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Photo: Stephanie Liechtenstein

Interview with Dean Vuletic: The Eurovision Song Contest as a Confidence-Building Measure and Bridge Builder?

Stephanie Liechtenstein
Interviews 24 May 2015

On 23 May, the Eurovision Song Contest took place in Vienna. Austria won the contest in 2014 with the powerful song ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’ by Conchita Wurst who has since become an internationally known figure advocating more tolerance towards sexual minorities. Fittingly, Ireland announced the results of its referendum on legalizing gay marriage on the day of the Song Contest. It voted overwhelmingly (over 62%) in favor of same-sex marriage. Crowds in the arena in Vienna at the Eurovision Song Contest reacted to the Irish referendum by cheering loudly when Ireland read out its points.

The winner of this year’s Song Contest is Sweden with the song ‘Heroes’. Bookmakers have long predicted Sweden with best odds. Yet, it was a close call between Sweden and Russia. Finally, Russia came in second place with a powerful ballade advocating peace. The audience seemed to like the song. Yet, similar to last year’s Song Contest in Copenhagen, Russia as a country was booed loudly in the arena every time it was awarded points. This was interpreted as a reaction by the public against Russia’s policies towards sexual minorities and also its actions in Ukraine.

The Eurovision Song Contest has its origins in the 1950s when Europe was rebuilding itself after the Second World War. At the time, the European Broadcasting Union suggested to create an event and TV program to bring together European countries. The contest took place for the first time in 1956.

This year’s Eurovision Song Contest was held under the slogan ‘building bridges’, which was perceived as greatly symbolic for a number of reasons. First, Austria has always been a bridge-builder and mediator between East and West. Therefore, the slogan was seen as a way of trying to build a bridge between the West and Russia, which is currently isolated given the crisis in and around Ukraine. Second, the year 2015 marks the 70th anniversary since the end of the Second World War and the theme of ‘building brides’ is therefore seen by many as a way of commemorating this event and the need for war torn nations to rebuild bridges through common cultural events. Third, the slogan ‘building bridges’ also means extending tolerance and openness towards ‘the other’, be it sexual minorities, disabled people or ethnic minorities.

Indeed, Vienna as the host city has invested heavily in its image of openness and tolerance. For example, the city’s traffic lights now feature same sex couples with hearts. In addition, the contest could be viewed in international sign language and with audio-comments and the public transport system has invested in barrier-free access. The Song Contest was also planned as ‘green event’, meaning that special attention was paid to environmental sustainability.

At this year’s Song Contest, 39 countries, plus Australia as special guest participant, were represented. Out of the 39 countries, all except for Israel are OSCE participating States. In addition, Israel and Australia are both OSCE Partners for Cooperation. The countries participating at the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest came from across the OSCE region, including eastern and western Europe, but excluding the United States, Canada, Central Asia and Turkey.

The Eurovision Song Contest has been used since its early days as a stage for the articulation of social and political messages, as will be explained in this interview with Dr. Dean Vuletic, who has completed a PhD at Columbia University, focusing on Yugoslav Communism and the power of popular music. The interview was conducted on 21 May, two days before the final show of the Eurovision Song Contest.

Indeed, as will become apparent in this interview, the Song Contest reflects many social and political issues that directly concern the OSCE region. Topics that are promoted at the Eurovision Song Contest range from minority rights (sexual and ethnic minorities), democracy and the environment, to peace and war, poverty and European integration. Dr. Vuletic also explains in this interview how popular music, and indeed the Song Contest, can help to build bridges between states, and how it can be used as a confidence-building measure. He also gives insights as to whether the Eurovision Song Contest can be used to affirm statehood.

SHR Monitor: Dr. Vuletic, you have been researching the relation between popular music and politics since 2005. In the last couple of years your main focus has been the Eurovision Song Contest. In what way do you see political and social issues promoted and reflected in this event? Can you give examples from the past but also from this year’s Eurovision Song Contest in Vienna?

Dean Vuletic: The Eurovision Song Contest has always been a stage for the articulation of political and social messages. It was born during the Cold War and reflected Cold War divisions as at the time only Western European states, as well as Israel, Turkey, Yugoslavia and Morocco even once, participated in the Eurovision Song Contest. Eastern European states had their own equivalent contest, the Intervision Song Contest.

In its early decades, some of the political issues that were expressed on the Eurovision stage concerned, for example, the right-wing dictatorships in Spain and Portugal, which used the Eurovision Song Contest as a way to affirm their belonging to a Western cultural and economic sphere. For example, in the early 1970s there were songs from Portugal that were critical of the political regime, and in 1974 the Portuguese entry was even used as a signal to start the Carnation Revolution. In the late 1960s, Eurovision entries were increasingly influenced by the 1968 movements and the songs contained messages about world peace, the environment and gender and youth issues. In the 1970s, with Greece and Turkey joining the Eurovision Song Contest, the politics of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus were also played out at the event. In 1976 Greece even submitted a song protesting the invasion. In 1982, there was West Germany’s Nicole with her song ‘Ein bisschen Frieden’, which again was a song about peace at a time when NATO wanted to install missiles in Western Europe after Ronald Reagan came to power in the United States and ended the policy of détente.

