'Toe the line': Belarusian Eurovision song entry riles opposition


Irina Sorgovitskaia of Belarusian band Galasy ZMesta performs during a concert in Minsk, Belarus December 5, 2020. BelTA/Handout via REUTERS

MOSCOW (Reuters) - A rumbling political crisis in Belarus spilled over into the Eurovision Song Contest this week, as the country's state broadcaster nominated a band that has released songs mocking protests against President Alexander Lukashenko.

Featuring lyrics such as "I will teach you to toe the line", the entry has sparked a backlash from opposition figures and fuelled calls by a European Parliament lawmaker for Belarus to be suspended from the popular competition.

The entry, by Galasy ZMesta, has received 5,800 likes and 40,000 dislikes on the competition's official YouTube page since Tuesday, with more than half a million views.

To critics, allowing the entry to be performed would add legitimacy to a violent crackdown launched by Lukashenko against mass unrest that swept the country following an August election which demonstrators say was rigged to extend his 27-year rule.

The president denies electoral fraud and has accused the West of sponsoring the protests.

Rights groups say more than 33,000 people have been detained in the crackdown, prompting the United Nations human rights chief to warn of a "human rights crisis" last month. The government says it is being unfairly maligned.

"This is a mockery of the people of Belarus, of everything that is happening in the country," said singer Angelica Agurbash, who represented Belarus at Eurovision in 2005.

"Receiving any representative of Lukashenko's bloodthirsty regime would be wrong," she told Reuters.

Galasy ZMesta, a guitar, drums and tambourine band, has been an outspoken critic of the protests and called them an attempt to destroy the country.

Asked about the number of dislikes on the YouTube video, the band's frontman Dmitry Butakov told Reuters: "It's normal. People have to show off somehow, and that's what they do."

He declined further comment about the entry.

KITSCH AND CONTROVERSY

The Eurovision contest, which takes place in Rotterdam this year, is best known for its kitsch-laden entries from around the continent. While its organisers, the European Broadcasting Union, say the event should be free from politics, it has attracted controversy in the past.

"Every song submitted is scrutinised to ensure it complies with the rules of the competition," the EBU said in an emailed statement to Reuters.

"The Eurovision Song Contest is a music competition with no political agenda and we will vigorously resist all attempts for this cultural event to be instrumentalised for political ends."

The EBU last month said it was "extremely alarmed by the intensifying of attacks on press freedom in Belarus" after two journalists were jailed for filming protests.

Karin Karlsbro, a Swedish European Parliament member, has joined Belarusian opposition figures in calling for Belarus and its state broadcaster to be excluded from Eurovision.

"The state-owned TV channel is a propaganda megaphone for the dictatorship, for Lukashenko himself," she told Reuters.

The state broadcaster did not respond to requests for comment on its selection of song and on calls for its exclusion from Eurovision.

Galasy ZMesta, which translates as "Voices of Reason" or "Voices from the grassroots", has singled out opposition figures including Pavel Latushko, a former diplomat, in its songs.

Latushko was fired as head of the Belarusian state theatre last year. Galasy ZMesta mocked him for subsequently fleeing abroad to Poland.

Latushko said the EBU should suspend the Belarusian state broadcaster in solidarity with journalists who were harassed and jailed in the crackdown, just as Belarus was stripped of hosting this year's ice hockey world championships.

"How would Europe applaud a song by the dictatorship now?" Latushko, who as culture minister used to be involved in selecting Belarusian Eurovision entries, told Reuters.

"Taking it away would cause (Lukashenko) serious psychological damage as well as reputational damage."

(Additional reporting by Ilze Filks in Stockholm; Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Mike Collett-White)

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