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Eurovision: If Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra triumph it won’t be a sympathy vote, says an expert

Dr Catherine Baker, Reader in 20th Century History on the politics behind this year's Eurovision Song Contest.

Voting in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest on May 14 in Turin may look different for one specific reason – neither Russia or Belarus are taking part.

Ukraine’s folk-rap band Kalush Orchestra has qualified for the final. But the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which organises Eurovision, ruled that no Russian act would be able to participate this year, after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In 2021 the EBU rejected Belarus’s entry, which mocked protesters against the Lukashenko regime, and has since suspended Belarus’s broadcaster BTRC from the EBU.

Under Putin, Russian state broadcasting has heavily invested in its Eurovision entries with the goal of winning and hosting the contest, what could be called “stagecraft in the service of statecraft”.

While voting dynamics will be altered by the absence of Russia and Belarus, voting patterns in Eurovision had already been shifting since Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 – and have always been subject to change.

Even the contest’s famous system of awarding one to 12 points from each country only dates back to 1975, and its most significant change, the introduction of public telephone and SMS voting, was phased in between 1997 and 2003. From 2003, almost every country had replaced its juries with televoting.

This move to public voting by telephone coincided with a striking change. None of the winning countries from 2003 to 2008 had won Eurovision before, and many of the televote era’s highest-scoring acts came from countries which had once been part of Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union. Ukraine won for the first time in 2004 with only its second entry. Russia won for the first and only time in 2008.

Every central and east European country in Eurovision has struggled against widespread western prejudices that their region of Europe was not fully European or was lagging behind. Turkey, Greece and Finland, which also became debut winners in this period, had been in Eurovision for longer but also existed on Europe’s periphery in many western eyes.

These non-traditional winners’ dominance culminated at Eurovision 2008, where no western European countries placed in the top ten.

There was growing resentment in western European media about “political voting”. In response, Eurovision votes since 2009 have been awarded 50% by public vote and 50% by small juries of music professionals from each country.

Shared musical tastes
Many viewers comment on alliances between countries, and academics have also been curious about whether voting alliances can decide a Eurovision result. One study argued in 1995 that jury votes in 1975-1992 could be broken up into western, northern and Mediterranean blocs. In 2006, as Eurovision expanded east, another study used statistical simulations to argue there were coalitions within regions such as the Nordic and Baltic countries, the Balkan countries, and the area of Russia, Poland, and Ukraine. Geographers Adrian Kavanagh and Caoilfhionn D’Arcy pointed out in 2021:

"While it is fair to note that certain countries still tend to award high numbers of televote points to the same countries every year, these trends probably reflect factors such as shared music markets and cultural commonalities, rather than politics".

Cyprus and Greece famously exchange 12 points whenever they can, but this is connected to them sharing a language and a popular music industry. In the states that were formerly part of Yugoslavia, the sounds and, often, singers of Eurovision entries already have cross-border appeal, For instance, Croatian viewers surprisingly gave Serbia-Montenegro 12 points in 2004 despite the 1990s’ war.

The end of the Soviet Union in 1991 created a similar shared cultural space between former member nations. When Verka Serduchka represented Ukraine at Eurovision 2007, for instance, she was a household name in Russia as well. Before 2014, Russia and Ukraine almost always exchanged at least seven or eight points, but the aggression of Putin’s regime has undermined this.

Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 left its mark on Eurovision when the EBU rejected the 2009 Georgian entry, which broke Eurovision’s rule against political messages with an anti-Putin statement. After Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Donbas, Ukrainian security services started banning Russian entertainers who had supported Putin or illegally visited Crimea from entering the country. When Kyiv hosted its second Eurovision in 2017, the Ukrainian ban stopped Russia’s intended Eurovision representative, Yulia Samoilova, from attending.

New Ukrainian language laws introduced in 2019 have also limited the reach of Russian-language music and media, making space for more Ukrainian-language content. Political scientist Tatiana Zhurzhenko views these measures both as defence against Russian “hybrid warfare” and as expressing a new cultural revival after the Euromaidan period, a wave of protests and calls for greater democracy in Ukraine.

Voting trends from the 1990s and 2000s have already stopped being useful guides to Eurovision scores. Ukrainian and Russian juries have not exchanged any points since the annexation of Crimea, though their public votes did continue giving each other’s songs some points.

Immediately after Russia invaded Ukraine this year, it seemed uncertain whether Ukraine could even take part. Even after Ukrainian forces had halted the first Russian offensive against Kyiv, martial law in Ukraine would technically have prevented the all-male Kalush Orchestra from travelling to Eurovision, since men of military age are banned from leaving the country. By endorsing their travel, the Ukrainian state has recognised that Eurovision’s public diplomacy value for Ukraine is far more than what any six soldiers could achieve on the ground.

This year’s Ukrainian entry is Ukraine’s third entry in a row to be completely in the Ukrainian language, following the electronic folk band Go_A’s two entries in the cancelled 2020 contest and in 2021. Both bands come from a music scene dedicated to mixing traditional and contemporary Ukrainian music genres.

In my opinion if Kalush Orchestra do win Eurovision 2022, it will be down to the strength of their song’s concept and performance, not primarily voting alliances or sympathy. Ukrainian acts have been among the Eurovision favourites for years. Ukraine has won Eurovision twice in the 21st century – last time in 2016 with a song alluding to the annexation of Crimea – and came second in last year’s public vote.

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