The Eurovision Song Contest, initially founded in the 1950s to unify a broken and divided Europe after the Second World War, is now the biggest music contest globally. It is also where geopolitics is on constant display. People often joke about the competition’s voting sequence, noting that some countries are doomed to fail due to neighbouring countries tending to vote for each other. However, there may be some weight to this claim.
Countries with land disputes or those at war compete against each other, sometimes taking extreme measures to ensure they get the better of their adversary. A country’s political climate in which the contest takes place in a given year is always a topic of discussion in the media across Europe.
With the expansion of the EU in the early 2000s, more eastern European countries joined the contest, resulting in a complicated relationship between the celebration of music and international relations. Azerbaijan entered Eurovision in 2008, following in the footsteps of the near neighbour and enemy, Armenia, who joined in 2006. These two countries entered into a war in the 1990s over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, a region internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but has an ethnic Armenian majority population, with Armenia seeking unification with the area.
The conflict has continued in the region on-and-off in recent years, with the tension and sour relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan spilling over into the contest. In the 2009 edition, the Armenian voting spokesperson had a picture of a monument from Nagorno-Karabakh on her clipboard as she presented the points from Armenia. Unsurprisingly, Azerbaijan saw this as an act of aggression from their foes and punished any Azerbaijani citizen who voted for Armenia in the final.
A BBC Panorama Documentary in 2012 revealed that the police in Azerbaijan arrested 48 people who televoted for Armenia in the 2009 Eurovision and were interrogated by police. The government saw these people as traitors for voting for the enemy. One man interviewed by the BBC said that his vote for Armenia was an act of protest against the government, which in itself was seen by the government as a treasonous act.
This incident highlighted the political weight attributed to the modern contest, but it is certainly not an isolated example. In 2016, the Nagorno-Karabakh situation seeped into the song contest once again. During the announcement of the ten qualifiers for the final from the first semi-final, the Armenian contestant waved the flag of Nagorno-Karabakh/Republic of Artsakh. Following the incident, the EBU stated: "no messages promoting any organisation, institution, political cause or other, company, brand, products or services shall be allowed in the Shows." The EBU reprimanded the Armenian public broadcaster and threatened to ban Armenia from the contest over the waving of the flag.
Some countries articulate political messages quite subtly in their entries. However, this was not the case for Georgia in 2009. In 2008, Russia led an invasion into Georgia, leading to their victory. Following the Russian victory, the song contest was held in Moscow in May 2009. Despite the tensions between the two former Soviet nations, Georgia still intended to compete in Eurovision and selected their entrant, despite calls from the public to boycott the contest.
The group Stephane & 3G won their national final and were destined to represent Georgia in Moscow with the song “We Don’t Wanna Put in.” As the song title suggests, the song was a jab at then Russian Prime Minister (and current President) Vladimir Putin while also being filled with political connotations. The song contained lines such as “We don’t wanna put in… I’mma try to shoot in.’’ The EBU asked Georgia to change the song’s lyrics as they deemed it to be too political. However, the Georgian broadcaster refused to believe there was a political connection to the song and would not change the lyrics. Georgia later withdrew from the competition after the EBU requested a change of lyrics or act due to a breach in rules regarding political content of songs.
In more recent editions of Eurovision, we have seen other controversial acts representing their countries. Iceland’s 2019 entry raised eyebrows at the 2019 contest due to their style of music and their political acts during Eurovision itself. Eurovision 2019 was held in Tel Aviv, Israel, which already was a contentious issue for many. In several competing nations, the public lobbied national broadcasters to boycott the contest due to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with many choosing not to watch the contest.
Hatari, who represented Iceland describe themselves as an anti-capitalist performance art group. Their music can be viewed as industrial and techno, while also incorporating elements of rock - an unusual style for Eurovision. The group made no secret of the fact that they are staunch supporters of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement and the Palestinian cause. When the hosts announced the total amount of points, Iceland received from the public vote, the camera cut to the group who then held up Palestinian flags and banners for the entire world to see. The EBU fined the Icelandic broadcaster for the incident.
The EBU has a strict ‘no politics’ rule regarding the songs that countries enter into Eurovision, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep politics and international relations out of the contest. Old alliances between nations are still noticeable when their voting patterns are closely examined. In 2019, the five members of the Serbian jury gave their 12 points to the act from Montenegro in the semi-final. No other national jury gave Montenegro 12 points and they ended up coming second last in the semi-final, indicating that old Yugoslavian alliances and friendships still remain for some.
Ireland and the United Kingdom continue to exchange points in both the televote and jury vote. On average, the UK gives Ireland the most points and vice versa. Perhaps Eurovision voting can be seen as a way to reduce any tension between nations; for example, Russia continues to give Ukraine high points despite the conflict in eastern Ukraine. However, Ukraine has not always reciprocated this act.
The world of international relations and Eurovision is much more vast than mentioned above; one could write a thesis around the issue, particularly on the desire of Arab nations to enter the contest but their refusal to broadcast the Israeli act should they be accepted. This is clearly a breach of the EBU’s rules. Overall, following the cancellation of Eurovision 2020, music and political enthusiasts alike were no doubt relieved to see the return of the Eurovision Song Contest this year.