On Tuesday, Belarussian state broadcaster BTRC announced it had internally selected the band Galasy ZMesta to represent Belarus at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. The song was promptly published on the official Eurovision YouTube page, and it would be no exaggeration that ‘Ya nauchu tebya‘ (I’ll Teach You) stirred up a remarkable amount of controversy as it attacked the peaceful anti-government protests.
The Belarussian Protests
The ongoing protests in Belarus began in the run-up to the 2020 presidential elections, with the incumbent Alexander Lukashenko – Belarus’ only leader in the post-Soviet era – seeking a sixth term in office. Following Lukashenko’s declaration of his own victory, opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya rejected the results as false.
Lukashenko was inaugurated on September 23rd. The legitimacy of the election and his inauguration was rejected by the EU, which called for new elections and condemned the repression and violence against the protesters.
Since then hundreds of cases of torture and ill-treatment against the protestors have been documented by the United Nations Human Rights Office and the Minsk based Viasna Human Rights Centre. Journalists have been arrested, shot at, and had equipment and data forcibly removed. News websites have been blocked, and foreign journalists removed from the country.
Members of staff in BTRC were forced out or resigned from the state broadcaster, including a number from the Eurovision delegation. Last year’s representatives for Belarus, VAL, supported Tsikhanouskayain the elections and the Belarussian democracy movement that followed. During August, an interview with VAL was published where they stated they had not been allowed to talk to the press. The next day, BTRC announced VAL would not represent Belarus in 2021 because, and I quote, “VAL have no conscience.”
Which brings us back to Galasy ZMesta, a band that has used racist, sexist, and homophobic language, that supports Lukashenko’s election and the use of violence against the peaceful protests; with lyrics that label the protestors as ‘angry hooligans’ who the lead singer will “teach” amid demands they be taught how to ‘toe the line”.
No Place For Politics At The Eurovision Song Contest
The “No politics at Eurovision” rule is, perhaps by design, a grey area that allows the Executive Supervisor to use their skill and judgment. Members of the Eurovision community continue to debate some of the recent edge cases and the calls made by the EBU.
But there can be no doubt that BTRC has broken this rule by some considerable margin.
This week has seen online protests from the community, websites stating that they would limit coverage of the Belarussian entry, Swedish broadcaster SVT removing the Belarrusian jury from this weekend’s Melodifestivalen Grand Final, and no doubt much more discussion between the EBU and its member broadcasters has happened behind closed doors.
Thursday saw the EBU’s unequivocal response:
“As part of the regular procedure for all songs submitted to compete in the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC), the EBU has carefully scrutinized the Belarusian song, Ya Nauchu Tebya (I’ll Teach You) by Galasy ZMesta to ensure it complies with the rules of the competition.
It was concluded that the song puts the non-political nature of the Contest in question.
In addition, recent reactions to the proposed entry risk bringing the reputation of the ESC into disrepute.
We’ve written to the broadcaster BTRC, which is responsible for Belarus’ entry for the Eurovision Song Contest, to inform them that the song, in its present form, is currently not eligible to compete.
Furthermore we’ve requested that they take all necessary steps to submit a modified version, or a new song, that is compliant with the ESC rules.
Failure to do so could result in disqualification from this year’s Contest.”
From the postcards used to promote a country, through the many songs that highlight specific issues, to the simple fact of giving a platform to individual countries as part of an international broadcast; the Eurovision Song Contest is not apolitical.
Eurovision cannot escape its place as a vehicle of soft power; but the Contest must not, cannot, give a voice to an authoritarian regime that suppresses free speech, fair elections, and basic human rights.
And neither will ESC Insight.