After the end of Cold War, the first Eurovision Song Contest took place in Yugoslavia, which had won in 1989 just before communism fell in Eastern Europe. It is uncanny how there are so many of these historical coincidences in the Eurovision Song Contest, such as when Ukraine won in 2004 just before the Orange Revolution, with Kiev staging the contest in the aftermath of this. It is not the Eurovision Song Contest that is bringing about the change, but it certainly provides a stage for the articulation of political messages in these historical contexts.

In the 1990 Eurovision Song Contest in Zagreb, there were many songs about the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the hopes for a new Europe. In 1993, there were also songs from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina about the wars in those countries. And in recent years, there have been songs with political and social messages regarding sexual minorities, especially since the performance of Dana International from Israel in 1998. This year we are witnessing a further development in the performances by disabled people, that is the entries from Finland and Poland. The other category of politically and socially engaged songs this year are those that speak of war and peace. There is a very powerful anti-war song from Hungary. The song from France is also about war and rebuilding, which can be understood in the context of the current commemorations of the two world wars. The song from Armenia commemorates the Armenian genocide. The song from Russia advocates peace and is sending a controversial message, given what is happening in Ukraine right now. So, all in all, there are a lot of political statements being made at this year’s contest.  In conclusion one can say that the political and social messages at the Eurovision Song Contest very often reflect the Zeitgeist.

SHR Monitor: Do you believe that the promotion of these political and social issues at Eurovision lead to real change in societies in Europe and maybe even beyond?

Dean Vuletic: The actual impact of the Eurovision Song Contest is arguable. ‘Dana International’ did have an impact in Israel. She helped open the country up to the fact that sexual minorities are part of Israeli society. This was also a time when the movement for gay rights was building up in Israel and Europe. It was a time when there was more potential for change and a lot has been achieved since then. One of the problems is, however, that this can also lead to what is known as “homo-nationalism’. This happens when states present themselves as being open and tolerant towards sexual minorities and use this to gloss over and obscure their intolerances towards other groups. In other words, states often want to deflect criticism from their policies towards other minorities that live within their borders.

When it comes to the impact of Conchita Wurst, the situation is more complex. When the International Gay and Lesbian Association released its new report on the legal equality of sexual minorities in Europe just this month, the position of Austria did not change at all compared to last year. But Austria’s southern neighbor Slovenia has adopted gay marriage in the last year. Malta was the biggest achiever in Europe: it went from 11th position in 2014 to 3rd position, behind the United Kingdom and Belgium. Even Croatia, which is geographically and historically close to Austria, has adopted a law on civil partnerships which grants gay couples more rights than the Austrian law does. Conchita is a symbol for Austrian tolerance and openness. She may have changed the international image of Austria, but not the actions of Austrian politicians.

Another example would be Azerbaijan, where the ‘freedom of media index’ determined by Freedom House has actually worsened since it hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012. Eurovision did not improve democracy or gay rights in Azerbaijan. But it did draw greater media attention to the political and social problems in Azerbaijan and it made Europeans more aware of them. Before the Eurovision Song Contest in Baku, Azerbaijan was a much lesser known place to many Europeans.

SHR Monitor: The theme of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest is ‘building brides’. In what way do you think that the event can help build bridges between East and West? I am specifically referring to the ongoing crisis in and around Ukraine and the frosty relations between the West and the Russian Federation.

Dean Vuletic: I am extremely curious to see the result of the Russian song this year. In the first semifinal, Russia performed very well and there was a very positive response from the audience in the arena in Vienna. Last year, the Russian entry was booed and this was perceived as a very strong statement from the public against Russia’s policies toward sexual minorities (read here our blog on the issue of the Russian law on homosexual propaganda) and also its actions in Ukraine.

Can it build bridges? The power of the Eurovision Song Contest is that it brings people together (last year 200 million viewers watched the event) and it makes Europeans think about the political and social issues going on in other countries. It is a forum in which we think about how we relate to one another. In this way it can also build bridges.

What I think is the most disappointing aspect of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest is that it has the slogan “building bridges,” but the countries that are not coming to this year’s contest are the ones with which Austria needs to build bridges the most. For example, Slovakia is not coming even though it is a neighboring country of Austria. Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina are also not coming even though Austria hosts large migrant communities from these countries. Ukraine is also not coming because in the current context of the war it can’t afford to participate. Maybe more should have been done to secure Ukraine’s participation at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest in order to send a message that Ukraine is a part of Europe and that we have not forgotten that. We should have made additional efforts to secure the country’s participation. In all of the hype about Australia participating for the first time, we should not forget that, first and foremost, we should build bridges with our neighbors.

