Why we’re covering this: As fans of Eurovision and haters of anti-gay laws, we wanted to explore what happens when the two mix.
Even though Russia is expected to win Eurovision this weekend (just as we’ve predicted), the country is still widely reviled for its 2014 invasion of Ukraine and its draconian law forbidding “gay propaganda”, both which go against Eurovision’s stated aims of unity and acceptance. While Russia is hardly the only country in Eurovision with human rights abuses — Azerbaijan anyone? — the country and Eurovision as a whole is bound to face some backlash if Russia wins the crystal mic.
Russia last won Eurovision in 2008, five years before it passed its infamous “gay propaganda” law. Since its passage, Russia has been booed at Eurovision 2014 and 2015, so much in fact, that the organizers behind the international singing competition reportedly installed “anti-booing” technology for last year’s event.
Whether the technology was ever used or even existed, our Russian correspondent at last year’s finals waved a Swedish flag in the audience rather than a Russian one, adding, “People really don’t like Russia right now.” It certainly didn’t help that after Viennese drag performer Conchita Wurst won Eurovision 2014, Russia threatened to revive its own Soviet-era anti-gay singing competition; they even cancelled a fan-held victory parade for Wurst citing “security concerns.”
In fact, the persistence of anti-Russian sentiment in Eurovision compelled its rule-makers to briefly consider (then backtrack on) a rule forbidding the “political waving” of rainbow flags during Russia’s song — the initial rule listed the rainbow flag alongside other regional flags (like the flag of Wales and that of the terrorist organization Daesh/ISIS), but the rule withdrawn after many fans complained and one of the UK performers came out as Welsh; presumably the terrorist flag is still banned.
Even Israel’s openly gay Eurovision contestant Hovi Star, who spoke of his alleged abuse by Russian immigration officials during his spring tour, advised fans not to boo this year’s Russian performer, saying, “It’s not fair. Sergey [Lazarev, Russia’s performer] is not the one that’s making the laws in Russia. He’s not the one that ripped my passport when I came to Russia.”
If Russia does win, Lazarev will go on a press tour where he’ll likely be asked about Russia’s anti-gay law ad infinitum. Lazarev’s handlers may forbid such questioning because if he speaks out against the law, he and his family could face stiff fines or even imprisonment; something that would embarrass Russia and Eurovision alike. So unless he’s planning on moving, we should only expect lukewarm, evasive responses if Lazarev wins.
More importantly, a Russia victory would secure them as next year’s hosts which will put LGBT performers and fans in a bind. If that happens, Russia will save face by cooling their anti-gay law for foreign visitors, just like they did with gay athletes during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi — but they can hardly allow rainbow flags to fly in the face of their hardline anti-gay stance. Rather, they’d likely forbid the flags or use clever camera work to keep them as hidden from view as possible.
Until then, viewers of this weekend’s final should listen closely for boos during Lazarev’s performance and anytime Russia scores points. Unless some secret technology drowns them out, they will be evidence that a Russian winner sits unwell with the show’s many LGBT-loving fans.