Is there something in the air about the 2012 Contest? There’s certainly a lot of tension about as people prepare to head over to Azerbaijan. But as Dr Paul Jordan explains, the tension has always been part of the Eurovision story…
Critics of The Eurovision Song Contest argue that the competition is inherently ‘political,’ that the winner is decided through the mutual agreement of allies, that the voting is neighbourly, and benefits countries with large diasporas. This rhetoric is hardly anything new but such sweeping statements largely ignore the complexities that make up the European political scene today. Europe as a political, economic and social construct is ever-changing. Some of the tensions and conflicts which have taken place have of course been reflected in the Contest itself despite the event being, to use the official EBU line, ‘non-political’. When these issues do manifest themselves, controversy is never far away.
But does it always have to be so divisive? Can The Eurovision Song Contest be used as a force for good in helping to foster community relations?
Everyone must be aware of the tension between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but this state of affairs is not unique. Over the years, other countries have seen Eurovision dragged to the front line of politics. Look at the situation three years ago.
Georgia initially refused to take part in Eurovision 2009 in Moscow as a result of the war with Russia in South Ossetia the previous August. Other countries including the Baltic States tentatively considered boycotting the event as a protest at what they saw as Russian aggression. By early 2009 Georgia confirmed their participation in the event. However the song, “We Don’t Wanna Put In” from Stephane & 3G, was largely seen as a swipe at Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and deemed to the “too political” by the EBU. The Georgian broadcasting authorities were asked to change the lyrics of the song or submit a different entry. The Georgian Public Broadcaster declined to do this and Georgia therefore did not take part that year.
Israel is a country which is no stranger to controversy in Eurovision. Even as far back as 1978 political disputes came to the fore. It is reported that when it became apparent that Israel were going to win the contest that year, many Arab states cut the transmission. At the 2000 contest Israeli representatives, Ping-pong, waved Syrian flags during rehearsals. Israel and Syria were officially in a state of war at the time and Israel’s then Deputy Education Minister, Shlomo Yahalom called for the group’s participation to be banned claiming that they failed to represent national values.
The waving of the Syrian flag during rehearsals on Israel’s Independence Day, May 10th, in particular, caused further upset to officials who publically boycotted the group leaving them to cover their own expenses. Despite threats from Israeli broadcasting officials to ban the group from performing altogether, they appeared at the 2000 Contest and waved the Syrian flag along with the Israeli flag in a call for peace. In 2005 Lebanon withdrew from the contest after it emerged that the national broadcaster, Télé-Liban planned not to screen the Israeli entry, contravening the official contest rules.
What about a bit closer to home then? The UK has a chequered history when it comes to global politics, no more so than with near neighbour Ireland. Towards the end of the 1960s trouble was brewing in Northern Ireland and tensions between Dublin and London were growing. After Dana’s victory in the 1970 contest the event was held in Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre in 1971. The Troubles had started and there was concern amongst the UK delegation that a British artist would become a potential target for paramilitaries.
The BBC opted for a Northern Irish artist, Clodagh Rogers, in the hope that this would receive a warmer reaction. It is reported that Clodagh received death threats for singing for the UK. Whilst political tensions have continued over the decades, relations in Eurovision have steadily improved. Fast forward to today, the UK and Ireland are practically voting allies. Indeed in 2004 the UK saved Ireland from the dreaded nil points. Similarly Ireland have voted for the UK entries when others have not (2007, 2010 being the strongest examples of this).
Could it be that Eurovision can be used to help foster positive relations between countries? Relations between the UK and Ireland are arguably the best they’ve ever been. The visit by the Queen to Ireland last year highlighted how far things have come. To quote “The Queen” (@Queen_UK) on Twitter, when speaking of the state visit to Ireland, “If this doesn’t get us 12 points from Ireland at next year’s Eurovision Song Contest, one doesn’t know what will”.
International relations between Greece, Turkey and Cyprus have been difficult to say the least since the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. This had a direct and immediate impact on Eurovision after Greece withdrew from the contest in 1975 when it was announced that Turkey would enter, and neither country took part in the same contest until 1978. The Greek entry of 1976, “Panaghia Mou, Panaghia Mou” (My Lady, My Lady) was a direct protest against the Turkish invasion. The lyrics included references to napalm ruins and fields of refugees. It shows how symbolic the contest is in terms of nationalist politics as neither country was willing to share the same stage.
Greece and Cyprus have become infamous for awarding each other the maximum twelve points every year whilst giving very few, if any, to Turkey. When Cyprus broke with tradition in 2003 and awarded eight points to Turkey, it did not go unnoticed when the spokesperson declared “Europe, peace to Cyprus, Turkey eight points”. Thus the political relevance of the gesture was flagged, representing a change in the way the relationship between Cyprus and Turkey is imagined. It is noteworthy that this occurred at a time when both sides of the divided island were moving closer together as a result of the ongoing peace talks. Similarly, points exchanged between Greece and Turkey has increased in recent years, it is no longer unusual for Greece and Turkey to vote for each other in the contest. According to Oxford Musicologist Ioannis Polychronakis this has been attributed to the so-called ‘earthquake diplomacy’ after Greece sent substantial aid to Turkey following a series of devastating earthquakes in August 1999.
