Victory and the Russophone bloc in the #eurovision Grand Final

The European Broadcast Union (EBU) instituted its “pots” system for semi-final allocation for Belgrade 2008—the same year we first saw two semi-finals rather than one,. Based on research provided by televote provider Digame, three of the six pots were based on voting blocs:

  • Scandinavia
  • Former Yugoslavia and diaspora
  • Former Soviet Union and diaspora
  • With three more pots of varying composition

Aside from some shifting around between pots, the three bloc pots have mostly retained their core members. But the intent for impact of the pot system was for the mid-week semi-finals: to give countries without a voting bloc a better chance of qualifying out for Saturday. The Grand Final results were not an element of this system’s implementation. Everyone votes on Saturday night, whether their entry is still competing or not.

But there have always been outliers: delegations that could fit in more than one pot, though each can only be allocated once. Perhaps more critically, the upper limit of six or seven per pot prevented a more internally consistent pot system. There are more than seven former Soviet states competing every year. Though a few of these are sometimes put in other pots for relatively good reasons. Like Estonia.

Eesti!

Estonia has appeared in the Scandinavian pot, which is as much about their relentless love of Swedish entries as it is for the deep cultural and linguistic bond between Estonia and Finland. But for 2018 the Estonians were replaced in the Scandinavian pot with Ireland. Estonia ended up in a pot with their co-Baltic neighbours Latvia and Lithuania (both members of the same linguistic family), along with Poland (strong ties to Lithuania) and the Dutch-speaking Belgium and the Netherlands. There is a lot of solidarity between Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania…but linguistically and culturally there’s less. In this pot, as in the Scandinavian pot, Estonia is an awkward fit.

No obvious benefit from sending a Russophone (Source: YouTube/Eurovision)

You might think Estonia would be an obvious fit for the former Soviet Union pot—and in a televote only competition there is a good argument. Estonian juries, however, tend to look East and West across the Baltic, rather than East towards the Urals. But Estonians mostly bristle at being seen as ex-Soviet: they were occupied by the Soviet Union. There are lots of Russian speakers living in Estonia, most of whom speak Estonian and are quite happy to live outside the Russian Federation. But they are one of the reasons Estonia delivers the most reliable number of televote point in Eurovision Grand Final to Russia: 163 total points (Belarus is ranked second on 153 total points).

She did much better (Source: YouTube/Eurovision)

But it’s very much one-way traffic: Estonia doesn’t even make the top 5 in terms of Russian points received in Grand Finals. This is perhaps why Estonia’s not appeared in the ex-Soviet pot: other former Soviet states—those with significant ex-pat communities in Russia—get points from the Russian televoters in most years. More mutual point swapping means being in the same pot.

Super size me

So it occurred to us: just how much of an impact would a super-sized “ex-Soviet” bloc have on the Eurovision results? Bearing in mind that the pot system was crafted to equalize chances to qualify from semi-finals rather than determine who might be advantaged in terms of victory.

We decided to look at last three years (2016, 2017, 2018), since these are the only years where the aggregate jury plus televote scoring system was in place. Prior to 2016 we either had televotes only, or some way of synthesizing the jury vote into the televote. That makes comparing like for like very difficult. It is also, quite frankly, more work than seems worth doing.

We also limited ourselves to looking at Grand Final scores only, since that’s the only place were all countries vote. We looked at all top three results in these Grand Finals, since we are focused on whether there’s any discernible voting patterns for entries from this bloc who either have won or nearly won.

One bloc instead of two pots

To begin we tweaked the initial pot idea and removed a ceiling: rather than assuming all pots would ideally have 6 members, we tried to figure out how many delegations should be considered for the ex-Soviet bloc. Rather quickly we also decided to jettison the geographic label (ex-Soviet) and move to a cultural one (russosphere or russophone).

