Eurovision winner.

Photographer: ONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images

Eurovision's Music Drowns Out Politics

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Ukraine may not be able to win its wars against Russian-backed rebels and against domestic corruption, but it has just beaten Russia in spectacular fashion at the Eurovision Song Contest. The political message has been amplified by the pundits, but the Russians and Ukrainian voters themselves seemed unwilling to be dragged into the propaganda war.

Gone are the days when the Eurovision selected musical stars of the future, winners like ABBA, Celine Dion and France Gall. Today's winners may see their work on the charts the year of their triumph, but they're usually forgotten soon afterwards. Yet the quasi-athletic and political sides of the competition have increased in importance since the post-Soviet and former Yugoslav nations started taking part, and voting their sympathies and resentments as if the music didn't matter.

This year, Eurovision outdid itself. The contest has rules against political content, and in 2009, its governing body disqualified the (highly danceable) Georgian entry "We Don't Wanna Put In," because its reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin was somewhat thinly veiled. In March, however, the organizers accepted the Ukrainian submission for this year, a song by Susana Jamaladinova, aka Jamala, called "1944."

You can judge for yourself whether the lyrics of the first verse, which Jamala claims is about the forced deportation of Crimean Tatars by Stalin in 1944, amount to "political speech":

 When strangers are coming/ They come to your house, They kill you all / and say, / We’re not guilty / not guilty

It's not as though Stalin or his henchmen ever addressed the question of guilt. Putin has condemned the 1944 deportation. He had, however, repeatedly denied using the Russian military to occupy Crimea in 2014 before a hastily called referendum on joining Russia was held and then used to justify Russian annexation. He later admitted that Russian troops were used in Crimea, but not in eastern Ukraine, where there is strong evidence regular Russian units won the key battles for the secessionist rebels.

So there's no doubt in Ukrainians' or Russians' minds about why Jamala, daughter of a Crimean Tatar father and an Armenian mother, decided to bring this particular song to the European contest this year. When Ukraine chose it as its 2016 entry, Ruslana, the politically active singer who won the Eurovision contest for Ukraine in 2004, said the song channeled the "pain of losing Crimea" and a top Russian legislator publicly expressed hope that Eurovision would disqualify it. 

The Russian entrant, Sergei Lazarev, who became the bookmakers' favorite during the contest, sang a ballad about love and separation; but he, too, has something of a history with the Crimea annexation. In 2014, a Ukrainian TV host asked him whether he considered Crimea Russian, and he answered quite emphatically that he didn't, that he considered it Ukrainian and that he didn't feel the same euphoria as the majority of Russians about the peninsula's "return." Later, Lazarev claimed his remarks had been taken out of context and edited. He now says Crimea's new status is something to get used to.

Despite the flip-flop, the Russian establishment rooted for Lazarev. Anger and disappointment greeted his third place and Jamala's victory. "A victory was important for our country to show Europe our openness, that nobody's burning anyone at the stake here, that we're about civilization and cultural values," wrote the pro-Putin tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda. There was no official reaction to Jamala's victory, but Ruslan Balbek, deputy head of Crimea's Russian administration called Jamala "a hostage to the political games the West has unleashed against Russia."

Others claimed that the new rules introduced this year had ensured Jamala's victory. In previous competitions, text message votes from viewers (who are not allowed to vote for their own country) were lumped together with votes from professional judges, mostly musicians and TV personalities. Now the jury votes are announced separately at the very end to maintain the suspense. And it is clear that it was the judges's votes that handed Jamala the win, while Lazarev won the popular vote:

Jamala, the Professionals' Choice
The Ukrainian Eurovision contestant lost the popular vote to the Russian one but won on judges' votes
 
Source: Eurovision

It's possible that the judges in Poland, Latvia and Georgia -- all Ukraine's staunch allies in its fight to break away from Russia's orbit -- were swayed by political considerations. They gave Jamala full points. But the judges in Serbia, Israel, Moldova, Macedonia and tiny San Marino, who also gave Jamala 12 points each, can't be considered anti-Russian a priori. Jamala didn't get any points from the judges in France and got a middling seven in Germany, so the judges in the European Union's leading members didn't really conspire to impose musical sanctions on Russia. It's conceivable that most of the judges who voted for Jamala simply liked her powerful voice, her jazzy vocalizations and the exotic chorus of the song, which she delivered in the Tatar language. 

In "old Europe," the voting public didn't particularly care for either of the political rivals. But on Ukrainian social networks Jamala's performance gave rise to enthusiasm befitting a major military victory, including emotional congratulations from President Petro Poroshenko. Since Ukraine will now have to host next year's contest, calls were heard for holding it "in Ukrainian Crimea."

Squabbling between Ukraine and Russia over the 2017 competition is only just beginning. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin suggested sending dirty-mouthed rock singer Sergei Shnurov to represent Russia: "He won't win, but he'll tell them what they can do to themselves." (Shnurov hated the idea). Ukrainian legislator Anton Gerashchenko warned Russia that it will only be able to send contestants who are not on Kiev's blacklist for supporting the Russian aggression against Ukraine. Putin's press secretary Dmitri Peskov responded that Ukraine would have to follow Eurovision rules and let in whomever Russia would choose. 

None of this is about music -- and little of it is about how ordinary people in Russia and Ukraine really feel. Russian voters gave Jamala 10 points, almost the maximum. Ukrainians gave Lazarev the full 12. Some Ukrainian commentators have already suggested that the voting was falsified, but any Russian who has traveled to Ukraine since the Crimea annexation will attest that Ukrainians have retained their friendly attitude toward guests from across the eastern border. Russians have never stopped liking Ukrainians too, despite the waves of propaganda washing over both nations. It's the governments and the more militant "patriots" that have made an industry of hating each other. Those who send text messages to vote for a song they like appear to want no part of this. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net