At its core, the Eurovision Song Contest’s mission is a pure one: bringing the people of Europe together for one night a year through the universal language of music. Despite this, the show has proven itself to be a remarkably effective breeding ground for political disagreement. Every single year there’s some kind of diplomatic controversy distracting from the contest itself – and almost as though it’s trying to make up for the drama we missed after the cancellation of the 2020 edition, there has been so much this year that it’s hard to keep tabs on it all.
Firstly, two countries that planned to participate in the 2020 edition have had to withdraw from this year’s show owing to ongoing political crises. The first, Armenia, announced at the beginning of March that it was unable to organise an entry in time for the deadline later that month due to pressures created by the recent conflict with Azerbaijan. In 2020, the two countries engaged in a war over the long-disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, ending in an Azerbaijani victory. Unlike Armenia, Azerbaijan still plan to compete in the 2021 edition.
This is not the first time that strained relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia have bled into the contest. Following the conclusion of the 2009 show, the Azerbaijani Ministry of National Security reportedly summoned citizens that had voted for the Armenian entry for questioning, as they apparently posed a “potential security threat.” Armenia also withdrew from the contest in 2012 following domestic calls to boycott after it was confirmed the show was to be held in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.
Belarus is also unable to participate in 2021 after repeatedly submitting entries that contravened the contest’s rules banning songs that seek to take advantage of the show for political ends. Belarusian state broadcaster BTRC’s initial entry was rejected by contest organisers who deemed that its song, “Ya Nauchu Tebya,” which translates to “I’ll Teach You,” contained lyrics targeting supporters of the ongoing political demonstrations against President Alexander Lukashenko.
BTRC declined to send the same act that was set to perform at the cancelled 2020 contest, as most other countries had done, after the group expressed support for the protests. Instead, the broadcaster selected band Galasy ZMesta, supporters of Lukashenko who have often criticised pro-democracy protestors in their songs. Despite BTRC reportedly organising a second entry, this too was deemed overtly political by the Eurovision’s producers, resulting in Belarus’ ejection from the contest.
Pictured: Galasy ZMesta frontman Dmitry Butakov, whose entry was barred from the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest after breaking the rules. Image credit: Reuters
Aside from these two examples of international crises impacting upon the contest, some other countries’ entries have been subject to substantial domestic scrutiny. Cyprus’ entry, “El Diablo,” was criticised by the Orthodox Church of Cyprus who argued the song featured ‘satanic’ lyrics. Although offending lines such as “I gave my heart to el diablo” were intended as allegory for a problematic lover, they were taken by the Church to endorse devil worship. It didn’t help that the song came paired with a rather steamy music video. Regardless, the Cypriot broadcaster CyBC denied the Church’s claims and refused to withdraw the entry.
North Macedonian artist Vasil Garvanliev was also the subject of domestic controversy after the release of the music video for his song “Here I Stand.” The video, which was partly filmed in a museum, featured background artwork that many believed was intended to represent the Bulgarian flag, problematic because the two countries have a frosty relationship. A new version of the music video has since been released with the offending artwork cut out.
The last of this year’s entries to attract substantial domestic criticism was Russia’s song. In a national selection broadcast on Russian TV, Tajik-born artist Manizha was chosen by public vote to represent the country with her song “Russian Woman.” However, the self-written record was denounced by domestic conservative and religious groups because of its lyrics, which celebrate the development of women’s rights in Russia over the past few centuries. The Russian Union of Orthodox Women called for the entry to be withdrawn, claiming its lyrics incite “hatred towards men” and undermine “the foundations of a traditional family.” Although the Russian state Investigative Committee launched an inquiry into the song, Manizha has not been withdrawn as its representative.
Despite the negative domestic reception to Manizha’s entry, she is not alone this year in referencing the feminist movement. Women’s rights have become a recurring theme for Eurovision songs over the last few years, the most notable example being Israel’s 2018 entry “Toy,” which went on to win the contest. The Maltese and Latvian entries “Je Me Casse” and “The Moon is Rising,” serve as playful yet poignant anthems to women’s liberation, but attracted far less domestic criticism than “Russian Woman” despite having near-identical themes. In fact, at time of writing, “Je Me Casse” is the bookies’ favourite to win the competition.
Feminism is not the only social issue referenced by some of this year’s artists. Sweden’s entry “Voices,” performed by Tusse Chiza, engages with the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the western world in the summer of last year. Tusse, a former child refugee that fled alone to Sweden from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, powerfully celebrates “the colours of change” and encourages listeners not to let their oppressors “hold you down.” The song proved incredibly popular in the Swedish national selection for Eurovision, receiving the highest possible score from the public vote, and is also considered one of the frontrunners.
Sweden is not alone in referencing race debates – Dutch representative Jeangu Macrooy and his song “Birth of a New Age” touch on issues of culture and identity also brought to the fore by the Black Lives Matter movement. The entry celebrates Macrooy’s Surinamese heritage by featuring lyrics in Sranan Tongo, the language widely spoken in his birthplace, with the refrain “yu no man broko mi” translating to “you can’t break me.”
Pictured: Swedish representative Tusse celebrates his victory at Melodifestivalen, the country’s national selection for Eurovision. Image credit: SVT/ Stina Stjernkvist
So, what does all of this drama mean for the contest? In practice, probably nothing. Diplomatic controversy like this is inescapable in international events such as the Eurovision. Other global competitions such as the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup regularly end up in the exact same situation, where the activity itself is overshadowed by political disputes.
The Eurovision Song Contest has weathered countless diplomatic storms in the past, so there is really no doubt that it will continue to do so. For example, the relationship between Ukraine and Russia has also marred the contest ever since the 2014 invasion of Crimea in a similar way to the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In addition, Turkey and Hungary no longer compete in the contest, supposedly due to their governments’ disapproval of the show’s well-known popularity with the LGBTQ+ community. Ultimately, the show has only been cancelled once, due to uncertainty caused by the Coronavirus pandemic in 2020, and never because of any political dispute. As such, even though the Eurovision is clearly a magnet for political falling outs, none have ever gone so far as to actually prevent the contest from going ahead.
Header image credit: EBU