Ukraine's Crisis Comes to Eurovision

The proxy battle pits Russian twins against the daughter of a Ukrainian folk singer.

Svetlana Loboda of Ukraine performs during the second semi-final of the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest, in Moscow. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

It's just a song contest—and a pretty silly one at that. But that hasn't stopped Eurovision fans from wondering whether the intensifying conflict between Russia and Ukraine will dampen proceedings as the annual song contest prepares to kick off in Copenhagen. The deadly violence in eastern and southern Ukraine—which Ukraine's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, has slammed as a Russian "war" against his country—had prompted speculation that the countries might pull out of the frothy competition, now in its 59th year.

But ultimately, both Ukraine and Russia opted to be among the 31 European and quasi-European countries striving to be anointed this year's winner. In fact, the two countries are set to compete virtually back-to-back—with just one country, Azerbaijan, in between—when the first 16 candidates perform in the opening semi-final round on May 6.

Ukraine, which has seen several of its past contestants use the Eurovision platform to warble thinly veiled anti-Russian slogans, appears to be playing it safe this year. Its performer, 21-year-old Maria Yaremchuk, is performing an upbeat love song, "Tick Tock," that appears entirely devoid of political intent:

Still, Yaremchuk—whose late father, Nazariy Yaremchuk, was a popular Ukrainian folk singer—says she's been deeply distressed by ongoing events in Ukraine, particularly the May 2 deaths of more than 40 pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian protesters in the southern port city of Odessa.

"Naturally, we're worried, the whole team," Yaremchuk said one day after the clashes. "Of course it's hard sometimes to concentrate completely on rehearsals when we're at work, since our souls are thinking of home, especially after the terrible events yesterday. But that's not going to stand in our way, by any means. To the contrary, it forces you to be stronger."

Russia, for its part, has put forward doe-eyed twins Anastasia and Maria Tolmachevy, who first came to prominence as winners of Junior Eurovision in 2006. Now 17, the smiling blond sisters have taken on the considerable task of softening Russia's image abroad, even if their otherwise cottony ballad, "Shine," may strike some Ukraine-watchers as cutting a little too close to the bone with lyrics like: "living on the edge, closer to the crime, cross the line a step at a time."

Paul Jordan, a British academic researcher and devout Eurovision fan who goes by the sobriquet "Dr. Eurovision," says he's heard anti-Russian grumbles in recent weeks among the Eurovision community, not only for its stance on Ukraine but for its sweeping anti-gay legislation. Still, he believes the choice of the Tolmachevy sisters is an astute one.

"It's looking like Russia's going to get out of a rough ride with the audience at Eurovision, which consists mainly of gay men," he says. "There's a debate now amongst the Eurovision community whether people should be booing two teenage girls who are singing quite a sweet song. But is that a deliberate choice by Russia? Certainly it looks like they know what they're doing."

It remains to be seen how the Ukraine-Russia conflict will play out when it comes to Eurovision voting, in which countries, which cannot vote for themselves, traditionally favor near neighbors in a kind of geographic cronyism. (Arch-rivals Azerbaijan and Armenia are one notable exception.) The "vote for your neighbor" tendency became so notorious that in 2009, Eurovision officials opted to restore juries that now hold 50 percent of the vote, with the public holding the remaining 50 percent. The final tallies are then compiled and awarded according to a 12-point system, 12 being the maximum, zero the minimum.

Jordan notes that in 2005, in the wake of Ukraine's pro-democracy Orange Revolution, Russia granted its neighbor a paltry two points despite having handed it a maximum 12 just a year earlier. Now, with Ukraine experiencing its own bitter internal divide—and, in the case of annexed Crimea, a slow return to Russian cell service—it's almost impossible to determine how the votes will split.

Eurovision officials firmly defend the non-political nature of the contest, saying it is meant as a unique opportunity to bring the pan-European family together in a carefree celebration of fluffy pop music and extravagant costumes. Even so, says Jordan, politics is all but certain to shape the results both in the semi-finals as well as the the May 10 final, when 16 countries fight for the right to host Eurovision's 60th birthday party next year.

"It's meant to be a television show, it's meant to be light entertainment," says Jordan, who picks Greece rather than Russia or Ukraine as a possible favorite to win. "But really, the existing tensions within Europe manifest through Eurovision, and especially through the voting. This is despite the backdrop of Eurovision being non-political. It's inherently political, whether the organizers like it or not."

This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.