Jamala’s win last year set the stage for more strained politics, which have surfaced in the months leading up to Tuesday’s contest. In March, Ukraine banned Russia’s contestant, Yuliya Samoylova, from entering the country to participate because she visited Crimea in 2015 after it was annexed by Russia. Barring Samoylova, who has used a wheelchair since childhood, has created a public-relations headache for Ukraine—and it’s been argued that was part of the point. According to the BBC, “some suspect Moscow knew what would happen when it chose [Yuliya] Samoilova, knowing that she had travelled to Crimea.” While Russia has protested Ukraine’s decision, it has refused to replace her, saying she will go on to represent her country in next year’s Eurovision contest. Russia also rejected Ukraine’s offer to have her perform remotely, and has since announced it will not broadcast the contest at all.
This is the first year a country has banned another nation’s contestant, and Eurovision’s organizers are not happy that their event seems to be the new continental theater in which Ukraine and Russia’s drama plays out. But it’s certainly not the first time international confrontations have factored into the competition. From Georgia’s 2009 withdrawal over a restricted song that subtly protested Vladimir Putin to the outcry over human rights abuses in Azerbaijan (where the contest took place in 2012), the concert meant to showcase European talent and unity often features an unspoken, but not necessarily unsung, political undercurrent.
Americans might view Eurovision as an annual oddity: It’s where Sweden’s ABBA got its start with “Waterloo” in 1974 and where Austria’s bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst won 40 years later. But the contest’s history provides an illuminating perspective on postwar Europe. Eurovision started in 1956 as a way to help unify the continent in the aftermath of World War II. As William Lee Adams, a close observer and obsessive chronicler of Eurovision, wrote for The New York Times, it began as a decidedly less flashy affair, with “women in ball gowns singing classy chansons.” Only decades later did it transform into a showcase for nationalism on psychedelics: Every year features outrageous sequined and bejeweled costumes and set designs (not the least of which included a man in a giant hamster wheel).
In part, the breakup of the U.S.S.R. offered a chance to reconceive the contest as former Soviet countries began participating. Since the end of the Cold War, Eurovision has served as a form of “cultural diplomacy of East European states in order to express their aspirations for European integration,” according to the European Commission’s study of the event. Participation can also offer an opportunity for building national prestige; as The Atlantic explained in 2014, “The contest, much like Miss World, the World Cup, and the Olympics, is a stage for countries to come out to the world after years of oppression, and showcase the first flushes of independence.”