By Max Levites

Despite the best efforts of its organizers, the Eurovision Song Contest, to be held in Israel this May, cannot escape politics. Whether it’s ongoing international tensions, regional conflicts, or accusations of bloc voting, political squabbles always seep into the annual event.

A country’s national selection for their Eurovision representative should be a sleepier affair. However, this year’s Vidbir, Ukraine’s national selection contest, was ridden with controversy, exposing deep rifts among Ukrainians about their place between Russia and the West.

Six contestants took the stage at Vidbir, hoping to represent their country in Tel Aviv. But instead of comments on their performance, three of the six contestants, notably the Russian-speaking ones, were grilled on their loyalty to Ukraine by the host and the judges. The singer of YUKO, a Russian citizen, was asked if she would be willing to renounce her Russian citizenship in favor of a Ukrainian one if she were to win. Jamala (a judge, and winner of Eurovision in 2016) asked MARUV, the eventual winner, how she would respond to a journalist at Eurovision asking whether Crimea belonged to Ukraine. MARUV was also asked about her upcoming tour in Russia and whether she was willing to cancel her shows there. The interrogation reached its peak after the performance of Anna Maria, twin sisters whose mother is a government official in Russian-occupied Crimea. In a long and emotional exchange, the sisters were essentially asked to choose between their parents and their country. Andriy Danylko, another judge and former Eurovision contestant, compared the questioning to a Soviet party meeting.

MARUV eventually won the competition, but ended up refusing to sign the contract provided to her by UA:PBC, the Ukrainian national broadcaster, citing clauses in the contract that would have made her “a bat in the political arena.” UA:PBC responded to her accusations saying that whoever represents Ukraine at Eurovision “becomes a cultural ambassador of Ukraine and reports not only their own music, but also becomes the spokesperson for the opinion of Ukrainian society in the world.” After the other Vidbir participants also refused to sign the contract, Ukraine officially withdrew from Eurovision this year. In their press statement, UA:PBC called for a national dialogue about the Ukrainian music industry’s connection to “the aggressor state,” adding that “for a part of society, this fact is acceptable, in the other part it causes indignation and rejection.”

Since its independence, Ukraine has struggled with its national identity and whether to align itself with the Europe or Russia. Russia’s occupation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine have rallied the Ukrainian public and political class toward a European future, but what happened at Vidbir shows that there are still significant divides. Russia provides an important market for Ukrainian artists and media, and while it might be easy to say that an artist has a moral obligation to stay out of Russia, it might also mean the possibility of derailing their career.

While it’s important for Ukraine to create a unifying national identity, in doing so it must avoid the excesses of nationalism. Tests of loyalty, particularly in front of a national audience like at Vidbir, are dangerous and divisive. While a representative for a country on the international stage should reflect that country’s values, censorship of that representative and using them as a propaganda tool is inherently undemocratic and goes against core values of the European Union. Whether intentional or not, the fact that the Russian-speaking contestants were the ones singled out at Vidbir shows how easy it is for patriotic rhetoric to take on an ethno-nationalist tone. Thankfully, the attitudes toward Russia in Ukraine are values-based and not split along ethno-linguistic lines. Russian-speakers in Ukraine are not yet targets of discrimination, but it’s easy to imagine a situation where Russian-speakers begin facing questions about their loyalty to Ukraine on a national level. Russia has already tried using reported discrimination against ethnic Russians in Ukraine as justification for invasion, so it is fair to assume that Russia will take the chance to exploit this kind of division if it actually manifests. If Ukraine wants to be part of Europe, it needs to adopt and maintain democratic norms, which includes respecting the rights of its minority populations.

Nationalism and xenophobia are on the rise across the West, and Ukraine, in its precarious political and economic situation, has to be exceedingly careful to prevent their roots from taking hold. A national dialogue on divisions in the country as suggested by UA:PBC can be healthy, but it has to be civil and inclusive. A repeat of the public inquisition at Vidbir will only fuel divisions and make Ukraine’s fledgling democracy more vulnerable.

Max Levites is the co-host of the podcast Star Spangled Eurovision. Take a listen to their special episode on the drama around Ukraine’s participation here

The views expressed in this blog are solely its author’s, and do not necessarily reflect official endorsement or position by the Transatlantic Leadership Network.