Most Americans are not familiar with the Eurovision Song Contest. It is a festival of pop culture that pits entries from European countries against one another in a regional pop culture popularity contest. It is cheesy, but it is also becoming a solid way to see how politics impacts daily life.

In the 2016 contest, the Ukraine entered a song that focused on the Soviet-era forced removal of people from Crimea in a thinly veiled reminder that Russia had illegally invaded and occupied the peninsula. As the first invasion and annexation of territory since the Second World War, Ukraine felt justified in using the pop culture platform to highlight what it sees as an illegal status quo. Against expectations, the sorrowful song won a contest more commonly known for its preference for disco and pop dance music.

As the 2016 winners, Ukraine hosted the 2017 contest and politics again intruded. Russia selected a performer that played on a number of powerful sympathies. In addition to musical talent, Yulia Samoylova sings from a wheelchair. She is a powerful symbol for public participation by the disabled. Unfortunately for her, she had also performed at a concert in occupied Crimea. As a result of her travel to the occupied region, she was denied a travel visa to Ukraine, preventing her from performing in the Eurovision Contest.

The furor over the intrusion of politics into pop that erupted was somewhat contrived given what happened last year, and Russian public diplomacy is masterful in turning the tables on those it sees as opponents. At the same time, the controversy points out a key part of international relations: the existence of disputed territories. It also shows how these territories can make even simple things complicated. Sing in the wrong place, and you may face a travel ban.

Disputed territories are relatively common, although disputes such as exist over Crimea are (fortunately) rare. These disputes hit at the heart of the sovereignty principle: the power to control land. Whether it is occupied Crimea, or Turkish Cyprus, the Palestinian Territories, or Western Sahara, these territories can make life complicated for those who live there and those who may want to travel there.

The physical control of the territory gives advantages to the country that holds the territory. There is no legitimate judicial body that can enforce settlement of this kind of dispute. The result is that weaker states are left to make do with what they have, even if it sometimes seems strange and even petty.

In an anarchic world, not even pop music can escape the self-help trap.



  1. The Eurovision Contest is not important in hard power terms. Why would Ukraine choose this venue to pick a fight over Crimea? What about a pop culture event makes it attractive as a place to make a point over sovereignty?
  2. Does the trouble over politics in pop culture have an impact on the larger relations in the region? In short, how does this spat over the Eurovision Contest impact the wider issues relating to Russia and Ukraine?
  3. In many ways, this year’s controversy is an extension of last year’s. Why would Russia want to play tit-for-tat in this kind of venue? What advantage is there in sparking this kind of controversy by choosing a person likely to be denied travel to the country?