Eurovision Victories from Yugoslavia to Ukraine: the intermingling of politics and theatrics10 min read

 In Caucasus, Central Europe, Culture, Eastern Europe, Opinion, Russia, Southeastern Europe
I love Eurovision for all its wacky and weird performances, with its unique sense of warm-hearted camaraderie at its core. Indeed the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) set up Eurovision in 1956 with the purpose of reuniting Europeans after the trauma of the Second World War. Today it has become one of the most-watched events on the planet. Through a review of past Eurovision winners from Central and East Europe, Russia, the Balkans and the Caucasus, I encountered not only immense entertainment but also insight into the enduring geopolitical considerations behind what are often on the surface frivolous and eccentric performances. 

Despite the vision of peace behind the contest, acts from Soviet Union republics could not participate in Eurovision prior to 1992. However, Yugoslavia did compete after President Josep Tito’s break with Moscow. In light of this, Soviet decision-makers decided to establish a rival singing competition named the Intervision Song Contest in 1961, which ran for twenty years. Nine new Eurovision contestants, including Russia, Poland, Romania and Estonia, entered the competition in 1994 and today 25 states from the former Eastern blocs participate in Eurovision. 

Eurovision after the entry of former Soviet republics has not been without its controversies. After a win by Russia in 2008, the EBU reintroduced jury voting in 2009 due to fears of participants being locked out of the competition if Slavic countries consistently voted for each other. This move intensified a Russian view that the competition was biased against them and contributed to the subsequent Russian decision to resurrect Intervision

This idea was first proposed by Vladimir Putin back in 2009 and in 2014 Russia publicly announced the revival of Soviet-era Intervision. This was justified as a response to Conchita Wurst’s 2014 victory. Six countries announced their participation in the new Intervision: Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and China. On a deeper level, this move was about rejecting the West and spoke more to Russia’s ambitions for a Eurasian union as a counterbalance to the EU. The contest was later aborted and has yet to take place while Russia remains a participant in Eurovision. However, delegations from Bashkortostan, Crimea and Stavropol Krai do participate in the Turkish competitor to Eurovision: Turkvision. 

As someone who has shamelessly added my favourite Eurovision entries to numerous playlists in the past, I have trawled through past winners from Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia to see if there are any hidden gems that could add a cultural boost to my study playlist. Below is a ranking of all eight past winners from the region, based on a highly scientific rating system. In the process, I took into account: if I would add them to a playlist, the visuals that accompanied the song (the performance, album covers, etc.) and finally, that all-important, indefinable sense of “Eurovisionness”. 

8. “I Wanna” (2002), Marie N, Latvia (English)

It really should tell you all you need to know about “I Wanna” that I forgot the performance almost immediately after watching it. Although, it must be said Latvia certainly brought the Eurovisionness to this performance with teeth-achingly cringe nods to a Baltic interpretation of Hispanic culture and the stilted choreography of a school talent show.

7. “Running Scared” (2011), Ell & Nikki, Azerbaijan (English)

I should have known better than to get my hopes up after reading the title “Running Scared”. The performance had the aesthetics and energy of a cheap perfume advert. I’m not sure what it is about Eurovision set designers and thinking white costumes makes the show feel super emotional but it was wearing thin on me at this point. This song itself is marginally better than some others but is sickeningly sweet and features several seriously uncomfortable PG-13 romantic moments. Sparks did come down from the ceiling at one point. Groundbreaking.  

Of course, Eurovision winning countries must host the following year’s competition and so in 2012 Azerbaijan hosted an opulent, extravagant contest which became the most expensive in Eurovision history. President Ilham Aliyev spent £48 million on the contest in Baku, which included the new 23,000-seat Crystal Hall and a new fleet of 1000 deep purple London style taxis. Azerbaijani activists used the media attention as a result of the competition to highlight the poor domestic human rights situation, organising initiatives such as the Sing for Democracy campaign. Due to this activism, Azerbaijan’s hosting of the contest brought up the recurring theme of whether non-democratic countries should be allowed to host international entertainment events. 

6. “Everybody” (2001), Tanel Pader, Dave Benton & 2XL, Estonia (English)

A delightfully boppy, nostalgic tune that screams of your early 2000s school disco. This song could transition seamlessly to your “getting ready to go out” playlist when you just want that burst of energy. Estonia’s victory in 2001 marked the first Eurovision win from a former Soviet republic. The win allowed Estonia to rebrand itself as “returning to Europe” and “Nordic with a twist”. Significantly, Prime Minister Mart Laar announced to crowds following the win, “we have freed ourselves from the Soviet Union through song.” He also linked the victory to ongoing EU accession talks by stating, “we will sing our way into Europe.”  

Unfortunately, the performance doesn’t quite match the vibrant song nor the record-breaking act as it feels like two buddies, in very 2001 wide-collared shirts, stumbled into a karaoke bar after one too many beers with the lads. The lad vibe is very jarring, especially the back-up singers who seem to just be dressed in identical football Dad-style jeans and t-shirts. Yet, despite the confusion over the aesthetics, this song puts a smile on your face and a bounce in your step.

