In their clip, six men dressed in traditional togas sing on stage this heady refrain sung in Ukrainian, against a background of folk flutes: “Stefania mum, mum Stefania/The field is blooming, your hair is turning gray/Sing me a lullaby mum/I still want to hear the sound of your voice. » Then, one of them, wearing a pink bucket hat down to his ears, grabs the microphone, releasing a nervous hip-hop flow: it’s Oleh Psiuk, the leader of Kalush Orchestra, the Ukrainian group, bookmakers’ favorite for the Eurovision final, scheduled for May 14, in Turin.
Russia is excluded: no microphone this year for the Russian invader who will not be able to send his candidate, his delegations, or even vote. ” Fearing controversy, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), organizer of the competition, only took this decision 24 hours after the invasion of Ukraine, under pressure from the Nordic countries., indignant Benoît Blaszczyk, secretary of the French branch of the General Organization of Eurovision Amateurs (OGAE), which brings together 13,000 members through 43 clubs around the world. For fear of offending the Russians? Not only. Because, behind the scenes, other interests are at stake: “Russia is a big contributor, in terms of spectators, for this show which costs the “Big 5” (France, Germany, England, Italy and Spain, automatically qualified) the equivalent of a program broadcast in prime time on a Saturday evening”he explains.
“It’s worse than during the Cold War”
Excluding Russia means depriving yourself of broadcasters and millions of Russian viewers among the 200 million who watch the show, the second largest television audience in the world after the football World Cup. “It’s worse than during the Cold War when between East and West, we exchanged at least programs, watching Eurovision together, a symbol of cooperation”recognizes Dean Vuletic, researcher at the University of Vienna and author of books on the geopolitics of Eurovision.
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Unfair to Russian artists, who have multiplied calls for peace? “Better to close it, if you don’t want to die or lose your job”, confided to his European counterparts, a Russian representative of the OGAE. A humiliation, this sanction for Russia? A big blow for his image, especially. ” Eurovision is a tool of cultural diplomacy and propaganda for countries, a demonstration of soft-power”, continues Dean Vuletic. And when it comes to promoting its image, Russia knows how to impress: in 2009, it invested 42 million dollars to host the competition in Moscow. When Azerbaijan broke all records in Baku, in 2012, with 76 million dollars…
If the war brutally interfered with the menu of the festive singing competition, nothing new under the spotlights of Eurovision, heckled since its creation in 1956 by the conflicts. It was however designed to promote peace between peoples, in the midst of European construction. It is the war that poisons almost every edition. “The EBU must therefore face up to perilous situations”, recognizes Benoit Blaszczyk. In 1993, it was under Serbian fire that Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina went to compete, while the EBU had excluded Yugoslavia. In 2008, it was in Russia that Georgia had to go, after clashes with the Russian army in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, unpinning a small disco bomb We Don’t Wanna Put In, which irritated the Russians. “We don’t want Putin”, they thought they heard. To spare its host, the EBU had asked Georgia to modify its text, recalling that“no speech (…) of a political nature is permitted”. Which, offended by censorship, had slammed the door.
“This evasion by the EBU clearly reflects the complexity of relations between Europe and Russia”, explains Farouk Vallette, editor-in-chief of Cocoricovision magazine, dedicated to Eurovision. Between Ukraine and Russia, the contest has even become a ground for geopolitical clashes. In 2015, after the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the Russian candidate Polina Gagarina will be hissed on stage, while the Ukraine, absent, will take its revenge the following year, with the song 1944 by Jamala which, denouncing the deportation of the Crimean Tatars by Stalin, will win the day. Before banning, once she became a host, the disabled Russian candidate – a purely political choice of the Russians, according to the Ukrainians – entered illegally through Crimea. “The EBU threatened to exclude Ukraine, until Russia withdraws”continues Benoit Blaszczyk.
The war in Ukraine should thus influence the results of the 66th edition? This is what the bookmakers, the foreign bettors, say, who have placed Ukraine at the top of the list of favorites, with a 54% chance of winning. Far ahead of Great Britain (11%), Italy (9%) and Sweden (8%), according to Eurovisionworld. While France, with the Bretons Alvan & Ahez, would only arrive tenth. “The spirit of solidarity between neighboring countries should play, between the votes of viewers and the jury”, believes Benoit Blaszczyk. Scandalous? “When the Greek and Cypriot juries exchange their 12 final points, it doesn’t shock anyone! », he replies. A classic even, since the distribution of countries within blocks, sharing the same language or region. “The Lithuanian, Polish and Georgian juries could thus award their 12 points to Ukraine”he predicts.
Ukrainian song, between tradition and modernity
Nevertheless “this context-driven political support challenges the values of independence and diversity championed by the competition”, indignant Dean Vuletic. Even if for Ukraine, winner in 2004 and 2016, the victory would not be stolen: “their song mixing modernity and tradition has potential and the explosive performances of the Ukrainians are always eagerly awaited” believes Benoît Blaszczyk. Except that, according to the votes of 4,400 members of the OGAE, they would only come in 11th position. At the top of the ranking: Sweden, followed by Italy and Spain, with France finishing 6th.
No matter the results “Ukraine has already somehow won”says historian Dean Vuletic, captivated by the group that qualified, when the Russian invasion was imminent and this, after the withdrawal of the candidate Alina Pash, disqualified because of an illegal trip to Crimea in 2015, via Russia. “The members of Kalush Orchestra have obtained special authorization to travel. And better: the exclusion of their Russian rival », he said. Active on social networks, they have established themselves as popular ambassadors of their martyred country, one of them joining the territorial defense unit in kyiv, another bringing together around twenty volunteers to support the victims. While collecting donations during promotional concerts, where they moved the crowds with their lullaby dedicated to the mother of the leader.
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But another question agitates the spirits: in the event of victory, how will Ukraine organize the contest in a country perhaps always under the bombs and ruined? When the organization of the competition amounts to around twenty million euros… “Hosting Eurovision the following year is not an obligation for the winner recalls Dean Vuletic. Another country could be chosen “. We think of Poland, which has taken in 3 million Ukrainian refugees. “I will always find my way home even if all the roads are destroyed”repeats Oleh in his song.