Explained | Ukraine’s Eurovision win and its significance

Amid the ongoing Russian incursion, Ukraine clinched this year’s Eurovision title for a song by the Kalush Orchestra

Updated - May 17, 2022 01:27 pm IST

Published - May 16, 2022 02:41 pm IST

Kalush Orchestra from Ukraine pose after winning the 2022 Eurovision Song Contest in Turin, Italy, May 15, 2022.

Kalush Orchestra from Ukraine pose after winning the 2022 Eurovision Song Contest in Turin, Italy, May 15, 2022.

The story so far: Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra won the 66th Eurovision Song Contest held in Turin, Italy, for its song ‘Stefania’, in a clear show of popular support for conflict-hit Ukraine that went beyond music.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed his country’s third victory in the singing extravaganza in a Telegram post, writing “Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe!”

Traditionally, the winning country hosts the next edition of the contest. However, taking into account the current humanitarian crisis, Mr. Zelenskiyy said “we will do our best” to host next year's contest in the besieged port city of Mariupol. He underlined “Ukrainian Mariupol,” adding: “free, peaceful, rebuilt.”

What is Eurovision?

The Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) is an annual pan-European singing-songwriting contest organised by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). It largely features participants from European countries with some non-European entrants such as Australia and Israel. It is one of the longest-running and most viewed television events with some of its televised finals having garnered a viewership of over 200 million.

The first-ever Eurovision contest, inspired by the format of the Italian Sanremo Music Festival, was held in 1956 in Lugano, Switzerland, with just seven participating countries. It was won by Swizz artist Lys Assia for the song ‘Refrain’. Now, many more countries participate, with a record 43 countries competing in a single contest for some years.

It is believed that Eurovision was created by the EBU to bring together European countries after the Second World War. Eurovision’s website says the competition was “designed to test the limits of live television broadcast technology.” Its final rounds, where artists perform one original song on a live broadcast, have since then been aired annually by the public broadcasters of all participating countries, barring some exceptions during some years.

The Eurovision format

The winner of the competition is determined by a set of judges and by numerous civilian votes from participating countries. Juries and fans in each country list their top ten favourites by giving two sets of points- from 10-12 and 8-1, with 12 points being given to the favourite. A country cannot vote for its own contingent.

26 countries get to compete in ESC’s grand finale, with 20 shortlisted from the semi-finals and six automatic finalists — the previous edition’s winner and the ‘Big Five’ countries that provide the most financial backing to the EBU. These five countries are Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Despite criticism that its quality of music does not represent popular standards of the time, Eurovision has historically contributed to the rise of some of the most popular international artists, such as Swedish pop legends ABBA, who won the contest with their song Waterloo in 1974. Celine Dion, despite being Canadian, represented Switzerland in 1988 and owes her early popularity to her Eurovision win that year.

Eurovision is traditionally hosted by the winner of the previous edition, with last year’s winner Itay hosting Eurovision 2022. Italian rock band Måneskin had won the 2021 edition with their song “Zitti e buoni.“

Until the 1990s, there were no rules on the kind of messaging performers could convey through their songs. But later, in an attempt to make the event more commercially attractive, the EBU put in place rules preventing participants from bringing disrepute to the contest, which meant no political messaging.

Has Ukraine taken a political stance at Eurovision before?

Despite the no-politics rule, the EBU has not reprimanded the winning Ukrainian band for using its stage to send out a clear message about the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Eurovision also took a clear stance this time by banning Russia from competing this year.

This is despite the fact that the EBU’s no-politics rule was further formalised after Ukraine’s 2005 song entry about the anti-Russian Orange Revolution.

Ukraine was already tipped to win the Eurovision this year, in a soft diplomatic vote from its European allies amid the ongoing crisis. It won the highest number of voter points at 439 and an overall score of 631 along with the Jury’s points. Even though it was ranked fourth by the judges, popular votes ensured its road to victory.

During the contest, the Kalush Orchestra called for public support for Ukraine, the besieged city of Mariupol, and for the fighters still trapped beneath the sprawling Azovstal steel plant in the city. “Please help Ukraine, Mariupol. Help Azovstal right now,” the band’s lead singer Oleh Psiuk shouted from the stage after performing ‘Stefania’, sung entirely in Ukrainian, at the grand finale.

While hailing Ukraine’s Eurovision victory, Mr. Zelenskyy expressed confidence that Ukraine’s win over Russia too, was imminent. “I am sure our victorious chord in the battle with the enemy is not far off,’‘ he wrote on Telegram. Ukrainians flooded social media platforms by likening the win at ESC to a symbolic victory for Ukraine over Russia.

This, however, was not the first time politics seeped into Ukraine’s run at Eurovision. In May 2016, Ukrainian participant Jamala won against the Russian singer Sergey Lazarev. Jamala’s song ‘1944’ was about Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s deportation of the Tatar community from Crimea during World War Two.

Placed in context, this came after Russia annexed Crimea and backed a rebellion in the Donbas region in 2014. Ukraine had also ousted its pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2013 after a people’s revolution. While the singer denied any political messaging in the song, its entry managed to ruffle feathers in the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Russia and Ukraine faced off again in Eurovision 2017. After its 2016 win, Ukraine hosted the competition the following year, and it denied entry to specially-abled Russian Eurovision contestant Yulia Samoylova. Ms. Samoylova had reportedly toured Crimea with her music in 2015, violating a Ukrainian ban on all travel to Crimea while it remained under Russian control. Russia retaliated by not airing Eurovision 2017 on its public broadcasting network.

How has politics shaped Eurovision?

Over the years, research on participation and voting patterns in Eurovision has indicated that Eurovision is not merely a singing contest but an event influenced by the politics and cultural identities of the participating countries.

Starting with a small pool of participants, Eurovision grew in popularity as post-World War Two Europe sought to regain its identity. Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the newly independent Post-Soviet states flocked to participate in the ESC as they built new, unique identities. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Eastern Europe countries, too, increased their participation. The contest soon expanded to some Mediterranean countries as well.

Besides Ukraine, performers from many countries have used the Eurovision stage to raise political and social issues. According to Eurovision expert Dan Vuletic, one of the oldest of these instances dates back to 1976, when Greece’s song entry protested the Turkish invasion of Cyprus.

In 2009, Georgia’s song entry “We don’t wanna put in” was seen as an indirect reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s six-day war in Georgia, where he called for the “independence” of the separatist South Ossetia enclave. Following objections from Russia, the EBU decided that the song was against its rule of political messaging and asked Georgia to change its entry. The country was disqualified after it refused to do so.

The longstanding political rivalry between Armenia and Azerbaijan has also played out in Eurovision. In 2009, reports emerged of the Azeri police questioning some citizens for voting for Armenia’s Eurovision entry ‘Jan Jan’.

Studies done on fan voting patterns in Eurovision have revealed that voting blocs have formed in the contest over the years based on political allegiances, common cultural grounds or just proximity. This has also been one of the reasons the singing contest has drawn criticism. One of the most prominent examples of this has been Greece and Cyprus frequently giving each other’s entries the highest votes. According to Mr. Vuletic, voting blocs have also been formed in the Balkan States, between former Soviet Union states, Britain and Ireland, and Francophone European countries.

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