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Ukraine's Jamala Wins Eurovision, As Russians Cry Foul

  • RFE/RL

Jamala, a 32-year-old singer from Ukraine, has won the Eurovision Song Contest with a song about the mass deportation of Crimean Tatars by the Soviet Union during World War II.

Her song, 1944, is one of the most controversial winners in the competition's history due to its political undertones. Eurovision is Europe's largest television event. Russians cried foul and claimed political bias.

Jamala was declared the winner early on May 15 after she received 534 points at the grand final held in the Swedish capital, Stockholm, in a vote from juries and television viewers.

Organizers ruled that her song did not violate Eurovision rules banning performances containing "lyrics, speeches, or gestures of a political or similar nature."

She had dedicated her song to her great-grandmother, who was deported to Central Asia in 1944 along with the entire Crimean Tatar people -- the peninsula's indigenous, predominantly Muslim population.

Many of the 250,000 deported died during the journey or perished from hunger and disease following their arrival.

Crimean Tatars were not allowed to return to Crimea until the late 1980s.

Jamala has said her song is also a condemnation of Crimea's annexation and the repressions that Crimean Tatars, who have staunchly opposed the Russian takeover, have since endured.

Russians sounded off on social media and elsewhere, saying the tune was blatantly political.

Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, joked sarcastically that to win next year's contest, the winner will need a song to denounce "bloody" Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian leader is supported by Moscow but blamed in the West for Syria's five-year civil war.

Konstantin Kosachyov, the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Russia's upper chamber of parliament, said "according to the tally of points, it was geopolitics that gained the upper hand."

The Eurovision victory, he also said, could embolden Ukraine's pro-Western leadership and therefore threaten the peace process in war-torn eastern Ukraine.

"For that reason, Ukraine lost. And not only its long-suffering budget," he wrote on Facebook.

On the eve of her win, Jamala had said the latest series of searches and arrests of Crimean Tatars on May 12 made her song "more relevant."

"I'm sad about the things currently happening in Crimea. I hope everything will be OK," she said.

WATCH: Russian TV Doesn't Get Ukraine's Eurovision Entry

Jamala, whose real name is Susana Jamaladinova, was born in Kyrgyzstan, the country to which her family was exiled during World War II.

Her family has since returned to Crimea. Jamala, however, has not gone back to the peninsula since its annexation. Her parents and extended family still live there.

Her song, which used English lyrics with a chorus sung in Crimean Tatar, began with: "When strangers are coming, they come to your house, they kill you all, and say, 'We're not guilty, not guilty.'"

Collecting her award on stage, Jamala pleaded "peace and love to everyone" and cried, "Glory to Ukraine!"

WATCH: Jamala performs 1944:

Australia's Dami Im finished second with 511 points, and Sergei Lazarev of Russia was third with 491 points.

Lazarev was the bookmakers' favorite to win the contest. He has drawn criticism in Russia over a 2014 interview in which he spoke out against Crimea's annexation. He has also been critical of his country's homophobia.

The vote followed performances by the 26 finalists at Stockholm's Globe Arena.

The show was broadcast to an estimated 200 million viewers across Europe, China, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.

Despite organizers’ efforts, politics often creep into Eurovision songs and the performances. In an earlier round of this year’s competition, Armenia’s contender waved a flag for Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azerbaijani territory claimed by Armenians, and organizers warned she could be banned from the stage.

Notwithstanding the tensions between the countries, large numbers of Russian voters supported the Ukrainian song, awarding it 10 points. Ukrainian voters, meanwhile, gave Russia's entry 12 points, the maximum.

The juries from Russia and Ukraine did not award each other any points.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko hailed Jamala's "unbelievable performance and victory."

"All of Ukraine gives you its heartfelt thanks, Jamala," he tweeted.

WATCH: Jamala Returns To Hero's Welcome In Ukraine

Arriving at Kyiv's Boryspil Airport on May 15, where she was greeted by scores of singing and cheering fans, draped in blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags, she said the win was double-edged.

"I think it's a big opportunity for us and at the same time it is a huge responsibility because Europe trusted us," she said.

Jamala's Eurovision victory was a second for Ukraine, which first won in 2004.

The country that wins Eurovision gets to host it the following year, an expensive endeavor. Russian state television, reporting on Jamala’s victory, questioned how Ukraine would be able to host the contest next year, when "there is a hole in the budget, a war is being waged in the east, and in the capital there is often disorder."

With reporting by AP, AFP, and dpa

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