Eurovision: More Than Just…Politics
Hello Dear Readers!
As promised, the first of four posts in the series “Eurovision: More than just…”
The fallout from Ukraine’s victory last May is still resounding, particularly as the host broadcaster, The Public Broadcasting Company of Ukraine (UA:PBC) is struggling to complete preparations in a timely manner. The winning entry in Stockholm was 1944 performed by Jamala, who wrote the song based on the experiences of her great-grandmother who had to go through the forced migration of the Crimean Tatars by the USSR, even incorporating words from a Tatar folk song about the event as the chorus. Clearly, while this song is about a historical injustice, there are clear parallels to the 2014 invasion of Crimea by Russia. Despite Russia’s protest about the song being potentially political (which violates ESC rules), the argument made by NTU (UA:PBC’s former name) was that it was a song about history, not current politics. This was enough to allow the song to compete. There is also a history of other countries using Eurovision to send thinly veiled political messages, such as Armenia’s 2010 and 2015 entries that marked the 95th and 100th anniversaries of the Armenian genocide (and event that Turkey still denies). Many countries also send very blatant political songs about peace (Hungary 2015 is the first I think of) or saving the environment (Ukraine 2010 and Armenia 2013 both come to mind). And being political is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, a role of music within our society is to express the narratives that we actually live with day to day. And for smaller countries in particular, Eurovision can be the rare opportunity to express themselves in a wide-scale venue (hence, why microstates like San Marino continue to compete). The guys at Overthinking It did a good job of discussing this.
But, we’re not here to discuss the merits of politics at Eurovision, but the ways in which the Contest transcends them. I am going to focus predominantly on the voting and coordination of the event as opposed to the music. Music is art and can take any direction it pleases. The more important aspect is how the EBU enforces its rules against politics and actions it supposedly takes to convey a political message.
So often, people dismiss the results as being orchestrated by the EBU to favor Western countries or “friendly” Eastern nations. This is despite the fact that less liberal nations, such as Serbia, Azerbaijan, and Russia have all won and hosted the Contest over the past ten years. In 2016, countless fans put forward conspiracy theories that Western nations’ juries purposefully stiffed Russia to avoid a return to the nation in 2017 as they knew that it would win the televote. This is despite the fact that Russia still finished in the top five among the jury scores. And despite the fact that Poland, which finished third in the televote, garnered a mere 7 points from the juries. Poland is a West-friendly Slavic nation, it’s even in the EU, why wouldn’t the juries swing their support behind it if they truly wanted to sink Russia? Or why not swing that support behind one of their own, such as Germany or Spain? The answer, of course, is that juries remain independent from the EBU’s direct influence. There is no statistical evidence to support any concerted effort between juries.
From the beginning of the Contest there has been disputes over the allegedly political nature of votes. I have said it before (and I’ll say it again), there’s a difference between political votes and diaspora votes. Political votes implies a televote is actively moving in a direction to promote (or stop) a country for political reasons. It requires a conscious, concerted effort to do so. This is the reason why we don’t see votes between Armenia and Azerbaijan (though, Armenia gave Azerbaijan one point back in 2009). We don’t see this complete refusal to exchange points between any other countries, including between Russia and either Ukraine or Georgia, both of whom gave televoting points to the nation with whom they are at war.
The splitting of Yugoslavia was particularly bitter and there are very deep divides between the various former Yugoslav nations, particularly between Bosnia & Herzegovina and Serbia as well as between Slovenia and all of them. Yet, these countries routinely swap votes among themselves. Why? This is the effect of unconscious cultural bias — diaspora voting. Humans tend to like the familiar. While, politically, the countries that formerly comprised Yugoslavia may hate on another, they have strong cultural connections, they have overlapping music industries, and mostly mutually intelligible languages. It makes sense that they would naturally be attracted to the entries from the others. This is also why the Nordic nations tend to swap points, why Greece and Cyprus always swap points, and (to lesser extent) between the Netherlands-Belgium-France.
This may seem like a small difference but it’s important. There is a big difference between ascribing something to conscious effort and instinct/preference. Does this disadvantage smaller nations? Most definitely, and that’s why the EBU instituted things like the allocation pots and brought back the juries. The truth is, even if country names were removed from entries entirely, the diaspora effect would continue. It’s culture, it’s human nature, it’s comfortable — it’s not politics.
I would be remiss if I did not address the controversy around Russia and 2017. For those who need the step-by-step layout of events:
Russia internally selected Julia Sachenko to represent them with the song “Flame is Burning” mere days before the submission deadline.
Ukraine announced that they were launching an investigation into Sachenko, as they had suspicion to believe that she illegally entered the country to perform in Crimea without passing through a Ukrainian checkpoint back in 2015.
Sachenko confirms that she did, in fact, perform in Crimea in 2015.
Ukraine officials announced in mid-March (with fewer than eight weeks to go before Eurovision) that Sachenko had indeed entered the country illegally and that she was prohibited from returning for five years – no exception.
The EBU expresses dismay over this decision. Initially, they offer to find a way to allow Sachenko to perform in Moscow and have it telecasted in the arena. Both Russia and Ukraine scoff at this. Russia, because the rules state performances must be live in the arena AND that telecasting denies them full participation benefits. Ukraine, because showing Sachenko on Ukrainian television would violate the law and circumvent the punishment of banning her entry.
The EBU reaffirms that Ukrainian law must be respected and that it will work with the host nation to find a solution.
One of the highest ranking administrators at the EBU issued an ultimatum to Ukraine: provide an exception for Sachenko or risk being banned from Eurovision events (ESC, JESC, Eurovision Young Musicians, and all its entertainment content one imagines) for several years (a punishment that was doled out to Lebanon after it said that it would not broadcast the Israeli entry in 2005, forcing it to remove itself from the Contest – where it was set to debut – and drop any expectation of receiving a refund of its participation fee as well as received a five year ban from Eurovision competitions).
Russia is offered the solution of replacing the artist of the song (which is the most sensible solution and consistent with past situations of similar natures, in my opinion).
Again, Russia scoffs at this solution while Ukraine refuses to budge.
Russia ultimately decides to withdraw and refuses to broadcast EC 2017.
This just goes to show you that, try as they might, the EBU cannot prevent politics from creeping into the Contest. Of course, this all could have been avoided if they had made Jamala change the lyrics of 1944 last year. Or if Russia decided to be the bigger man and choose an artist that did not break the law.
So, is this whole post moot? Doesn’t this just prove that my arguments against the political nature of Eurovision are wrong? No. One example, even one as big as this, does not unravel my argument. Nor does it prove the Contest as a whole is political. In fact, it can be said that the EBU was trying its best to mitigate a political event to avoid politics entering the Contest.
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