Sunday, 15 May 2016

Will Russia quit Eurovision next year?

A song about Russian-orchestrated genocide in Crimea has won Eurovision. This is more serious than you think.

In 2014, Russia was the unnamed enemy at the Eurovision Song Contest.

Ostensibly, the competition had nothing to do with Moscow. The shock winner was Conchita Wurst, a bearded drag queen from Austria who sang a song about overcoming adversity. All well and good. But the context behind the win was that Russian politicians and media had waged a campaign to discredit her - as a degenerate, and a symbol of a weak, effeminate West.

It backfired.

Austria won in 2014 - largely because of public voting from former Soviet satellite states. The juries of music experts - which count for 50% of the vote - voted overwhelmingly against her in Eastern Europe. But the public in Eastern Europe (the other 50% of the vote) voted for her. Because in the weeks before the concert, she had come to represent an anti-Russian stance (whether she meant to or not).

The following year, Russia fielded a very strong entry. It was a song about world peace, which seemed incongruous with Russia's foreign policy actions in Ukraine. Though the European Broadcasting Union staged the vote result count to make it seem as if Sweden and Russia were running neck-and-neck, the result was clear. Sweden won. And every time Russia scored votes, the entire arena in Vienna booed. 

It became so overwhelming that it drove Russia's Eurovision contestant, Polina Gagarina, to tears. In a highly staged intervention, Conchita Wurst, who was hosting the show in Vienna, came to comfort her.

This year, Russia was again the bookies' favourite to win the contest. Moscow, which takes the contest very seriously, sent the most popular pop star of the moment - Sergey Lazarev. He had what was unarguably the most visually stunning performance of the night.

But Russia did not win tonight. Though they came first in the public vote, they were unable to overcome the overwhelming combined jury and public vote for Ukraine. The winner was a song which was explicitly anti-Russian, and was a clear drive to re-focus the public's attention to Russia's annexation of Crimea and war on Ukraine.

The fact that Ukraine's song made it past the Eurovision censor's at all had raised eyebrows. Songs have been disqualified in the recent past for expressing overtly anti-Russian sentiment. In 2009, as the war between Georgia and Russia was raging, Georgian public broadcaster GPB tried to pull a fast one on the Eurovision censors.

Past anti-Russian entries

They fielded a song called "We Don't Wanna Put In", a disco anthem ostensibly about not wanting to stop dancing. The Eurovision organisers weren't having it. Songs with political themes are not allowed in the contest. The title of the song, and it's main chorus, did not grammatically make sense in English. Though this could be said about a lot of Eurovision entries, this one was clearly meant to be "We don't want a Putin". 

Russian troops were still occupying Georgian territory at the time, and to make things even more sensitive, Russia was hosting the contest in Moscow that year. It was all too much, and the Eurovision organisers disqualified it for being political after Russia raised an objection. Georgia was not allowed to take part in Eurovision that year.

This year, as the war between Ukraine and Russia rages on, Ukraine has found a different way to cloak criticism of Moscow - history. This year's entry by Jamala - a Crimean Tatar - is called 1944. It is, by her own admission, about Stalin's forced deportation of about 240,000 Tatars (a Turkic people who were part of the Mongol Empire's ruling class) from Crimea to Siberia in 1944. Between 20% and 50% did not survive the journey. Some historians classify this as a genocide.

The song comes following Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, something that Crimean Tatars, a small number of whom returned after the break-up of the Soviet Union, vehemently oppose. 

"Crimean Tatars once again live in an occupied territory, which is not easy for them," Jamala told Ukrainian broadcaster NTU after she won the national final. Her parents are stuck in Crimea and she has not been able to see them since the occupation.

Jamala has openly admitted that her song is a political song against Moscow's actions. 

The song could really be seen to refer to all the forced populations transfers perpetrated by the Soviet Union in the 1940s (with American and British approval). It is a subject that still remains taboo in the West, since the Western powers were complicit in the forced expulsions that took place in Eastern and Central Europe after World War II.
But unlike with
the Georgian song in 2009, the Eurovision censors allowed this in. Neither the title nor the lyrics are political, they found.