Bear in mind that the influence of the Russophone world isn’t constrained by the Russian language itself. Cultures and languages blended and fold into one another at times, creating a shared sensibility—what Pierre Bourdieu described as cultural capital’s logic of distinction to explain why taste, in the cultural sense, seems to converge in places and spaces. Thus a cultural sensibility can be integrated into music, even if the singing is in English. Like this year’s Moldovan entry:

Klezmatic, en anglais – My Lucky Day (Source: YouTube/Eurovision)

The Russosphere includes all 10 former Soviet states that have participated in the Eurovision in recent years: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Georgia. Many in these now independent countries bristle at the persistence of the “ex-Soviet” label, but few would deny that these countries’ shared history and contact with Russophone culture has persisted, to varying degrees, since the end of the Soviet Union. With the term “-sphere” having something of a political connotation as well (think “sphere of influence”), we are moving forward with Russophone, which means the cultural world of Russian language. Some of these countries have relatively small ethnic Russian communities, but cultural contact amongst and between these states persist, mainly through Russian television.

Liberating ourselves from history and focusing on language and culture, adding Israel to the bloc also makes sense. Israel has a huge Russian-speaking minority and a breadth of local Russian language media that bridges across to media from Russia itself.

And then there’s Cyprus. We are including Cyprus here as something of a thought experiment. While there remain only a relatively few number of Russians holding Cypriot citizenship, Russia provides the highest per capita tourism spend on the island, there has been an increase of over 600 per cent in numbers of Russian tourists per annum over the last two decades, and Russian documents are one of only two that the Cypriot Civil Registry and Migration department does not scrutinize for verification (Serbia is the other). Click here for a media report on an influx of Russian money into “Limassolgrad”, or here for a list of Russian language services in Cyprus. This article estimates the resident community of Russians at around 40k.

A fundamental fact is this: in any given year, almost one third of the delegations have significant ties to the Russophone world. The question is, does said membership disproportionately benefit a 12 member Russophone bloc’s preferred entry? It’s time for some data!

2016: a year of the Russophone hegemony?

For the only the third time ever, two entries from the Russophone states finished in the top three in 2016. In 2007 Verka Serduchka’s Dancing Lasha tumbai finished third, ahead of second place Sererbro’s Song #1. The next year Dima Bilan won with Believe with Ani Lorak’s Shady Lady finished as runner-up. All four acts were prominent in Russophone media: Bilan and Lorak were perhaps the most popular male and female singers in this space. But different era, different voting system. Let’s move on.

In Stockholm the grand narrative of the pre-Contest season became Russia versus Ukraine…which sort of happened. The invasion of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine meant that UAPBC did not send an entry in 2015.

In 2016 Russia was sending one of their highest profile acts, Sergey Lazarev. Lazarev is hugely popular across the Russophone world, including in Ukraine. And he is one of a handful of high profile Russian artists who have spoken out against the invasions of Ukraine.

Epic preview video. Staging was even more amazing (Source: YouTube/Eurovision)

This is how You Are the Only One did with the bloc in the Grand Final:

2016 – Russia Jury Televote Total
Russia n/a n/a n/a
Ukraine 0 12 12
Belarus 12 12 24
Moldova 7 12 19
Armenia 2 12 14
Azerbaijan 12 12 24
Lithuania 12 8 20
Latvia 0 12 12
Estonia 0 12 12
Georgia 0 8 8
Israel 0 10 10
Cyprus 6 10 16
Total 51 120 171

What is noteworthy about Lazarev’s scores is the polarity between juries and televoters. He was first in seven televotes, second in two more and third in the remaining two: top three across all 11 other Russophone delegations. Conversely, three juries ranked You Are the Only One first—but five awarded Russian null points. In fact, Russia’s Russophone vote is skewed towards the televote component by more than a two-to-one ratio.

If we look at the countries that blanked Lazarev, we see a common thread among four of them: Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia, and Georgia each have tenuous or conflict-ridden relations with the Russian Federation in recent memory. Israel would be the outlier here. This polarity between what a juror from some ex-Soviet states awards Russia versus the public in said state is not reason enough to keep them out of a shared pot with Russia: it’s mutuality that’s the key.

