Political controversies in the Eurovision Song Contest

The Eurovision Song Contest is an international song competition organised annually by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) which features participants representing primarily European countries. One of the stated aims of the contest is that the event is of a non-political nature, and participating broadcasters and performers are precluded from promoting or referring to anything of a political, commercial or similar nature during the contest. However, several controversial moments have occurred since the event’s creation in 1956, which have included political tensions between competing countries being reflected in the contest’s performances and voting, disqualification of entries due to political references in song lyrics, and demonstrations against certain countries competing due to said country’s politics and policies.

Armenia and Azerbaijan. The continuing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has affected the contest on numerous occasions since both countries begun competing in the late 2000s. In 2009 a number of people in Azerbaijan who voted for the Armenian entry were reportedly questioned by Azeri police. Armenia’s entry to the 2015 contest received a name change following claims that it contained a call for recognition of the Armenian genocide, in contradiction to the contest’s rules regarding political messaging in competing songs. Controversy erupted again in 2016 when Armenia’s Iveta Mukuchyan was shown waving the flag of the Republic of Artsakh, also known as Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway state internationally recognised as a part of Azerbaijan but largely inhabited by ethnic Armenians, at the contest’s first semi-final. This again contravened Eurovision rules on political gestures and resulted in disciplinary action being levied against Armenian broadcaster ARMTV.

Russia and Ukraine. Interactions between Russia and Ukraine in the contest had originally been positive in the first years of co-competition, however as political relations soured between the two countries following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the prolonged conflict in Eastern Ukraine, so too have relations at Eurovision become more complex. In 2016, Ukraine’s Jamala won the contest with the song “1944”, whose lyrics referenced the deportation of the Crimean Tatars. Given the recent events in Crimea, many saw this song as a political statement against Russia’s actions, however the song was permitted to compete given the perceived historical nature of the song despite protests from the Russia delegation. Calls for a Russian boycott of the 2017 contest in Ukraine were dismissed, however their selected representative for the contest in Kyiv, Yuliya Samoylova, was subsequently banned from entering Ukraine due to having performed in Crimea in 2015 and entering the region illegally according to Ukrainian law, by entering the region directly from Russia rather than going through Ukraine. Offers for Samoylova to compete remotely from a venue in Russia or for a change of artist were rejected by Russia’s Channel One, with Russia eventually pulling out of the contest and the EBU reprimanding Ukrainian broadcaster UA:PBC and threatening to exclude Ukraine from future contests.

Georgian withdrawal in 2009. Georgia’s planned entry for the 2009 contest in Moscow, Russia also caused controversy: in the aftermath of the Russo-Georgian War in 2009, Stephane & 3G were selected to compete with the song “We Don’t Wanna Put In”, however the EBU objected to the lyrics as they appeared to criticise Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Requests by the contest’s organisers for the lyrics of the song to be changed were refused by the group, and Georgian broadcaster GPB subsequently withdrew from the event. A number of boycotts of the same event were considered by the Baltic states over Russia’s actions in Georgia, however none eventually occurred, with Estonian broadcaster ERR hosting a poll on its website to gauge public opinion on competing in Russia. 

Israeli participation. Israel first competed in the contest in 1973, becoming the first Middle Eastern country and the first country from outside of Europe to enter. Its participation in the contest over the years has been at times controversial, but it has remained a regular competitor in the contest and been crowned the winner on four occasions. The country’s first appearance was marked by an increased security presence at the contest venue in Luxembourg City than what would have been considered normal in the early 1970s, coming less than a year after the Munich massacre where 11 members of the 1972 Israeli Olympic team were killed by Palestinian terrorists. Armed guards were stationed at the venue, and the audience in attendance were warned not to stand during the show at the risk of being shot. 

The contest was regularly broadcast in the Arab world during the 1970s, however as many of these countries did not recognise Israel, their broadcasters typically cut to advertisements when Israel performed. When in 1978 it became apparent that Israel was on course to win the contest, the broadcast in many of these countries was cut short before the end of the voting, with Jordanian broadcaster JRTV explaining the end of their transmission as due to “technical difficulties” and concluding its transmission with an image of a bunch of daffodils; Jordanian media later announced that Belgium, the eventual runner-up, had won instead.

Israel’s participation in the contest means that many Arab states that are eligible to participate in the contest choose not to do so, however a number of attempts have been made by some of the countries to enter. Tunisia had applied to take part in the 1977 contest, and had been drawn to perform 4th on stage, but later withdrew. Morocco competed for the first, and as of 2021 the only time, in 1980 when Israel had withdrawn from the contest due to it being held on the same night as Yom HaZikaron.[a] Most recently, Lebanon had signed up to compete in the 2005 contest, and had selected “Quand tout s’enfuit” as its debut entry, to be performed by Aline Lahoud. After being told by the EBU that they would have to broadcast the entire programme in full, including the Israeli entry, Télé Liban responded that they could not guarantee this as it would be incompatible with Lebanese law. The broadcaster therefore withdrew their entry, resulting in sanctions from the EBU due to the late withdrawal.

Israel has hosted the contest on three occasions, and due to the preparations and rehearsals which accompany the contest, and the Saturday evening timeslot for the grand final, objections from Orthodox religious leaders in the country regarding the potential interruption to the Sabbath have been raised on all three occasions. In 1979 these objections were largely ignored and preparations for the contest were held mostly unchanged from standard, however Turkey was pressured into withdrawing from the contest by Arab states who objected to a predominantly Muslim country taking part in Israel. Objections were again raised in 1999 with regards to the contest being held around the Sabbath, as well as criticism levelled against Dana International, the contest’s first trans winner, leading to an attempt to stop the contest being held in Israel at all. However, all of these criticisms were in vain and the contest went ahead as planned in Jerusalem. 

Eurovision Song Contest 2019. Most recently, in 2019, a number of controversial incidents occurred in the run-up to that year’s contest in Tel Aviv. Requests were once again received from Orthodox leaders that the contest not interfere with the Sabbath, with a letter penned by Yaakov Litzman, leader of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, to several government departments demanding that the contest not violate the holy day. Shalva Band, one of the competing entries in the country’s national selection for that year’s contest, ultimately withdrew from contention when told that, should they win, they would be required to perform in rehearsals on the Sabbath; the group ultimately performed as an interval act during the contest’s second semi-final.

The 2019 contest in Israel also saw calls from a number of different groups for a boycott of the event, which included proponents of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in response to the country’s policies towards Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as in opposition to what some see as Israeli “pinkwashing”. However, many others also campaigned against a boycott of the event, asserting that any cultural boycott would be antithetical to advancing peace in the region. Most notably, the Icelandic entrants Hatari raised banners showing the Palestinian flag as their televoting points were announced in the final.

Notes:

  1. ^ The night of the 1980 contest, 19 April 1980, was the start of Yom HaZikaron, the memorial day for fallen soldiers of Israel. Contrary to claims by some sources, it was not Holocaust Memorial Day, or Yom Hashoah, which fell on 13–14 April that year.