture. It’s the event that gave us ABBA after their 1974 winning song, “Waterloo,” and Céline Dion’s 1988 victory with “Ne partez pas sans moi.” These victories catapulted both to stardom.

On May 14, the 2022 Eurovision Song Contest Final 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 — an especially poignant victory as the war-torn country continues to defend itself against Russia’s invasion.

Going into the final, many assumed Ukraine’s song “Stefania,” performed by the Kalush Orchestra, would win the contest. The song and the costumes were rooted in Ukrainian folklore. The performance was energetic, featuring creative staging and emotional lyrics in Ukrainian.

Observers also anticipated votes of solidarity for Ukraine from its fellow European countries. They understood that even though the contest prides itself on being “apolitical,” Eurovision has always been steeped in politics — from the voting to the performances. Performances have often reflected political thinking and reacted to the climate on the continent, while also offering up the opportunity for countries facing threats to their sovereignty — like Ukraine — to display resolve.

Eurovision began in Switzerland in 1956, with only seven Western European countries participating and 10 airing the contest live on television. The contest’s purpose was to promote postwar cooperation between European states and encourage cross-border television broadcasts. In the ensuing years, the contest expanded, with other Western European countries beginning to participate, as well as countries such as Turkey, Israel and Yugoslavia.

During the Cold War, countries in the Soviet Bloc were not allowed to participate. To join the contest, countries needed — and still need — 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 media structures in most Eastern European countries under Soviet influence.

But after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, as changes swept rapidly across Eastern Europe, the contest moved quickly to include the newly independent countries, with most joining by 1994. Organizers staged the 1990 Eurovision Song Contest in Zagreb — the first competition to take place in Eastern Europe. While political messages and performances are discouraged and sometimes banned at 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 “unite, unite Europe.”

References to themes of unity and the historic events of 1989 did not guarantee success, though. Norway’s entry about the Brandenburg Gate, for example, came in last and Austria’s entry about there being no more walls finished midrange that year. But the events of 1989 had a huge influence on the contest.

After the fall of Communist regimes across the Soviet Bloc, Eastern European countries flocked to the contest. But as Europe’s political division ended, a new war began. In 1993, due to sanctions from the United Nations for its aggression in Bosnia, Yugoslavia was not allowed to participate in the contest. But Bosnia continued to participate despite the war, receiving tremendous applause for each of its performances between 1993 and 1995, not unlike Ukraine this year.

In 1993, Bosnia placed 16th with their song “Sva bol svijeta [All the Pain in the World].” As Bosnia’s capital city Sarajevo lay under siege, the Bosnian jury still called into the contest to give its votes. There was a crackling connection. The phone line went dead. But the jury managed to give their points to other countries live on air. It was crucial to show Europe and the rest of the world that Bosnia was still holding on, sharing its culture with the rest of Europe while it fought for its independence.

Beyond conflicts and wars, the 1990s also marked a big change in Eurovision’s voting rules. Before the late 1990s, specialized juries from each participating country would award points to performances, ranging from one to eight, then 10 and 12, to whatever entries they deemed worthy. In the late 1990s, however, the contest introduced televoting for viewers at home. Viewers could now vote for their favorite entries — but not for the contestants from their own country. By 2004, televoting became mandatory in all participating countries and viewers could phone in to vote for their favorite songs.

But along with televoting came accusations of biased voting, often referred to as “bloc voting.” Some of these accusations had merit. Most years, Cyprus and Greece give each other top votes, usually followed by groans or booing from the audience. The countries of the former Yugoslavia typically give each other high votes as well. Nordic countries all favor each other’s entries. By 2009, the accusations of bloc voting became so loud — mainly from the United Kingdom — that the Eurovision Song Contest had to reintroduce juries alongside televoting. Since the United Kingdom is one of the contest’s biggest financial supporters, it exercises considerable influence.

With political division and questions 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 in Eurovision. In 2004, Ukraine won the contest with Ruslana’s “Wild Dances.” That entitled the country to host Eurovision in 2005, and it took the opportunity to submit 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 won the contest again with Jamala’s song “1944.” The song described Stalin’s deportations of Crimean Tatars and was a clear reference to Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea. But despite Eurovision discouraging political songs, organizers allowed the song’s performance — and it won — after the EBU deemed it “historical” rather than political.

In 2017, Ukraine again hosted Eurovision. After the Ukrainian broadcaster discovered that Russia’s contestant had performed a concert in Crimea, she was banned from entering Ukraine. The organizers offered to let her perform over satellite video, but Russia refused and withdrew from the contest. The EBU issued an official warning to Ukraine. It threatened to ban them from future contests. But in the end, Ukraine refused to budge and faced no repercussions.

On Feb. 25, the EBU banned Russia from this year’s contest because of its invasion of Ukraine. In its statement, 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 cautioned that it was still an “apolitical” organization.

Ukraine’s original contestant, Alina Pash, had to withdraw after a 2015 trip to Crimea came to light. Leading up to the contest, Ukraine’s new contestants, Kalush Orchestra, were clear favorites to win.

The initial jury voting left Ukraine comfortably in fourth place out of 25 finalists. Then came the televoting. Twenty-eight out of 40 participating countries gave Ukraine top points, catapulting them to the top spot with a staggering 631 points. Two-thirds of those votes came from the viewers across Europe.

While it is unlikely that Ukraine will be able to host the contest next May, as is the standard for the winner, the win is of major importance for the country. Ukrainian commentator Timur Miroshnychenko announced the result from a bomb shelter, quickly breaking into tears. It sent Europe and the world an important message: Ukraine continues to fight for its freedoms and national identity — on the front lines as well as by highlighting its cultural contributions and sovereignty.

Throughout its history, Eurovision has offered important critiques of cultural and political inclusion and exclusion, despite organizers’ claims that it is apolitical. Politics have dictated wins and losses. Politics can result in top votes, or the notorious “nul points.” And the contest has always offered up a place for political performances — a chance to signal the enduring strength and pride of a nation under siege.

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