Italy will host the final of the 66th Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday evening with a country notably absent: Russia was excluded from the competition in February following its invasion of Ukraine. Despite contest organizers’ insistence that the contest is an apolitical event, the conflict in Europe looks set to dominate the public vote.
Bets are already underway on the results of the Eurovision Song Contest 2022 final, which will take place on May 14 in Turin, Italy. Sweden and last year’s winners Italy are among the bookmaker’s favourites, with both countries taking part in love ballads that generally go down well in the competition. Another favorite to win is Ukraine, represented by a less traditional favourite: folk rap group Kalush Orchestra.
Ukraine’s status among the favorites is undeniably linked to the war waged on its territory by Russia. Since Russian troops entered Ukraine on February 24, Russia has faced international sanctions and been banned from participating in sports competitions around the world. The day after the invasion, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which owns the rights 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 bid in this year’s contest would bring the competition into disrepute,” the EBU said in a statement.
Songs are often rejected from the Eurovision Song Contest for being too political, but it’s rare to see a country disqualified for its political stance. The last time this happened was almost 30 years ago, in 1993. Following United Nations sanctions, 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 did not cause controversy among fans. “Most fans thought it was the one and only thing to do,” said Simon Bennett, chairman of OGAE International, a Eurovision fan group with national committees in 43 countries. “No one was happy with [the ban] at all, but most people thought it wouldn’t be appropriate for Russia to compete.
The EBU also quickly reached a consensus on Russia, says Eurovision historian Dean Vuletic. “The pressure came from within the EBU, particularly from the Nordic countries, who threatened not to participate if Russia was allowed to stay,” he explained. “And it was more important for Eurovision to have Sweden than Russia.”
Sweden is one of the most prolific Eurovision winners, having won the contest six times, most famously in 1974 with ABBA’s ‘Waterloo’.
The exclusion of Russia this year is the accumulation of years of tension with Ukraine which played out on the Eurovision stage. In 2014, Russia was not officially excluded from the event following its annexation of Crimea, but was hampered by Ukraine in the years to come.
The next time Ukraine entered the competition after annexation was in 2016, when it was represented by Jamala, a singer of Crimean Tatar origin. Her song “1944,” which commemorated the historic deportation of her people from Crimea, won the competition.
As the winners, Ukraine hosted the competition the following year and tensions with Russia grew. Ukrainian organizers refused to allow Russian disabled singer Yulia Samoilova to enter the country on the grounds that she had performed in Crimea since annexation and therefore broke Ukrainian law. Russia refused to send another artist or participate remotely, which means a de facto exclusion from the final.
Tensions between the two countries were also visible in previous Eurovision Song Contests. “It started much earlier, with the Orange Revolution,” Vuletic said. In 2004-2005, a presidential election widely seen as rigged in favor of pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych sparked protests in Ukraine. “One of the spokespersons [for the revolution] was singer Ruslana,” Vuletic said. That same year, Ruslana won the Eurovision 2004 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 reward the winner and extol European values. Ruslana later became an MP and was heavily involved in Ukraine’s Maidan revolution in 2014, protesting the government’s 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 ready to use the Eurovision Song Contest for political purposes. “The motivations are similar in sport and Eurovision”, explains Lukas Aubin, specialist in Russia and the geopolitics of sport. “These events are a way for countries to highlight their national identity, build a narrative and improve their image. This is the definition of soft power.
Ukraine is not the only country to do so. “Russia has instrumentalized the Eurovision Song Contest for a long time, investing a lot of money in participation, producing very lavish entries, with expensive stage effects,” Vuletic said. 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 took a more critical stance on Eurovision and its LBGT values in particular, indicating a change in attitude. “The contest is very popular in Russia and former Soviet countries,” Aubin said. “But the Russian authorities are opportunistic and want to participate in Eurovision to show their best side. Then as soon as they are criticized or excluded, they play the victim and criticize the contest.
When Ukraine won content with Jamala in 2016, “it was seen as an insult to Moscow,” Aubin said. This year’s exclusion from the contest fits perfectly into a Russian narrative that the West is hostile to Russia. Ultimately, “Eurovision is seen as a weapon of Western soft power,” Aubin said. Thus, Russia’s relationship with the West defines its attitude towards Eurovision.
“In favor of Ukraine”
Meanwhile, Ukraine continues to use the contest to build its own image on the international stage. Her entry this year is a mix of rap and traditional Ukrainian music titled “Stefania.” “The song was created before the war, but in the context it took on a patriotic twist,” Vuletic said.
In the song, the lyrics are addressed to a mother. The group sings: “I will always find my way home, even if all the roads are destroyed. It’s hard not to associate the words with the images of destruction that have come out of Ukraine in recent months.
At the same time, the Ukrainian authorities pointed out that the members of the group had received special permission to travel to Italy for the contest, while other Ukrainian men in their age group were banned from leaving the country. , in case they are needed for the war effort.
For many, it will be impossible to dissociate Ukraine’s performance at Eurovision from the context of the war.
“The public vote on television will likely be overwhelmingly in favor of Ukraine to show support,” Bennett said. Public voting will open after the acts occur in Saturday’s final, but half of all points are awarded by a professional jury, which is harder to predict. Especially since the Ukrainian entry isn’t a typical treat for Eurovision crowds. “If it was a normal year, we wouldn’t be talking about Ukraine winning,” Bennett said.
Victory or not, the group should perform well at the time of the final in Turin. The event is typically watched by over 200 million people in over 30 countries each year. As such, “Ukraine doesn’t need to win the Eurovision Song Contest to win Russia here,” Vuletic said. “He won the day Russia was banned.”
This article has been translated from the original in French.