Eurovision 2016: Glitter and Politics

25 May

Editor’s Note:  Jessica is now employed in public policy after having spent time working on youth development initiatives in Ukraine. She currently serves as an adviser to GAPW where she previously worked as Project Consultant.

Where is your heart?  Yaşlığıma toyalmadım

Humanity rise.  Men bu yerde yaşalmadım

As the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues comes to a close, it seems apropos that in a parallel but more theatrical forum, issues relevant to the protection of indigenous rights have played out for the world to view in the form of song.  The enormously popular “Eurovision 2016” song fest was held recently in Stockholm and featured both the Russian favorite to win the competition, Sergey Lazarev, and the ultimate winner, Ukraine’s Jamala.

Jamala’s song “1944” references May 18, 1944— the date on which approximately 200,000 Tatars were deported from the Crimea under the USSR’s Stalinist regime.  Rules and regulations aside (“No lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature shall be permitted during the Eurovision Song Contest”), Jamala’s song reignited conversation across Europe and beyond regarding the rights of indigenous peoples—and in particular, the rights of an indigenous group that has struggled to retain much of its culture while existing under various ruling powers: the USSR, a newly democratic Ukraine, and now Russia.

The 2016 United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues focused on the theme of “conflict, peace, and resolution”—a relevant issue in light of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the various accusations of human rights violations targeting Crimean Tatars that have followed. It also raises an interesting question of policy: how can we create meaningful initiatives to commemorate the traumatic history of the past and, at the same time, push for more inclusive societies that recognize the unique language and culture of indigenous people?  In addition, what responsibility does a multi-lateral institution like the United Nations have towards indigenous people who are alleging persecution by the government that “rules” over them?

It is not enough for the world to show its solidarity with Crimean Tatars through a cultural song competition, no matter how popular.  Various op-eds have called for “Western” governments to push harder to protect Crimean Tatar rights. However, as difficult as this dialogue may be (especially given that Ukraine and Russia both now sit on the UN Security Council), it needs to take place at the United Nations—and include input from multiple regional organizations, cultures, governments, civil society, and the Tatars themselves.  If the conversation is not fully inclusive, we risk politicizing the situation further—which is exactly the game that Russia now accuses the West of playing in Eastern Europe.

Yaşlığıma toyalmadım [I did not enjoy my youth]

Men bu yerde yaşalmadım [I was not able to live in this place]

We need to engage at a level beyond song, beyond the deep concern expressed by interested parties, in order to ensure a viable future for the Crimean Tatars.   They, like other indigenous, must be allowed to live in the places of their familial and cultural origins.


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