Politics crossed borders on Saturday night and invaded the Eurovision stage, not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, writes Ben Robertson from Riga.
The ESC Insight team were present in Latvia for the final of Dziesma 2014 this Saturday, 22nd February… the same day as the news from Ukraine that the President had been removed from power after demonstrations and killings on the streets lasting many weeks. Latvia, being of course a fellow satellite state in the former Soviet Union, does share plenty of cultural identity to Ukraine, in particular with their fight for national identity. This can most clearly be demonstrated by the 2012 referendum Latvia held where the motion was to include Russian as an official second language of the nation, which was heavily defeated.
While watching the dress rehearsal in the afternoon, both myself and Ewan noticed some particularly odd staging from some acts. Ralfs Eilands, as known from last year’s Latvia representatives PeR, was opening the show with the already politically charged song ‘Revelation’. At the end of the song it was clear that the cello from Valters Pūce, was going to be smashed in the performance, but this was held back from the rehearsal, and the rest of the performance was as in the semi-final.
Equally intriguing, was the performance of band MyRadiantU, who during the middle section of their song covered their eyes with their hands for no obvious reason.
Both of these acts performed with Ukrainian flags on their hands during the live show, clearly visible to the audience in the arena and on the TV screens. Furthermore, not only did Valters smash the cello in the performance of Revelation, but Ralfs changed the lyrics of the final minute into Latvian, clearly mentioning Ukraine in the performance. Fellow band Eurošmits also had the Ukrainian flag visible in their performance, this time on the back of their guitar whilst on stage.
There was no attempt from the production team to hide these from the show once on stage.
The Insight team interviewed some of those involved after the show. Firstly, we were lucky enough to speak to Ralfs Eilands, and to ask him about the show he put on stage.
“The idea today was that we had the only song not about singing and dancing and having fun, we had one about serious political stuff. Revelation is about the fight against the system like in Ukraine, although it’s not written about that. We have had issues in Latvia with the supermarket Maxima and their horrific incident, so I stated at the end in Latvian why we believe in this phrase that ‘everything will be ok,’ the one that is told to us by the system. We should fight against it”
“Revelation was revolutionary on Facebook and Twitter about the show but not so much in the voting sadly. We crashed the cello to symbolise the anger and that you can sacrifice something so sacred, something so special for a better change.”
I asked what message they wanted their performance to send to Ukraine. “We support Ukraine,” Eilands enthused, “and we hate mass murderers like their former President.”
Ralfs message here was backed later in the show, when he burned a piece of paper with former President Yanukovyck’s name attached.
We were also able to talk to the lead singer of the band MyRadiantU, Janis Driksna, about why he performed on stage with the Ukrainian flag:
“We did this to give support for Ukraine in the fight for human rights in their fight for a free nation. We kind of escaped the same situation with the discussions about Russian as a second language a few years ago. I wouldn’t want to see Latvia in the same place [as Ukraine] 10 years down the road. There are lots of layers to the conflict, basic human rights, freedom of voice. I hope the message I give is of support towards the average Ukrainian who is fighting for their freedom of speech and for democracy.”
I asked Janis if the production team knew of his plans to do this on stage.
“No, they knew about that we would do the gesture, but not that the flags would be visible until the final moment.”
This final point was confirmed during the after show party, when Zita Kaminska, the Head of Delegation for Latvia in Eurovision and the co-ordinator of their national selection, confirmed that the crew were not aware of this taking place.
“This is a live show, and it is quite a democratic country. Each artist used his or her stage time as they used it. We did not know about it and they [the artists] were free to speak.”
None of the three acts involved in these gestures reached the SuperFinal of the final three entries to fight out for their place to go to Copenhagen, and the sugary sweet and politically inoffensive ‘Cake to Bake’ won the final of Dziesma 2014. However, we can note that (and that the juries were watching and scoring on the same performances as the TV show).
Regardless of results, it was clear that these artists were united in their emotions that they wanted to make a point to Latvia, if not the whole of Europe, that they were offering a hand of unity alongside the people fighting for their voice to be heard in Ukraine.
It is also clear that, while not condoning such actions, LTV did not stop this as a broadcaster of the show. Indeed, it can be commented that there was little fuss at all about such actions, which if performed on a Eurovision stage would have severe impacts on the Latvian delegation.
While speaking to Insight two days after the Latvian final, Zita commented that it was only us that have asked at any point about the publicity of the Ukrainian flags. No other journalists or management in LTV or other bodies have asked her yet about how and why the incident happened in the show, this despite the political news covering the Sunday newspapers in Latvia, and the show still being shown on Latvia’s main channel on Saturday night.
This may show a political and cultural tolerance here in Latvia for making a stand on the public stage about such issues, but also it demonstrates the unity that many of Russia’s satellite states do have for each other in times in need. This goes beyond giving each other 12 points in the Song Contest; this instead is a real politics and a real show of friendship and messages of support. That this barely bats the eyelids of commentators and officials in Latvia shows that here Eurovision can be a platform to express such issues.