MOSCOW BLOG: Eurovision's odd odyssey to geopolitics in spandex

MOSCOW BLOG: Eurovision's odd odyssey to geopolitics in spandex
Ukraine's Jamala wins the Eurovision 2016 competition.
By Ben Aris in Moscow May 16, 2016

Before hitting puberty, my little brother used to be able to name all the winners of the Eurovision contest in the last decade, which I always thought pegged the event in terms of its cultural and artistic significance.

But that has changed. Politics invaded the Eurovision song contest again this year, which is culture's lightest-weight event by a wide margin.

Ukraine's Jamala didn't win this year's Eurovision song contest - it beat Russia. And Russia won the popular tele-vote hands down, but was pushed into third place by politically motivated voting by the national juries. Songs were not judged on their merits, but where they came from. Within minutes of the result being announced, Russian state media condemned the event as politicized – and the "1944", but her national judge votes were enough to put her over the top and win.

Eurovision rules preclude political songs and Lazarev's cheesie schlock was an archetype of the accepted genre. But while Jamala's offering was nominally about deportation of Crimean Tatars in the war, it was also a clear reference to recent events. She is a Crimean Tatar, which scores a double sympathy vote following Russia's annexation of the peninsular in 2014 and the subsequent oppression of Crimean Tatars by Russia since. Her lyrics were dark, about death and invasion.

A well known Ukrainian opera and jazz singer, Jamala was at least as professional a performer as Lazarev, and the popular vote suggests the Russian and Ukrainian entries were equally popular with the crowds, but the disparity between the breakdown of the popular and jury votes made the political nature of the voting obvious. Was anyone surprised that Georgia voted for Ukraine and Azerbaijan voted for Russia? Having said that, Ukraine gave its top score of 12 points to Russia and Russia put Ukraine second with 10 points.

The Eurovision song contest is obviously a ridiculous forum for serious international rivalry. It is geopolitics in a spandex leotard covered with rhinestones. Of course art should draw on a composer's emotions for inspiration – but using a word like "art" in the context of the Eurovision sort of sticks in the maw.

The only reason this is worth writing about is not that Eurovision is significant in the confrontation between Russia and the West, but that the political dialog over this problem has fallen to the same spandex-clad level.

On May 13, US Vice President Joe Biden congratulated Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko on the appointment of Yuriy Lutsenko as the country's new General Prosecutor, despite the fact that he has no qualifications for the job other than being the deputy head of Poroshenko’s eponymous parliamentary fraction. (The law even had to be changed to allow the appointment of someone without a law degree to the job of the country's top policeman.)

At one point during Eurovision, assistants rushed out and ripped off Velcro-fastened formal clothes of presenters Petra Mede and Mans Zelmerlow to reveal funky casual wear hidden underneath and they burst into song, but the inane banter and wooden jokes stayed the same. The parallel with the appointment of Lutsenko is obvious and you could play with this imagery all day. 

The bottom line is both Ukrainian politics and the Eurovision should be about the song. The viewers liked the Russian song best, irrespective of politics. The prosecutor general needs to be competent, irrespective of who the national juries are supporting. Trivialising these issues is only going to make things worse. And here the people are running well ahead of the politicians, while Poroshenko seems to have called this one right: his appointment of Lutsenko has shocked the people, but pleased Ukraine's donors.

"Even in an underground gay bar in #Ukraine, #Russia's upbeat #Eurovision entry receives impressed applause," Maxim Tucker, a well-known Ukrainian journalist and gay rights activist, tweeted on the night.

If this anecdote were in the lead of this piece instead of in the kicker, then Eurovision would have been something worth writing about. Instead is a sad comment on the state of play that I felt obliged to deal with the Eurovision contest results at all.