Ukraine also sent one of its highest profile artists in 2016, Jamala, though she has not focused on the Russophone market for a number of years. 1944 addressed the Stalin deportation of Crimean Tatars during the Second World War.

Jake gets it (Source: YouTube/Jake’s Face Reacts)

Here’s how Jamala scored within the Russophone members:

2016 – Ukraine Jury Televote Total
Ukraine n/a n/a n/a
Russia 0 10 10
Belarus 7 10 17
Moldova 12 10 22
Armenia 0 10 10
Azerbaijan 10 10 20
Lithuania 8 10 18
Latvia 12 10 22
Estonia 7 8 15
Georgia 12 10 22
Israel 12 8 20
Cyprus 0 7 7
Total 80 103 183

 Jamala’s score reflects being popular across the televoting public, but not quite as popular as Sergey Lazarev. 1944 was second favourite with eight delegations, third favourite with two and fourth favourite with the remaining one. Still, Jamala was top 3 with all but one delegation: Cyprus.

Ukraine offset their 17 point televote deficit with the jury vote. Four delegations’ juries ranked 1944 first. Only Russia, Armenia and Cyprus blanked Jamala. Ukraine’s 29 point jury lead erases Russia’s televote lead.

Jamala’s 183 points from the bloc represented 35 per cent of her total points: the 12 member bloc represented 29 per cent of the delegations participating in 2016. So that’s a premium of 6 per cent from the Russophone bloc. A small, but significant advantage.

Let’s move on. 

2017

With Ukraine hosting, Russia was prevented from participating in Kyiv. We still had a top three result from the Russophone bloc.

 

We’ll just polish this up a bit for Kyiv, eh? (Source: YouTube/Eurovision)

Here’s how Sun Stroke Project did:

2017 Moldova Jury Televote Total
Russia n/a n/a n/a
Moldova n/a n/a n/a
Ukraine 4 12 16
Belarus 0 12 12
Armenia 8 6 14
Azerbaijan 10 10 20
Lithuania 0 8 8
Latvia 1 8 9
Estonia 0 4 4
Georgia 0 0 0
Israel 3 5 8
Cyprus 0 6 6
Total 26 71 97

Moldova clearly did not benefit massively from the russosphere, despite having an act featuring two Russian speakers. But only around fifteen per cent of Moldovans name Russian as their mother tongue—more if you count the breakaway region of Transnistria, which is where the lads from Sun Stroke Project grew up. Out of 374 total points, these 97 represent 26 per cent. The 11 bloc delegations represent 26 per cent of all delegations. No advantage.

2018

For Lisbon Russia returned to the Contest…and then failed to qualify for the Grand Final for first time ever. Still we had two bloc members finish in the top two. Israel’s Netta won with Toy; here’s how she did with the Russophone bloc:

2018 Israel Jury Televote Total
Israel n/a n/a n/a
Russia 8 10 18
Ukraine 10 12 22
Belarus 0 8 8
Moldova 10 12 22
Armenia 8 10 18
Azerbaijan 1 12 13
Lithuania 6 1 7
Latvia 0 8 8
Estonia 0 0 0
Georgia 3 12 15
Cyprus 0 10 10
Total 46 95 141

Out of 529 total points, Netta only scored 141 points from the bloc: 26 per cent of her total. The bloc’s 12 members represented 27 per cent of the total of 43 delegations. So Toy scored slightly lower with the bloc than anticipated.

Which sort of makes the analysis of our runner-up something of a moot point.

