The European Broadcasting Union has long mandated that politics should be kept out of the Eurovision Song Contest. The policy has not always worked.
While Eurovision officials have tried to create an inclusive vibe at the event — Eurovision “is about unity around values, not division through politics,” Martin Österdahl, the song contest’s executive supervisor tells Billboard — politics have nevertheless crept into the event, at which more than 40 countries participate.
Sometimes the political spats have focused on an internal matter, such as song lyrics, and sometimes they involve an external situation outside of the contest, like when one country’s song was used as a coded signal for a military coup.
This year’s event in Turin, Italy, has not been an exception. One day after invading Ukraine — the largest conflict in Europe since World War II — Russia was banned from the 2022 contest by the EBU, which expressed concern that Russia “would bring the competition into disrepute,” says Österdahl.
Russia suspended its membership in the EBU one day later, on Feb. 26, saying that “broadcasters see Russia’s withdrawal from the competition as an ‘inappropriate political sacrifice’ in a music forum that has always emphasized its non-political status.”
With the song contest now underway, and Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra still the oddsmakers favorite to win it all, Billboard looked at other political skirmishes over the contest’s 66-year history.
1974: A Portuguese Military Coup
In 1974 – the same year that ABBA claimed victory for Sweden with “Waterloo” – the Portuguese entry, “E Depois Do Adeus” by Paulo de Carvalho, tied for last place. Exactly 18 days later, at 10:55 p.m. local time, a Lisbon radio station played the song as a coded signal to military forces to begin a coup that would topple the country’s authoritarian government.
2000: Reconciliation Over Cyprus
On July 24, 1974, Turkish military forces invaded Cyprus, ultimately occupying a portion of Northern Cyprus. Some 26 years later, in May of 2000, delegations from Cyprus and Turkey were staying in the same hotel in Stockholm for that year’s Eurovision when one afternoon members of both delegations found themselves in the lobby at the same time.
“I remember a deep yearning to connect with my Turkish colleagues,” Alex Panayi, a Cypriot singer, recalls. Panayi had sung for Cyprus in the 1995 contest and he and Christina Argyri were representing Cyprus in 2000 as the duo Voice. Pinar Ayhan was singing for Turkey.
“Dr. Sühan Ayhan, the composer of the Turkish entry, had his guitar in hand and started playing a popular Greek song,” Panayi says. “And then like magic, Pinar and I and everyone else burst into song and dance in the lobby of the hotel. They knew our songs! We ended up in each other’s arms, sobbing, trying to heal the wounds of the lost generation of the war. It felt like I had been reunited with my long-lost family.
“I truly hope the wounds of the tragic Russian invasion of Ukraine don’t have to last as long as they have in Cyprus which, 48 years later, is still under Turkish occupation.”
2005: Lebanon Is Denied Its Debut Over Anti-Israeli Action
In its more than six-decade history, Eurovision has consistently added new countries to the list of participating nations. Lebanon was set to make its debut in 2005. Aline Lahoud was chosen to represent her country with “Quand Tout S’enfuit.” In December 2004, Lebanon announced it was withdrawing because of financial considerations, but five days later the country came to an agreement with the EBU that would allow them to participate.
There was another stumbling block. The state-owned broadcaster, Télé Liban, was planning not to air the Israeli entry due to Lebanese law prohibiting the airing of Israeli content on the government station. That violated EBU rules and Lebanon was forced to withdraw, with a three-year ban. Lebanon has never returned to the contest. Lebanese-born artist Mika. who wanted to represent his country in 2008, has been named one of the three hosts for the 2022 competition in Italy.
2019: Iceland Is Fined For Promoting Palestine
In 2019, Iceland sent the techno/punk rock band Hatari to Eurovision. Known for their pro-Palestinian stance, the group had spoken about “Israeli occupation” and were warned by the EBU not to bring their political sentiments to the contest. Jon Ola Sand, then-executive supervisor of the contest, told them that if they did they would be disqualified.
Hatari did not make any political statements during their performance. But during the reporting of the votes, when cameras found them in the green room, they held up the flag of Palestine. The EBU fined the Icelandic broadcaster, RÚV, 5,000 euros ($5,260).
2021: Belarus Struggles to Find a Non-Political Song
For the 2021 contest, Belarus’ entry was a song by the band Galasy ZMesta which mocked protests against the country’s authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko. The EBU said the song, “Ya nauchu tebya” (I’ll Teach You), “puts the non-political nature of the contest in question.”
The EBU asked Belarus to rewrite the lyrics or submit a different song. Lukashenko also made it known that he wanted the Belarusian state broadcaster to submit a different song. Galasy ZMesta submitted another song — “Pesnya pro zaytsev” (Song About Hares) — but the EBU also considered it too political for mentioning the opposition forces in Belarus and for an alleged homophobic reference, which the band claimed was merely ironic.
The EBU suspended Belarus’ membership and they were asked to respond to stay in Eurovision. When no response came, the EBU expelled Belarus.