Eurovision season is nearly upon us and it has not been without its drama! The pinnacle of this came from Russia, who revealed their follow-up entry to Sergey Lazarev, two days before the official EBU song deadline to submit their entry for the 2017 contest. Russia chose Yulia Samoylova, a disabled singer who was to perform the song “Flame is burning” in Kyiv, Ukraine in May. However, a few days after this reveal, it was announced by Ukrainian authorities that Samoylova was given a three-year travel ban to Ukraine. This was as a result of her performing in Russian annexed Crimea two years previously and it was deemed that she had entered Ukraine illegally. Naturally, Russia retaliated at this decision, claiming Ukrainian authorities were banning Samoylova on the grounds that she was disabled. Even though Russia must have been made aware of the list of blacklisted artists who were banned from entering Ukraine, of which Samoylova was entered.
Therefore, the EBU conceived of a plan to maintain Samoylova’s participation by allowing her to perform “Flame is Burning” via satellite, presumably from somewhere in Russia. This has never been done before at Eurovision and would be a novelty. However, this was rejected by both Russian and Ukrainian parties and the situation rolled on. Until a few weeks ago Russia announced they would no longer be broadcasting the contest and thus would not participate.
In my view, this was one big PR stunt on Russia’s part and has politicised and overshadowed the 2017 edition of the contest. However, there have always been disputes of a ‘political’ nature throughout its history. In the 1970s, Greece and Turkey were at loggerheads for broadcasting each other’s entries, Italy sent Gigliola Cinquetti with ‘Si’ in 1974 which was seen as a propagandist message to the Italian people to encourage them to vote in a referendum on divorce and also in the same year, Portugal sent an entry that was seen to commence the Carnation Revolution against the Estado Novo regime in the country.
It is worth arguing that the ‘political’ in Eurovision is not just national politics, or the way to describe voting patterns, but it is also identity politics. More specifically, the ways which nations advocate their tolerance and respect for LGBT rights. In 2013, Finland sent Krista Siegfrids with “Marry Me”, where at the end of the performance Krista embraced a kiss with one of her fellow female backing singers/dancers. This could be seen as a political move to advocate the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Finland. But also for the rest of Europe and other countries who do not back this equal right.
It could also be suggested that the selection of Sergey Lazarev by Russia in 2016 with the song “You are the only one” was a political move by Russia. To send a male artist, who has high popularity amongst the Eurovision fan base and who was seen to be ‘queered’ by LGBTQ+ fans. This view comes from my own observations on social media platforms. This in itself was a measure to prevent the audience in the arena booing at the Russian entry, which had occurred with the 2014 and 2015 female singers previously. This reaction was prompted primarily by Russia’s negative position on LGBT laws and rights. In 2015, some fans in the audience held the LGBT Pride flag in front of the cameras, obstructing the view of the performance of Russia’s singer Polina Gagarina. Upon Lazarev’s participation in 2016, there was no sign of negative reaction in the hall upon conclusion of his performance, or forceful blocking of the cameras with Pride flags. Russia therefore used Lazarev to their advantage and became more favourable amongst fan audiences and was one of the favourites to win the contest in 2016.
Therefore, politics permeates the Eurovision Song Contest on various levels. Whether its so-called ‘political voting’, national tensions, national propaganda or identity politics, the contest will always be the centre of political issues.