Italy will host the final of the 66th Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday evening with one country notably absent: Russia was excluded from the competition in February following its invasion of Ukraine. Despite the competition organisers’ insistence that the contest is a non-political event, the conflict in Europe looks set to dominate the public vote.
Bets are already being placed on the results of the 2022 Eurovision Song Contest final, happening on May 14 in Turin, Italy. Sweden and last year’s winners Italy are among the bookmaker’s favourites, with both countries entering soaring love ballads that typically go down well in the competition. Another favourite to win is Ukraine, represented by a less traditional front-runner: folk-rap group Kalush Orchestra.
Ukraine’s status among the favourites is undeniably linked to the war being waged in its territory by Russia. Since Russian troops entered Ukraine on February 24, Russia has faced international sanctions and been banned from competing in sports competitions around the world. The day after the invasion, The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which owns the right to Eurovision, announced that Russia would be banned from the 2022 contest.
“In light of the unprecedented crisis in Ukraine, the inclusion of a Russian entry in this year’s Contest would bring the competition into disrepute,” the EBU said in a statement.
Songs are frequently rejected from the Eurovision Song Contest for being too political, but it is rare to see a country disqualified for its political stance. The last time this happened was almost 30 years ago, in 1993. Following sanctions from the United Nations, Yugoslavia, led by Slobodan Milosevic, was banned from Eurovision at the height of the Yugoslav wars.
‘The one and only thing to do’
The decision to ban Russia this year was not controversial among fans. “Most fans thought that it was the one and only thing to do,” Simon Bennett, President of OGAE International, a Eurovision fan group with national committees in 43 countries, said. ”No one was happy about [the ban] at all, but most people thought it wouldn’t be appropriate for Russia to compete.”
The EBU also reached a consensus on Russia quickly, said Eurovision historian, Dean Vuletic. “Pressure came from within the EBU, especially from the Nordic countries, who threatened to not participate if Russia was allowed to stay,” he explained. “And it was more important for the Eurovision to have Sweden than Russia.”
Sweden is one of the Eurovision’s most prolific winners, having won the competition six times, most famously in 1974 with ABBA’s ‘Waterloo’.
The exclusion of Russia this year is the cumulation of years of tensions with Ukraine that have played out on the Eurovision stage. In 2014, Russia was not officially excluded from the event following its annexation of Crimea, but was obstructed by Ukraine in years to come.
The next time Ukraine competed in the contest after the annexation was in 2016, when it was represented by Jamala, a singer of Crimean Tatar origin. Her song ‘1944’, which memorialised the historical deportation of her people from the Crimea, went on to win the competition.
As winners, Ukraine hosted the competition the following year and tensions with Russia increased. Ukrainian organisers refused to let Russia’s entry, disabled singer Yulia Samoilova, into the country on the basis that she had performed in Crimea since the annexation and had therefore breached Ukrainian law. Russia refused to send another performer or to participate remotely, meaning a de facto exclusion from the final.
Tensions between the two countries were visible in previous Eurovision contests too. “It started much earlier, with the Orange Revolution,” said Vuletic. In 2004-5 a presidential election which was widely believed to be rigged in favour of pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych sparked protests in Ukraine. “One of the spokespeople [for the revolution] was the singer Ruslana,” said Vuletic. That same year, Ruslana won the 2004 Eurovision final with her song ‘Wild Dances’.
By the time the contest was held in Ukraine the following year, Ukraine had a pro-European president, Viktor Yushchenko, who attended the event to award the winner and extol European values. Ruslana went on to become an MP and was heavily involved in Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan Revolution, protesting a government decision not to sign a political association and free trade agreement with the European Union.
‘The definition of soft power’
Despite the EBU’s best efforts, it seems countries are willing to use the Eurovision Song Contest for political purposes. “The motives are similar in sport and Eurovision,” Lukas Aubin, a specialist in Russia and geopolitics in sport, explained. “These events are a way for countries to highlight their national identity, construct a narrative and improve their image. It’s the definition of soft power.”
Ukraine is not the only country to do this. “Russia has been instrumentalising the Eurovision Song Contest for a long time, investing lots of money in participating, producing very lavish entries, with expensive stage effects,” said Vuletic. In 2009 Russia spent more than any previous host country when it hosted the Eurovision final in Moscow. Since then, only Azerbaijan has spent more.
In 2022, Russian authorities have taken a more critical stance on the Eurovision and its LBGT values in particular, indicating a change in attitude. “The contest is very popular in Russia and in former Soviet countries,” said Aubin. “But the authorities in Russia are opportunistic and want to participate in the Eurovision to show their best side. Then as soon as they are criticised or excluded, they play the victim and criticise the contest.”
When Ukraine won the content with Jamala in 2016, “it was seen as an insult in Moscow”, Aubin said. This year, exclusion from the contest fits neatly into a Russian narrative that the West is hostile to Russia. Ultimately, “the Eurovision is seen as a weapon of Western soft power”, Aubin said. As such, Russia’s relationship with the West defines its attitude towards the Eurovision.
‘In favour of Ukraine’
Meanwhile Ukraine continues to use the contest to construct its own image on the international stage. It’s entry this year is a mix of rap and traditional Ukrainian music entitled ‘Stefania’. “The song was created before the war, but in the context, it has taken on a patriotic turn,” said Vuletic.
In the song, the lyrics are addressed to a mother. The group sings, “I will always find my path towards home, even if all the roads are destroyed.” It is difficult to avoid pairing the words with the images of destruction that have come from Ukraine in recent months.
At the same time, Ukrainian authorities have emphasised that the members of the group have been given special authorisation to travel to Italy for the contest, while other Ukrainian men in their age group have been banned from leaving the country, in case they are needed for the war effort.
For many, it will be impossible to separate Ukraine’s Eurovision performance from the context of the war.
“The public televote will probably be overwhelmingly in favour of Ukraine to show support,” said Bennett. Public voting will open after the acts have performed in Saturday’s final, but half of all points are given by a professional jury, which are harder to predict. Especially as the Ukrainian entry is not a typical Eurovision crowd pleaser. “If it was a normal year, we wouldn’t be talking about Ukraine winning,” Bennett said.
Win or not, the group is expected to perform well when their moment comes at the final in Turin. The event is typically watched by more than 200 million people in over 30 countries each year. As such, “Ukraine doesn’t have to win the Eurovision Song Contest to win over Russia here,” said Vuletic. “It won the day Russia was banned.”
This article was translated from the original in French.