5. “Molitva” (2007), Marija Šerifović, Serbia (Serbian)

This powerful song by Marija Šerifović is ultimately let down by the accompanying show, which someone has clearly mistakenly believed was incredibly edgy. Yet it ultimately comes off as the world’s slowest choreography performed by a librarian and her trope of 80’s gym instructors dressed up as Donald Trump. However, the song is definitely a power ballad and I can guarantee you will feel as if you can take on the world as you scream “molitva!” in your head all day. I felt this song was slightly subdued in terms of Eurovisionness until the final moment when Marija grabbed hands with a Jane Fonda look-alike and their clasped hands together revealed the painting of a heart. A classically saccharine finale to an otherwise surprisingly listenable, uplifting anthem.

4. “Rock Me” (1989), Riva, Yugoslavia (Serbo-Croatian)

After listening to several songs that disappointed in terms of Eurovisionness, “Rock Me” was a shock to the system in the best possible way. “Rock Me” truly has everything a Eurovision fan could want. Exaggeratedly peppy dance moves! Shoulder pads! Lasers! Stiffly coiffed hairstyles! A man on his knees playing the keytar! Truly a smorgasbord for the discerning connoisseur. The only thing that lets it down is, unfortunately, the song itself as it sounds like it came straight out of a children’s puppet show. Laughably, the Wikipedia page for the song claims that it brought “international awareness” to Yugoslav and Croatian rock. To this I can only say that this song is to rock what “And I Will Always Love You” is to heavy metal. The song is notable; however, as Yugoslavia’s only win. 

3. “Wild Dances” (2004), Ruslana, Ukraine (Ukrainian/English) 

“Wild Dances” began with giant horns being blasted on stage and just went uphill from there. What a performance from Ruslana and her talented back-up dancers, all scantily clad in bizarre caveman meet Viking Halloween costumes. The aesthetic cohesion of this historically themed show made this song stand out among other winners without losing that all-important essence of Eurovisionness. In all seriousness, “Wild Dances” is inspired by Hutsul folklore and Hutsul dances such as the Hutsulka. In fact, Ruslana herself is a singer from the Hutsul ethnocultural group. The song has been attributed to assisting the formation of Ukraine’s post-Soviet national identity. 

The tune grows on you as you are sucked into Ruslana’s infectious energy. I can only describe it as the musical equivalent of the Brittany Broski kombucha meme. Needless to say, it is sure to add a certain je ne sais pas quoi to any playlist.

2. “1944” (2016), Jamala, Ukraine (English/ Crimean Tatar)

“1944” is inspired by Stalin’s deportation of Crimean Tatars to Central Asia and in particular, the story of Jamala’s great-grandmother, whose daughter died on the journey. Jamala publicly stated that she entered Eurovision to emphasise the Crimean Tatar’s “sense of helplessness” since the Russian seizure of Crimea in 2014. Yet on the surface, the song is about the events of 1944 as Eurovision currently prohibits songs with “politically loaded lyrics”. Jamala also spoke out against the fact that many of her Crimean Tatar fans could not take part in the competition as their votes didn’t count due to the fact they lived on the peninsula, annexed by Russia in 2014. 

The song and the Eurovision voting system was denounced by Kremlin officials and lawmakers following Jamala’s victory. The Russian entrant Sergey Lazarev, who dubbed Troy Bolton in the Russian version of High School Musical, came third overall but won the televote. There was a feeling within Russia that Sergey had been robbed of a deserved victory, as the Russians had thrown money at his sumptuous special effects performance. Notably “Lazarev is our winner” was trending on Russian Twitter. Lazarev was the favourite to win again in 2019 but again lost out to Duncan Lawrence from the Netherlands. Against the background of increasingly political Ukrainian songs from Jamala and Ruslana, Russian resentment is growing over the way the competition is run and its own losses.  

Regardless of the political origins and tragic background of the song, it is actually extremely listenable and catchy, although it feels slightly blasphemous to say. Half of the song is in Crimean Tatar and this adds to the raw power of an emotional performance that takes your breath away. Add some brightly coloured fiery visual effects and you have a statement like none Eurovision has seen before. 

1. “Believe” (2008), Dima Bilan, Russia (English) 

There are truly no words to describe “Believe” but alas I have the difficult task of conveying to you why you need this performance in your life. Firstly, Dima Bilan and apparently someone by the name of Jim Beanz have managed to craft the emptiest of motivational lyrics that somehow still manage to boost your mood. Dima truly delivers an acrobatic and engaging show; at one point lying on the stage, and at another holding up just one single tea-light candle. He is joined by renowned Hungarian violin player Edvin Marton, who manages to trump Riva’s kneeling keytar man by getting down on his knees and enthusiastically sawing at his violin every chance he gets. If this wasn’t enough, they are joined onstage by Olympic figure skater Evgeni Plushenko who, gifted with the hair of a Krufts champion and a god-given ability to smize, skates around on actual ice. In a glorious final moment, all the men, bedecked in white, kneel on the ice and Dima can’t resist whipping open his shirt. Perfection. 

It feels slightly wrong to place light-hearted and slightly silly “Believe” above the superlative Jamala but it is honestly magnificent and represents Eurovision at its finest. I personally cannot wait to see what the region brings to this year’s Eurovision. If the past is anything to go by, there is no lack of talent and originality that create superb viewing for all of us Eurovision fanatics. There is also no lack of political controversies and manoeuvring as well as nation-branding underlying the unifying ethics of the competition. 

Featured image: Past winners / Amanda Sonesson
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