Even before this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, commentators claimed that if Ukraine took home the trophy, it would not be for the quality of its folk-rap entry, “Stefania.” Instead, it would be a sign of European support for Ukraine amid the Russian invasion.
And it’s true: Ukraine’s victory on Saturday was political. This doesn’t make it unusual. Eurovision has always been about politics, even if the European Broadcasting Union (the organization that runs Eurovision) sometimes claims the opposite.
Past Eurovision songs have taken aim at Russia
In the past, Russia’s neighbors have weaponized Eurovision songs to retaliate against Russian actions. In 2007, Ukraine submitted a song called “Dancing Lasha Tumbai.” In Ukrainian, the pronunciation sounds very much like “Russia Goodbye.” After Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, that country tried the same trick with a song called “We Don’t Wanna Put In” — coincidentally pronounced in the song like “we don’t want a Putin.” It didn’t work; the entry was promptly disqualified. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Ukraine’s entry was a song about the Soviet deportation of Crimean Tatars. The song, entitled “1944,” also won the contest.
An analysis of voting patterns demonstrates that Russia, too, has engaged in Eurovision politics. Since Russia first entered the contest in 1994, its entry has frequently finished in the top five. Is that due to the quality of its entrants? Maybe, but many watchers also have noted how Russia almost always collects “douze points” (12 points: the maximum) from Belarus and other allies. This year, Russia was banned from participating.
Not all of the politics is about Russia’s actions
So, would Eurovision be apolitical if Russia’s ban from the contest became permanent? Hardly. While many of the recent political scandals have involved Russia, it’s not the only country that sparks controversy.
Israel’s participation in Eurovision means that many Arab countries do not participate, even though Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan are all eligible. Morocco’s first and only appearance in the contest was in a year Israel did not participate. In 2005, Lebanon withdrew rather than broadcast the Israeli entry.
Nor have Western European nations avoided politics. 1974’s Eurovision might be best known for introducing the world to ABBA. The Portuguese entry was more politically consequential: It served as a signal for coup plotters to begin the overthrow of Portugal’s authoritarian regime. Nor was that all; Italy censored its own entry that year, for fear that listening to “Sì” too many times would influence voters to vote “sì” (yes) in a referendum the next month to make divorce legal.
Eurovision has been political from the start
None of this is entirely surprising. Eurovision — and the European Broadcasting Union — was founded in the aftermath of World War II. The aim was to promote European cooperation. If it gave European nations a way to compete without guns and bombs, that was all to the good. There are worse ways for nations to vie for supremacy than with song and dance.
Given these foundations, it is safe to say that “Stefania” is not undermining any proud vision of political neutrality in Eurovision. It is very likely that Ukraine did win because of the Russian invasion — but it will be neither the first nor the last time that Eurovision expresses politics through the medium of a song contest. The solidarity that other European countries have expressed with Ukraine, and their implicit condemnation of Russia’s invasion, is not out of keeping with the contest’s political beginnings.