Wednesday, August 24, 2016


Eurovision: Will Ukraine-Russia Conflict Strike A Sour Note?

Eurovision 2014 contestants: Russia's Tolmachevy Sisters flank Ukraine's Maria Yaremchuk in a photo that was posted to Instagram by Russian pop star Filip Kirkorov, who penned "Shine," this year's contest entry from Russia.
Eurovision 2014 contestants: Russia's Tolmachevy Sisters flank Ukraine's Maria Yaremchuk in a photo that was posted to Instagram by Russian pop star Filip Kirkorov, who penned "Shine," this year's contest entry from Russia.
By Daisy Sindelar
It's just a song contest -- and a pretty silly one at that. But that hasn't stopped Eurovision fans from wondering whether the intensifying conflict between Russia and Ukraine will dampen proceedings as the annual song contest prepares to kick off in Copenhagen.

The deadly violence in eastern and southern Ukraine -- which Ukraine's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, has slammed as a Russian "war" against his country -- had prompted speculation that the countries might pull out of the frothy competition, now in its 59th year.

But ultimately, both Ukraine and Russia opted to be among the 31 European and quasi-European countries striving to be anointed this year's winner. In fact, the two countries are set to compete virtually back-to-back -- with just one country, Azerbaijan, in between -- when the first 16 candidates perform in the opening semifinal round on May 6.

Ukraine, which has seen several of its past contestants use the Eurovision platform to warble thinly veiled anti-Russian slogans, appears to be playing it safe this year. Its performer, 21-year-old Maria Yaremchuk, is performing an upbeat love song, "Tick Tock," that appears entirely devoid of political intent.

Still, Yaremchuk -- whose late father, Nazariy Yaremchuk, was a popular Ukrainian folk singer -- says she's been deeply distressed by ongoing events in Ukraine, particularly the May 2 deaths of more than 40 pro-Russian and pro-Kyiv protesters in the southern port city of Odesa. 

"Naturally, we're worried, the whole team," Yaremchuk told RFE/RL one day after the clashes. "Of course it's hard sometimes to concentrate completely on rehearsals when we're at work, since our souls are thinking of home, especially after the terrible events yesterday. But that's not going to stand in our way, by any means. To the contrary, it forces you to be stronger."

Russia, for its part, has put forward doe-eyed twins Anastasia and Maria Tolmachevy, who first came to prominence as winners of Junior Eurovision in 2006. 

Now 17, the smiling blond sisters have taken on the considerable task of softening Russia's image abroad, even if their otherwise cottony ballad, "Shine," may strike some Ukraine-watchers as cutting a little too close to the bone with lyrics like: "living on the edge, closer to the crime, cross the line a step at a time."

Paul Jordan, a British academic researcher and devout Eurovision fan who goes by the sobriquet "Dr. Eurovision," says he's heard anti-Russian grumbles in recent weeks among the Eurovision community, not only for its stance on Ukraine but for its sweeping antigay legislation. Still, he believes the choice of the Tolmachevy Sisters is an astute one.

"It's looking like Russia's going to get out of a rough ride with the audience at Eurovision, which consists mainly of gay men," he says. "There's a debate now amongst the Eurovision community whether people should be booing two teenage girls who are singing quite a sweet song. But is that a deliberate choice by Russia? Certainly it looks like they know what they're doing." 

It remains to be seen how the Ukraine-Russia conflict will play out when it comes to Eurovision voting, in which countries, which cannot vote for themselves, traditionally favor near neighbors in a kind of geographic cronyism. (Arch rivals Azerbaijan and Armenia are one notable exception.) 

The "vote for your neighbor" tendency became so notorious that in 2009, Eurovision officials opted to restore juries that now hold 50 percent of the vote, with the public holding the remaining 50 percent. The final tallies are then compiled and awarded according to a 12-point system, 12 being the maximum, zero the minimum.

