The final of the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest on May 14 marked a rare occasion in the history of this annual spectacle: it anchored a historical date in the minds of the over 200 million viewers across Europe and beyond who watched the event live—and of many more who must have heard or read about it by now.
Ukraine’s winning entry, the song “1944” by jazz singer Jamala, recalls the experience of the deportation of the Crimean Tatar people from Crimea to Central Asia masterminded by Joseph Stalin in 1944. In view of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia’s repression of Crimean Tatar organizations and their leaders, and the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine, the song strongly resonates in Ukraine, Russia, and Europe. Its victory is as much a political message as a vote on musical taste.
However, the contest’s second powerful message was that the public across Eurovision lands also cast a big vote for the Russian entry. In many countries this was not an either-or choice but rather a double endorsement at the higher end of the Eurovision points scale, which runs from one to twelve. Thus, the wider European public has adopted less of a “new Cold War” rhetoric than the political elites—and this can only be a good thing. Even the Russian voting public awarded the Ukrainian singer ten points; and Russian singer Sergey Lazarev received twelve points from the Ukrainian Eurovision electorate.
Sung in a mixture of English and Crimean Tatar, Jamala’s song is about both the personal story of her great-grandmother and the defining element of the Crimean Tatar national memory. The song builds on the storytelling traditions that transmitted the memory of the deportation from generation to generation and provided a powerful momentum for the Tatars’ return to the Crimean Peninsula after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This memory also remained the unifying factor in mobilizing the Crimean Tatars as an effective political force in Crimea and Ukraine as a whole.
The Crimean Tatars, who accounted for about 12 percent of the Crimean population prior to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, have long campaigned for their recognition as an indigenous people with legally guaranteed rights. Since the annexation, the most prominent Crimean Tatar leaders, Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov, have been declared personae non gratae, local Crimean Tatar politicians have been arrested, and the Crimean Tatar radio station has been closed down and now broadcasts from Kyiv. The main representative body of the Crimean Tatars, the Mejlis, has been declared illegal, and an estimated 40,000–60,000 Crimean Tatars have once again left their homes—this time primarily to western Ukraine and Kyiv.
Whatever one thinks of the antics of the Eurovision Song Contest, which was created in 1956 by the European Broadcasting Union as a means of cultural rapprochement in the aftermath of World War II, the competition has always had political underpinnings. Seven countries competed in 1956; this year, there were 42 entries. The definition of Europe reaches even beyond the EU’s or the Council of Europe’s definitions, with Israel and Australia among the participating countries.
Being members of the Eurovision club added weight to the European aspirations of Eastern European countries in the 1990s and early 2000s. In turn, the many Eastern European countries are now shaping the look and voting dynamics of the event. Regional blocs based on neighborhood, similar languages, imperial legacy, and share of immigrants have always dominated the public vote in the participating countries.
These familiar voting patterns were shaken up this year by a new electoral mechanism that filtered the reverberations of the Russia-Ukraine war. The voting innovation split each country’s national jury vote from the public vote. (In previous years, the results of the two votes were combined and presented together.) The national jury votes clearly reflected political divisions over the Russia-Ukraine war and its repercussions. The juries from the Eastern European and post-Soviet countries that have experienced conflict since the collapse of Communism by and large gave their twelve points to Ukraine, signaling a sense of political solidarity. Australia featured repeatedly as a safe jury option to sidestep the choice between Ukraine and Russia. By comparison, the overall public vote put Ukraine in the lead, followed by Russia, Poland, and Australia.
On closer inspection, nothing is as apolitical as critics of this year’s Ukrainian song (mostly, but not only, from Russia) claim when they remind us of the contest’s rule that the lyrics should not be political. This point had already been raised ahead of this year’s competition. The green light for Jamala’s song was justified by a reference to the lyrics referring to “a historical fact,” not contemporary politics. This justification is of course a cop-out—as the contemporary relevance of a reminder of the Crimean Tatar fate is all too obvious. It would have been more genuine of the Eurovision organizers to admit openly that the guiding principle of the separation of culture and politics is a myth.
In 2016, the flashy Eurovision Song Contest took on the role of an alternative opinion poll. It sent out three powerful messages that deserve to be heard at a time when Ukraine and especially the Crimean Tatars tend to drop out of sight. First, the Crimean Tatars were and still are being repressed. Second, through the Crimean Tatars in particular, the issue of Crimea’s annexation by Russia stays alive. And third, the populations of wider Europe—including those of Russia and Ukraine—distinguish between national politics and the people and cultures behind them.