It is that magical time of the year when Europe celebrates glitter guns, pyrotechnics and topless male dancers: the Eurovision Song Contest. Created in the aftermath of World War II as a way to unify the countries of Europe (and today, many others outside of Europe), Eurovision is like an Olympics-style X Factor: participating countries perform one original song on live television, then cast votes for the winner. But don’t be fooled: underneath all the song and dance is a hard lesson that would make any modern history teacher proud.
This year’s Eurovision, to be held in Kiev, Ukraine, has already kicked off with Kiev’s controversial decision to deny the Russian participant, Julia Samoylova, entry to the competition. Russians, secret fanatics of Eurovision, are not happy that their pride and joy (not to mention wheelchair‑bound) contestant will not be singing. In retaliation, a major Russian state TV channel will not be showing Eurovision this year, and instead will broadcast Julia performing her song from—you guessed it—Crimea.
If this feels like a family spat at the family Christmas table, that’s because it is.
If the past four or five years of international affairs are anything to go by, Russia would be the guaranteed loser in Eurovision. It is not a “cool” or “good” European country like Norway or Sweden, for instance. And yet, Eurovision, time and time again, shows that our cultural ties, similar to those we hold with our family, bind tight whether you like it or not. Russia has continued to feature strongly as a finalist over this time. And Ukraine has been a big reason why. Eurovision voting is usually based not on any semblance of the singer’s talent, but by geopolitical bloc. Despite what one may read about the liberated ex-Soviet states and their loathing for their masters in Moscow, when it comes to crunch time, they vote for each other.
From 2006 to 2016, Russia received its highest points consistently from ex-Soviet states like Ukraine, Belarus and Armenia. The Baltics, too, consistently vote for each other, with Latvia getting the majority of its points from Lithuania, Poland and Estonia. Support for Austria has come primarily from Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Poor Ireland, France and the U.K. seem to be the lonely outliers. The U.K. tends to receive most of its points from Ireland, along with a random assortment like Albania and Cyprus. Armenia and Iceland tend to throw their support behind France. Even during the most tense moments of the Ukraine-Russia relationship, each country gave some of its highest points to the other: in 2016, for instance, Ukraine gave Russia its 12-pointer (the highest vote), and in 2014 (following the Crimean annexation), it still gave six.
In this context, Ukraine’s decision to ban Russia from the competition is disappointing. Whilst it is not exactly a direct supply of weapons to the current conflict battle lines, the ban perpetuates the status quo. Banning the Russian entry, like any exclusion, tends to reinforce the held perspective and makes one more stubborn. Over the past ten years, both countries have consistently shown their support for the other in their Eurovision voting patterns. And this is symbolic of a deeper, greater support: we may see the debate about the origins of borscht or salted herring as fundamental to national pride, but at the end of the day, we are the only two states that enjoy eating the almost identical recipes for fermenting fish with such crazed delight. Humans are not made for constant conflict, and perhaps Eurovision allows us one night off a year to celebrate being close to our neighbors: to remember common ties like food, culture and mindset, and to band together and enjoy terrible dancing and questionable fashion decisions.
Perhaps we in the international relations field have much to learn about the deep ties that bind. Like in our personal lives, our conflicts can be the deepest and most hurtful with the ones that are closest to us. As the Eurovision contestants face off on May 13 in Kiev this year, it might be worth remembering that we are not all that different after all.