Jordan notes that in 2005, in the wake of Ukraine's pro-democracy Orange Revolution, Russia granted its neighbor a paltry two points despite having handed it a maximum 12 just a year earlier. Now, with Ukraine experiencing its own bitter internal divide -- and, in the case of annexed Crimea, a slow return to Russian cell service -- it's almost impossible to determine how the votes will split. 
  • The Buranovskiye Babushki were seen as a refreshing change of pace when they sang in their native Udmurt language representing Russia at Eurovision in 2012. A number of the "grannies" were among the cultural figures to sign a letter this year supporting the Kremlin's policy in Crimea.
  • The 2014 contender from Armenia, Aram Mp3, angered Eurovision fans when he made disparaging remarks about the Austrian entry, bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst. Aram later apologized publicly in a televised encounter.
  • Azerbaijan's contender, Farid Mammadov (right), performs in the final in Malmo, Sweden, in 2013. Oil-rich Azerbaijan came under fire when host country Sweden accused it of attempting to bribe jurors in several countries. The scandal forced Eurovision organizers to revise jury voting for better transparency.
  • Eurovision performers are asked to refrain from political activity during the competition. But Swedish singer Loreen, who won the contest in 2012 in Baku, met with Azerbaijani activists before the final, and later traveled to Belarus to meet with families of political prisoners. 
  • Activists attempted to use Baku's 2012 stint as Eurovision host as an opportunity to call attention to the regime's dismal rights record. Here, plainclothes police officers detain protesters outside Azerbaijan's public television station during the week of the Eurovision broadcasts.
  • Azerbaijan is believed to have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on Eurovision preparations, including the construction of the elaborate Crystal Hall venue. Human Rights Watch claimed up to 20,000 people were forcibly displaced after the government demolished their homes to make way for the new building.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin was seen as closely supervising Moscow's lavish preparations to host the competition in 2009. One analyst remarked that Putin saw Eurovision as a chance to promote "national dignity." Here, the president meets Azerbaijan's contenders, Arash (center) and AySel (right). 
  • Georgia's 2009 entry, the pop group Stefane & 3G, was disqualified after its song, "We Don't Wanna Put In," was seen as mocking the Russian president. The competition was less than a year after the Russia-Georgia war over Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  
  • The Ukrainian drag performer Verka Serduchka angered Russians with his 2007 Eurovision song in Helsinki, "Dancing Lasha Tumbai." Serduchka defended the last two words of the title as a Mongolian term for whipped cream -- but many people thought they heard the phrase "Russia Goodbye" come through loud and clear.
  • The Eurovision tradition of neighborly voting can sometimes go to bizarre lengths. In 2007, ethnic Russians rioted in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, after officials relocated a Soviet World War II memorial. Weeks later, the Baltic country nonetheless awarded Russia a maximum 12 points in the song contest. 
  • Armenia and Azerbaijan, by contrast, have almost never voted for each other. Andre, who became Armenia's first Eurovision contestant in 2006, drew howls of protest from Azerbaijan and Turkey when he featured an image of the Ottoman-era Armenian massacre in his promotional video. 
  • In 2009, Azerbaijani authorities called in more than 40 people for questioning after they voted for Inga and Anush, the contenders from rival Armenia. Rovshan Nasirli says his interrogators accused him of having no "ethnic pride" and for posing a national security risk. 
  • The Ukrainian band GreenJolly first became famous when its song, "Razom nas bahato" ("Together We Are Many") became the unofficial anthem of the pro-democracy Orange Revolution in 2004. The band performed the same song when it was chosen to represent Ukraine during its host year in 2005. The performance drew a tepid two points from Russia. 
  • Some countries have been known to throw in a last-minute political gesture as a way of dodging Eurovision constraints. Wig Wam of Norway produced an orange flag to signal its support for host Ukraine in 2005. 

Eurovision officials firmly defend the nonpolitical nature of the contest, saying it is meant as a unique opportunity to bring the pan-European family together in a carefree celebration of fluffy pop music and extravagant costumes.

Even so, says Jordan, politics is all but certain to shape the results both in the semifinals as well as the the May 10 final, when 16 countries fight for the right to host Eurovision's 60th birthday party next year.

"It's meant to be a television show, it's meant to be light entertainment," says Jordan, who picks Greece rather than Russia or Ukraine as a possible favorite to win. "But really, the existing tensions within Europe manifest through Eurovision, and especially through the voting. This is despite the backdrop of Eurovision being nonpolitical. It's inherently political, whether the organizers like it or not."
Valentin Baryshnikov of RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report
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