SHR Monitor: I was struck by the song and performance of this year’s Russian contestant, Polina Gagarina. She is performing a song about peace. The lyrics read “We are the world’s people, Different yet we’re the same, We believe, We believe in a dream, Praying for peace and healing, I hope we can start again”. How do you interpret this song?

Dean Vuletic: I think that it is a strategic way of presenting a more positive image of Russia and that Russia has learned its lesson from last year’s contest in Copenhagen when it was booed. But even in 2013, Russia sent a song about peace. So, it is not like this is unusual, but in the current context it is much more powerful.

SHR Monitor: Do you think it has a chance of winning?

Dean Vuletic: Yes, particularly after I saw the Russian performance in the semifinal and how the audience reacted to it.

SHR Monitor: If Russia wins, the Eurovision Song Contest will take place in Russia. Could that potentially make a difference in the country?

Dean Vuletic: No, I don’t think so. Because it hasn’t done much to change the situation in Azerbaijan which hosted the contest in 2012. And Moscow hosted it in 2009 at a time when political relations between it and the West were better. Yet, as I mentioned before, Eurovision can draw increased media attention to issues and problems in the host country and make the international public more aware of them. It puts the host country under international scrutiny.

SHR Monitor: So Ukraine could not participate at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. Yet, the Moldovan singer, Eduard Romanyuta, is actually Ukrainian. How do you interpret the fact that Moldova is sending someone from Ukraine?

Dean Vuletic: This demonstrates Moldova’s support for Ukraine. Moldova has its own problems with separatism in Transdniestria. In fact, it is doubly symbolic because the Transdniestria region is populated mostly by Slavs, Russians and Ukrainians. So it could also be perceived as a way of building a bridge between Moldova and Transdniestria. Moldova’s entries have usually been sung by ethnic Moldovans. So this is a doubly symbolic entry in the context of the crisis in Ukraine and the Transdniestrian conflict.

SHR Monitor: Do you think that the Eurovision Song Contest can be considered a Confidence-Building Measures (CBM)? CBMs have been used successfully in the past during long-term and indeed so-called protracted conflicts in the OSCE region. They are designed to build mutual trust, compromise and understanding, and can include activities such as cultural exchanges, people-to-people contacts, and joint social activities.

Dean Vuletic: It depends on which region you look. When Serbia and Montenegro reentered Eurovision in 2004, there was a strong expression of support from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, which both gave Serbia and Montenegro twelve points. This even led to the then foreign minister of Serbia and Montenegro, Goran Svilanović, stating that this was a sign of reconciliation in the region. The region of the former Yugoslavia is special in the sense that the linguistic ties are strong and its countries share a common popular music industry that was developed during the Yugoslav period. In that region, music still connects people from different nations and can even be used as a confidence-building measure. It can bring people together and help forge ties between them.

If we look at other examples, this is more difficult, such as with Armenia and Azerbaijan. They don’t share a language and so it is much harder to use popular music as a confidence-building measure. And traditionally, Armenia and Azerbaijan do not give each other any points at Eurovision. When some people in Azerbaijan even voted for the Armenian entry some years ago, they were called in by the authorities and questioned as to why they did that. So it really depends on the region and whether there are other cultural or linguistic ties in place.

SHR Monitor: I would be very interested to learn more about your research findings on Eurovision voting behavior.

Dean Vuletic: There is a myth in Eurovision that neighbors are always giving each other points. This does not always apply. In fact, the voting is not about geographical and political ties but much more about cultural and linguistic ties. Scandinavian countries have strong voting ties. In this case, it has to do with the fact that cultural cooperation between them is very strong. There is also the trend of what we call ‘diaspora voting’. You see stronger votes for Poland and Lithuania from countries like the United Kingdom and Ireland, reflecting the movement of workers from East Europe towards West Europe with the expansion of the European Union. You can read a lot of demographic changes in the voting behavior.

SHR Monitor: Finally, can you explain the role of the Eurovision Song Contest in affirming statehood?

Dean Vuletic: To answer this question, let me cite the example of Kosovo. Government officials from Kosovo have expressed their desire to have their country included in the Eurovision Song Contest, which it actually was when it was a part of communist Yugoslavia. However, because Kosovo does not have full international recognition, it is prevented from entering the organizations that it needs to be a member of before it can enter Eurovision. The government of Kosovo understands the value of Eurovision in a state’s cultural diplomacy and sees it as important for affirming Kosovo’s statehood on the international stage. During Eurovision Week I organized the symposium “Eurovision Relations” on the Eurovision Song Contest and international relations in the House of the European Union here in Vienna. We had three keynote speakers who had performed in the Eurovision Song Contest and later became politicians. And the ambassador of Kosovo, Sami Ukelli, also participated and discussed why Kosovo wants to be part of the Eurovision Song Contest.

Dr. Dean Vuletic is Marie Curie Fellow. He is currently based at the University of Vienna, Faculty of Historical and Cultural Studies, Department of East European History. The interview was conducted by Stephanie Liechtenstein, Website Editor of Security and Human Rights, on 21 May in Vienna.

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