27/04/2016 17:57 BST

LOUD & PROUD: Russian Entry Provides Quandary For Gay Eurovision Fans And Voters

Russia came second last year, despite the country's LGBT stance.

This year's Eurovision Song Contest will pose a dilemma for those fans who enjoy good pop, like to see a fair contest but are disturbed by Russia's stance on LGBT rights, a leading  academic tells HuffPostUK. 

Peter Rehberg, associate professor in European Studies at the University of Texas and a longtime observer of the politics around the Contest explains that, following drag queen Conchita Wurst's victory for Austria two years ago, Eurovision has been instrumental in helping gay visibility in the mainstream, as well as the understanding of sexual identities as a human rights issue.

Fans will remember how the Russian contingent tried to have Conchita's performance boycotted, a move that inspired indignation and support for her from more permissive countries, culminating in her victory speech, when she said, "We are unstoppable."

This year, however, there is a fresh political aspect to the competition, with Peter pointing out the same issues have not gone away.

Russia will be represented this year by one of its biggest stars, Sergey Lazarev

"The gay and lesbian rights issue remains a contested issue both in Western and Eastern Europa and also in other parts of the world," he tells HuffPostUK.

"The role of Russia’s participation in this context is difficult to assess. While Eurovision fans certainly don’t want to discriminate against individual performers from Russia they also wouldn’t be very happy about the next ESC being hosted in Moscow again. Is that enough of a reason for a European audience, not just the gay fans, to not vote for Russia? Its hard to predict."

Russia came second last year, and their entry Sergey Lazarev, one of the country's biggest music stars, is expected to do well this year, according to betting odds and online polls, with his entry 'You Are The Only One.

Two years ago, Russia's treatment of Conchita ignited booing in the arena for their own entry, the Tolmachevy Sisters, something Peter views as an inevitable side-effect of their country's attitude. 

“Of course you can think about the two poor girls and the EBU is not in a position to encourage that, but it is legitimate,” he insists. “Political feelings are part of the show.”

Apart from the human rights issues playing a part, for Peter, the most interesting aspect of this year's Contest - despite the EBU's perennial affirmation that it is independent of politics - is how it intersects with the biggest conversation taking place in Europe right now, the upcoming vote on the Brexit. 

 "The big topic this year will be the upcoming voting about a Brexit (and there certainly are correlations between Britain’s relationship to the EU and to the ESC), but I think the topic that is on everybody’s mind is of course the refugee crisis.

"Performers at the evening of the show won't make specific remarks about this, but perhaps TV commentators will. After all Eurovision is one of the few (if not the only) symbolic representation of Europe that we have in popular culture.

"An issue which challenges European unity as much as the refugee crisis has been doing for the past year, therefore, is part of the conversation about Eurovision. However, how this plays out, for instance, on the level of voting (will the tensions between Western and Eastern Europe regarding this issue be reflected in the voting patterns?) is difficult to say."

Russia came second last year with Polina Gagarina

Unfortunately for us, Doctor Rehberg is clearer on the prospect of a UK victory, or lack thereof. 

 "The boys (Joe and Jack) are fine, likable and cute, and there is nothing really wrong with the song," he begins diplomatically.

"The problem is, some countries (such as Russia or Malta) are sending their biggest stars to Eurovision, and some of the newcomers form other countries (France, Italy, Sweden) are either really charismatic or have really interesting songs.

"Eurovision is not as second rate as it might be perceived in the UK. It can be great pop. In any event, in comparison to the performers that other countries are sending Joe and Jack appear too amateurish to make a great impact."

This year's Eurovision Song Contest will take place in Stockholm on Saturday 14 May. 

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