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Ukraine's Controversial Participation History at Eurovision

16 May 2022
By Sarah Jenkins
Eurovision Song Contest 2017 Preliminary Days.
Source: Alina Vozna.

Winning on its second attempt, and never failing to qualify, Ukraine is Eurovision’s golden child. However, Ukraine’s participation has never been without controversy, and 2022 is no exception.

Eurovision is over for another year. The wacky and wonderful song contest has given the world ABBA, Celine Dion, and Riverdance. First started in 1956 to bring Europe together following World War II, Eurovision prides itself on its self-appointed apolitical status. Given the complex geopolitical relations between participating nations, its apolitical aspirations are sometimes implausible. Since Ukraine’s first participation in 2003, Eurovision has given the world huge insight into Ukraine’s political events for the last 19 years. As war rages in Ukraine, all eyes have been on this proud nation’s 2022 entry as it battles for its very survival.

Early controversy

In only Ukraine’s second year of competing in 2004, Ruslana took out the competition, with her song “Wild Dances.” Upon returning home, Ruslana became a national hero. She received the title of People’s Artist of Ukraine and was appointed as an advisor to the Ukrainian prime minister. However, the custom is the winning nation hosts Eurovision the next year, and months before Kyiv was set to host the contest, thousands of protesters took to the streets to protest the 2004 presidential election in what is now known as the Orange Revolution. Ruslana was one such protestor. While the show went off without a hitch following the Supreme Court’s decision to overrule the presidential election results, the protests bled into Eurovision in another way with the 2005 Ukrainian entry “Razom Nas Bahto” (“Together We Are Many”). The song was an unofficial anthem of the Orange Revolution and contains direct lyrics such as “truth be the weapon, we ain’t scared of the guns.” Due to the political nature of the lyrics, officials required GreenJolly to rewrite the song to fit within Eurovision rules.

In 2007, Ukraine came close to achieving its second victory with drag queen Verka Serduchka. Eurovision has long been a home to the LBGTQIA+ community. For more conservative nations, this link has caused significant public and political debate, and Serduchka was heavily criticised. Serduchka’s “Dancing Lasha Tumbai” was also accused of phonetic resemblance to the phrase “Russia Goodbye,” a reference to Russian-linked interference in Ukrainian politics. Despite the controversy, “Dancing Lasha Tumbai” is a Eurovision classic. Fans love when Serduchka or her song make appearances at subsequent contests.

Fallout from the invasion of Crimea

In 2013, President Victor Yanukovych chose to stall a European Union trade deal, choosing instead to join Russia’s trade alliance. Consequently, anti-government protests erupted throughout Ukraine again, leading Yanukovych to deploy the Ukrainian military to disperse protesters. In February 2014, Yanukovych was removed from office by parliamentary vote. By March, Russian troops moved into Crimea, with President Vladimir Putin claiming to be recognising the rights of Russian-speakers in Crimea and southeast Ukraine.

Internally, Ukraine moved to restrict the movement of peoples into Ukraine who had travelled to Crimea from Russia. On 4 June 2015, Resolution 367 was adopted by Ukraine’s parliament, declaring that entry to Crimea could legally only occur through Ukrainian borders. Entry to Crimea from any other point but Ukraine would result in deportation and a five-year ban from Ukraine. Despite the invasion, Ukraine still awarded points to Russia’s Tolmachevy Sisters in the 2014 contest.

In 2015, Ukraine withdrew from the competition for the first time, citing political and financial pressures connected to the ongoing conflict. Russia, meanwhile, came second with Polina Gagarina’s “A Million Voices” – a song about unity and peace.

Ukraine returned for 2016 with the highly controversial “1944” covering the 1944 Stalinist deportation and genocide of Crimean Tatars, a practice seeing a resurgence following the annexation. Russia decried the song was overtly political and against Eurovision rules, to no avail. Under the new voting scheme, which saw jury and public votes separated, Russia won the public vote, while Ukraine came second. However, due to Ukraine also coming second to Australia in the jury vote, Ukraine was the overall winner.

Ukraine’s Crimean Entry Laws caused significant problems for its 2017 hosting duties. Russia announced Yuliya Samoylova, who uses a wheelchair, as its representative. However, Samoylova was banned from entering Ukraine for three years, as she had performed in Crimea by entering through Russia. This put Ukraine in an incredibly tricky position. Was Ukraine right to enforce its laws, or would it be acceding that Crimea was no longer Ukrainian if it didn’t ban Samoylova? Russia sending a woman with a disability who had broken Ukrainian law was an ingenious ploy. The EBU offered various measures to ensure Russia’s participation, but neither Ukraine nor Russia were prepared to compromise. Eventually Russia pulled out. Samoylova returned the following year in Lisbon but failed to qualify for the grand final.

In 2019, Ukraine pulled out of Eurovision after its national final winner Maruv was questioned about her views on Crimean possession and subsequent contract disagreements. The following year, aspiring Junior Eurovision contestant Maksym Tkachuk was barred from participating in Ukraine’s national selection for having performed in Russia and Crimea.

In 2020, “Solovey” by Go_A, an electro-folk band, would have been the first entry to be sung entirely in Ukrainian. However due to COVID-19, the contest was cancelled for the first time since its inception in 1956. Go_A was invited to return in 2021 with the track SHUM. Ukraine came second in the public vote, and fifth overall.

Eurovision 2022

This year, Alina Pash won the Ukrainian national final on 12 February with “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors,” and Ukraine jumped to second in the betting odds. Two days later, Ukrainian activist Serhii Sternenko uploaded a video to YouTube claiming Pash had entered Crimea from Russia in 2015 and faked her documents to participate in the national final. The Ukrainian State Border Guard Service was requested to verify the documentation and its records showed that Pash had entered Crimea from Ukraine. Unfortunately the Border Guard was not able to verify Pash did not break the law beyond reasonable doubt. Pash subsequently withdrew and was replaced by Kalush Orchestra with “Stefania.”

Two days after Kalush signed the representative contract, Russian troops entered Ukraine. Ukraine jumped from seventh to first in the betting odds. The EBU did not immediately bar Russia from participating, holding that the event is non-political. Within a day, however, ten nations expressed concerns, with some threatening to withdraw or to not broadcast the Russian entry. The EBU was forced to suspend the Russian broadcasters, meaning Russia could no longer participate nor broadcast EBU material. Meanwhile, Kalush members were granted direct amnesty from Ukraine’s conscription to travel to Turin.

As the 2022 contest kicked off, images circulated of the Ukrainian commentator and 2017 host Timur Miroshnychenko covering the contest from a Kyiv bomb shelter. Multiple performers carried Ukrainian flags alongside their own. Ultimately, Ukraine returned its third win in 19 years. Receiving 439 points out of a possible total 468 in the televote, Ukraine has set the record for the highest televote in Eurovision history. However, this win raises several questions. Could Kalush have won without the invasion, which jumped their odds? Even for the public, rap is not a traditional top performer in Eurovision. Can Eurovision continue its line of being apolitical? And if Ukraine is still under siege next May, which nation will put their hand up to host in Ukraine’s stead? No matter the answer, Eurovision’s apolitical claim appears to be in tatters, and Ukraine’s participation record is as controversial as ever.

Sarah Jenkins is studying a Bachelor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Canberra. She is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs’ National Branch for winter 2022.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.