WE saw this result coming months earlier! (Source: YouTube/Eurovision)

Regardless, here’s Eleni Foureira’s results with Fuego:

2016 – Cyprus Jury Televote Total
Cyprus n/a n/a n/a
Russia 7 4 11
Ukraine 0 4 4
Belarus 12 3 15
Moldova 6 7 13
Armenia 7 12 19
Azerbaijan 4 10 14
Lithuania 1 6 7
Latvia 0 1 1
Estonia 8 4 12
Georgia 0 10 10
Israel 0 2 2
Total 45 63 108

Her 108 total points from the bloc represented 25 per cent of her total of 436 points. Which is again a bit less than the 27 per cent we might anticipate from the bloc.

But Israel’s voting traffic tends to be one-way towards Russia only. Cyprus gives more points to Russia than vice versa as well.

Conclusions

Does the Russophone bloc deliver a disproportionate benefit to its strongest entries, in terms of potential victory? If we look at these results, they do not. First, no entry has ever managed to top a majority of the televote and jury rankings in the same year. That means two or more entries are dividing up a lot of the 12s and 10s that are designed to skewer the scoreboard in favour of the highest ranked entries.

In 2008, Dima Bilan’s Believe only managed third place for Russia in their semi-final. Armenia’s Sirusho ranked second thanks to a tiny four point margin (Ani Lorak’s Shady Lady handily won the other semi-final for Ukraine). But in the Grand Final, Russia triumphed and Armenia tumbled to fourth—still their best-ever result. 2008 was a year that was televote only—here’s the table of Russophone results comparing Russia, Ukraine and Armenia:

  Russia Ukraine Armenia
Russia n/a 8 12
Ukraine 12 n/a 7
Armenia 12 5 n/a
Azerbaijan 8 10 0
Georgia 8 10 12
Belarus 12 10 7
Estonia 12 4 0
Latvia 12 10 0
Lithuania 12 6 0
Moldova 10 7 2
Israel 12 10 8
Cyprus 8 6 10
Total 118 86 58

Like Lazarev in 2016, Bilan netted douze points from seven of 11 bloc members (along with one 10 and 8s from the remaining three), in a televote only year. In fact, these were the only 12s Bilan scored. Ukraine’s sole douze points came from…Portugal. Armenia received eight 12s, mostly from other regions of the viewing area.

In terms of total points, Russia’s 118 bloc points represented 43 per cent of his total point take, though the bloc represents only 26 per cent of the delegations. Lorak’s 86 bloc points were 37 per cent of her total—again, quite a favourable skew. Sirusho’s 58 bloc points represent 29 per cent, quite close to 26 per cent.

But 2008 was a televote only year. Delegations knew where their points would come from. In any sort of hybrid televote-and-jury system, delegations that are there to win need to appeal to both professional jurors and the average punter. In other words, it’s easier to run up a stack of 12s in either a televote or jury vote, but not both.

One of the most recent massive wins was in 2012. Loreen’s Euphoria topped the juries (296 points) and televote (343). Once the two scoring components were combined at the delegation level Sweden ended up 372 total points. That included a record-making 18 douze points—but we don’t know how many of those were based the jurors’ massive preference for Euphoria over their next favourite Serbia (a 123 point margin between first and second). In the televote, Loreen’s lead over Russia was only 11 points. It is conceivable that Loreen was second with both jurors and televoters in a lot of countries, but no other entry was ranked as consistently highly. Maybe the Russian grannies were top in most of those televotes—but the juries overall ranked Party for Everybody 11th. We simply don’t know.

Does said membership disproportionately benefit a 12 member Russophone bloc’s preferred entry? Not under the current system where televoters and jurors each provide half the scoreboard. Even a mega-sized Russophone bloc has not yet been efficient at distributing its top scores towards one entry. If it ever does, Russia might well have a landslide win. Probably sending another high profile artist like Sergey Lazarev—or sending Lazarev with an even stronger entry, one that is much more contemporary than You Are the Only One—and it’s entirely possible. In 2016 the juries across the viewing aread said Lazarev’s entry was very good rather than excellent.

Dima Bilan finished second in his first attempt at the Eurovision. Two years later—when he was the biggest pop star in the Russophone world—he won.

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