The song tells the story of Jamala's great-grandmother, one of the expellees. But it never explicitly mentions Russia, Crimea, or any of the specific events.Two things appear to have influenced the decision to allow the song - the vague lyrics and the fact that it is based on a historical event.

This has precedent. Last year Armenia fielded an entry called "Face the Shadow" which was very clearly about the genocide of Armenians by Turks during the First World War. However its lyrics were also vague. One could argue that they were less vague than Georgia's 2009 entry, which was ostensibly just a disco song about dancing. But Georgia's song was seen to be referencing a current event, while Armenia's and Ukraine's were seen to be referencing a historical event (albeit it with current implications).

It also helped that Turkey is no longer in the contest. President Erdogan spurned the contest in 2013, pulling out permanently and setting up his own rival contest called Turkvision, which only features songs in Turkic languages. Jamala's song could actually qualify for that contest, since it is partly in the Crimean Tatar language.

So last year the Eurovision organisers were in no mood to tip-toe around Turkish sensitivities, since they're not even in the contest anymore. But in the past the contest organisers have taken Russian sensitivities very seriously. 

In 2007 there was serious talk about disqualifying the Ukrainian entry "Dancing Lasha Tumbai" after some in Russia raised objections. They thought the drag queen singing 'lasha tumbai', which means nothing in any language, was meant to sound like 'Russia goodbye'. In the end the song was allowed.

Already there is speculation that the notoriously anti-Russian drag queen Verka Serducka (who, incidentally, presented Ukraine's votes tonight) will host the show in Kiev next year.

Russia goodbye?

The big question is - is this the last indignity that Russia is willing to suffer? Russia's jury gave zero point to Ukraine tonight - even as most of the other juries in Europe gave the song top marks. The public vote has not yet been released.

Russia already threatened to pull out after Conchita won in 2014, saying they would launch a "family-friendly" competition for moral countries. Russia has been planning to revive the Intervision Song Contest, the old Cold War rival to Eurovision.

They would follow Turkey's lead. In 2013 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erogan pulled Turkey out of the contest. It was ostensibly over a dispute over the voting system, but most believe it was in fact to do with the fact that Erdogan's ultra-Islamic AKP party could not be in a contest in which it shared a stage with Israel. Erdogan has since launched the 'Turkvision' song contest, which is made up of countries that speak Turkic languages. Germany is one of the participants. It's Turkish community fields an entry.

And this is why Australia is in...

The reasoning behind launching these alternative contests is clear. Ankara and Moscow will be able to more easily control the messaging in their own song contests, and keep it as a "family-friendly" show free of any content that is deemed to be too non-conforming.

And so for everyone wondering why on earth Australia is in the contest now (they came in second tonight), here's your answer. The European Broadcasting Union, which stages Eurovision every year, is very concerned about these rival contests popping up.

Originally Australia's participation was supposed to be a one-off to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Eurovision last year. Yet suddenly the EBU announced an about-face late last year, saying that Australia had been invited to participate permanently. The press release announcing the decision said this was part of a Eurovision 'global strategy' that would take the contest global.

The EBU is spooked by the rival contests being launched by Turkey and Russia, and other contests being considered by the Asian broadcasting union and the Latin American broadcasting union. Eurovision is currently the most-watched non-sporting television event in the world - by far. It has viewing figures 10x higher than the Oscars. They don't want to see this split.

It will be interesting to see what happens over the next year. It is almost inconceivable that Russia will send an entry to Kiev next year. The question is - will this be a one-year abstention, or a permanent withdrawal? And will this light a fire under Russia's plan to revive Intervision? Many countries, including North Korea and China, have already signalled they would participate in Russia's rival contest.

At the same time, Eurovision is immensely popular in Russia. It is the reason that the Russian broadcaster takes the contest so seriously. There are some difficult decisions ahead in Moscow.

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