Sunday, 20 May 2012

The Revolutionary Power of Eurovision

by Anna Bazley
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Millions of people worldwide will be tuning in to the Olympics when they are held in London in 2012; millions of tears will be shed, hearts broken and column inches written on how the Olympics is a ‘great spectacle’ and ‘brings people together’. However, there’s only one international event that’s worth watching this year. It’s not the Olympics.

Though frequently characterized in the United Kingdom as either a mindless, tacky exercise in camp or yet another exclusive European club, dogged by political voting, from which the UK remains alienated, Eurovision (the final of which takes place on Saturday, 26th May) has the power to revolutionize attitudes and heal political rifts. Though not without its fair share of controversy, the contest, at its best, represents everything that is best about Europe. It was certainly conceived as a grand idea; the contest has been broadcast to members of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) since 1956, when a war-torn Europe was still intent on rebuilding itself. In 1955 the EBU set up a committee to conceive of a ‘light entertainment program’ that could bring the disparate countries of the EBU together. The brainchild of the Swiss Director General, Eurovision represented a great diplomatic and technological experiment, the idea of broadcasting a single programme live to so many countries being virtually unheard of. Such a great and visionary project could never be expected to come off without a hitch.
Lys Assia of Switzerland wins first Eurovision, 1956
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The first edition of the contest consisted of seven participating countries, with each entry submitting two songs. Appropriately enough for a contest meant to embody the new peace and harmony of a re-born Europe, it was won by Switzerland. 1992 marks a watershed moment in the history of Eurovision and Europe as a whole. It is the last year before the admittance of the former Soviet satellite states and Socialist Republics, as well as the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, previously the only Communist country permitted to enter. During the Cold War, Eurovision had played an important role as Western propaganda, with millions of homes in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary within the range of transmission. Despite the best efforts of the Communist Parties of the region, Eurovision gained a cult underground following.
Azerbaijan's Ell and Nikki win 2011 Eurovision
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The Contest became so popular that the Soviets created their own version in 1960, the Sopot International Song Festival (later known as the Intervision Song Contest). This contest differed from Eurovision in a number of ways; firstly the content of songs was heavily censored to reflect Soviet values and ideology and, secondly, due to the limited number of households with telephones, in order to vote viewers were instructed to turn on their lights if they liked the song. The load on the electrical network would then decide the number of points awarded to each country. Unsurprisingly, Intervision failed to capture the public’s imagination in quite the same way.

The Balkan republics joined Eurovision in 1993, with the countries of Eastern Europe and the Caucuses joining a little while later. In 2001, Estonia became the first former Soviet country to win the contest and subsequently ploughed the entirety of its tourism budget for 2002 into hosting the contest, which broke even, though the benefit to long term revenues is said to have been invaluable. Eurovision became a platform for ‘nation branding’ and this year’s hosts, Azerbaijan, are talking about out-spending the $30 million budget the Russians allotted for their own contest in 2009.

Protester being arrested by Azerbaijani police
However hosting the contest is not all beneficial. The attention afforded Azerbaijan by virtue of being the host nation has led to some uncomfortable scrutiny of the autocratic Government and its decidedly shaky human rights record. The Azeri government is alleged to have forcibly evicted hundreds, if not thousands, of citizens from the centre and from areas around the capital, Baku, in order to make way for a new arena purpose built for Eurovision. This year’s contest has also sparked controversy with the announcement that the Armenian entry has withdrawn over ‘safety concerns’, relating to the ongoing war between Azerbaijan and Armenia for the territory of Nagorno-Karobakh, an occupation that has caused devastating losses on both sides since 1918. The decision comes after the death of an Armenian soldier from an Azeri sniper attack on 23rd February this year.

This is not the only time that political conflict has spilled over onto the Eurovision stage. In 2009, during the 08/09 Russia-Georgia Crisis, Stephane & 3G were selected for the Georgian entry with the song ‘We Don’t Wanna Put In’. The song contained many veiled references to the conflict and some not so subtle, such as the inclusion of the Russian leader’s name in the title. This song was eventually banned by the EBU as violating the rule against ‘lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature’. Georgia withdrew from the contest, whilst the conflict in Southern Ossetia continued.

But the role of Eurovision is not simply as a tool for national propaganda or jibes at conflicting countries. Eurovision has in some areas more than fulfilled the stated aims of the founders to ‘bring countries together’ and promote acceptance and tolerance. Eurovision’s wide gay fanbase has run into trouble on several occasions, most noticeably in Moscow in 2009, when police arrested 40 activists at a demonstration designed to coincide with the final of Eurovision. Yet the visible presence of homosexuality in places where it is otherwise suppressed and silenced can lead to useful consequences. Again, this year’s host country of Azerbaijan has a poor track record on gay rights, with many gay Azeris being forced to flee their homes, yet the hosts will have to welcome the entirety of the Eurovision community if it is to fully capitalize on the contest, and it is hoped this may force discussion, within Azerbaijan and the international community, of Azerbaijan’s human rights record. A group of Azeri human rights organizations have also launched ‘Sing for Democracy’, a campaign during the ten months prior to Eurovision to put pressure on the Government to allow greater socio-economic and political freedom.

Buranovskiye Babushki
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But aside from the wider significance of Eurovision, the political and economic opportunities, Eurovision can be embraced simply because it’s the weirdest night of television all year. Last year’s Moldovan entry involved a fairy on a unicycle during every chorus, this year’s Russian entry, Buranovskiye Babushki, consists of five Russian grandmothers looking to raise money to build a church in their village. Whilst the contest carries great historical and political significance, on the night it’s a party to which the whole of Europe is invited.

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