Of course there’s an element of rivalry which remains. When Ireland beat the UK into second place during the 1992 and 1993 Contests there was surely a satisfaction which was even more so simply because it was the UK. Similarly it’s no coincidence that Greece upped their game in Eurovision following Turkey’s win at the contest in 2003. Along came the big hitters; Sakis, Elena, Anna. Previously both countries had not fared too well in Eurovision in recent times (with the exception of 1997 and 2001). Since 2004 they are both regularly seen as front-runners to qualify to the final and even to win outright. Is it the diaspora talking or the fact that they simply make more effort nowadays?
Of course one of the more complicated and perplexing situations to emerge from conflict has been the participation of former Yugoslav states in the Eurovision Song Contest: Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia and of course the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Or is it just Macedonia? Even the name is enough to start arguments!). Whilst politically they might be worlds apart, Serbia being seen as a somewhat pariah state until the downfall of Milosevic in 1999, Eurovision unites them. Many of the states of the former Yugoslavia vote for each other.
This is not necessarily a political act per se, more of a shared love of a particular kind of music. Dino Merlin for example, is huge in Slovenia, Serbia and Croatia. As a result he received points from those countries. If we go back to the earlier days though, Eurovision was so much more than just a song contest to these countries; it was a platform for presenting themselves to the world on their own terms, countering the negative coverage from the television news at the time.
At the time of the 1993 contest the war in the Balkans was raging on and this was given particular attention in the songs from Bosnia Herzegovina and Croatia, who along with Slovenia were making their debut at the competition. At a press conference a member of the Bosnian delegation highlighted the significance of the event for the country.
“We have many problems to come here [to Eurovision]. We go out from the surrendered city, running across the runway in the middle of the night, through grenades, through snipers. We risked our lives to be here to show the whole of the world that we are just normal, peaceful people in Bosnia Herzegovina and that we just want to live in peace and to do our jobs” (as seen in the documentary “Why Not Millstreet?” aired by RTE in 1993).
The comments from the Bosnian delegation therefore highlight the significance of the ESC in terms of flagging ones ‘normal’ or ‘European’ credentials. In this context the delegation from Bosnia Herzegovina sought to portray their country as an ordinary European state despite news reports in the wider press suggesting otherwise. The entries from both Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina reflected the turmoil in each country. The Bosnia Herzegovina entry was entitled “Sva Bol Svijeta” (Pain in the world) The Croatian effort, “Don’t ever cry”, had similar undertones and told the story of a young man, Ivan, who died in the war. Furthermore, Slovenia which had largely escaped the bloodshed of the war made no reference to the conflict in their Eurovision debut.
1994 saw the Bosnia-Herzegovinian Eurovision entry receive rapturous applause from the audience even before the song had been performed. When the Bosnian jury were called in to give their votes they were greeted with thunderous applause which continued for so long that the voting had to be paused and restarted when the audience had quietened. Again in 1995 there was a similar reception for the Bosnian spokesperson. The backdrop featured a curtain with “XXI” written in what appeared to be blood. The Bosnia Herzegovina entry of that year was entitled “21st Century” and so the symbol which featured during the voting can be seen as a clear reminder to the rest of the world from Bosnia, that the war and bloodshed was continuing, Eurovision was an avenue for this form of “social reminder”, keeping the war in the European public consciousness. At the Eurovision Song Contest in 1996, special mention of the Bosnian situation was made in the programme booklet produced for that year:
“When the head of the jury in Bosnia Herzegovina calls, we suddenly get the feeling that the Eurovision Song Contest is something more than the world’s oldest television programme. When he says “good evening Oslo” from his war-devastated capital and is met by spontaneous applause from the concert hall, then we really understand the whole idea behind the programme”.
The examples cited in this article have shown that political conflict has been reflected in Eurovision but so too has reconciliation. Understandably there has been speculation that the on-going tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan will have an impact on Eurovision in 2012, but there has always been speculation between countries throughout the history of the Song Contest.
Before the Eurovision Song Contest finals though, there are the various national selections around the continent. This is where conflict and tensions truly come to the fore… amongst Eurovision fans! Who should have won Melodifestivalen? Who should have a key change? Why didn’t the jury vote for the schlager stomper? It seems that when it comes to Eurovision, things change and some things always stay the same, be it between the fans, or the countries taking part!
When it comes to Eurovision, that history book on the shelf is always repeating itself…