Albania

EUROVISION NO MAN’S LAND: Why can’t Central Europe win Eurovision?

Over the last 6 decades, 27 countries have won the Eurovision Song Contest, ranging from Portugal in the far west of mainland Europe, all the way across to Azerbaijan on the shores of the Caspian Sea. This also means that just over half of all countries to have ever entered the contest have claimed at least one victory.

While fans often like to debate who will be the next country to join the pantheon of contest winners, it is curious to note that out of the 25 countries that have never won Eurovision, 60% of them share common borders and all fall in the same corridor down the centre of Europe – 64% if you count the now defunct Serbia and Montenegro. From the Baltic to the Balkans, a Eurovision No Man’s Land has emerged across Central Europe.

Eurovision No Man’s Land: Lithuania, Belarus, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, North Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova

Out of these 15 countries, all but 1 have placed in the Top 10 at least once. Eight have placed in the Top 5, four have come tantalisingly close with a finish in the Top 3 and two were even pipped to the post at 2nd… but what has kept this region from winning? Let’s take a look at some common themes that connect these countries and see just why Central Europe has become a No Man’s Land for the Eurovision Song Contest.

Oh Brave New World

The most immediately obvious explanation is that in terms of the contests, these countries have quite short histories. Following the thaw of the Cold War, Europe’s borders changed dramatically – so much so that two thirds of the countries along this corridor didn’t exist in 1990!

1993 and 1994 saw the biggest influx of new participants from this region, including several countries from both the former Yugoslavia and former USSR, but debuts from others in this corridor continued into the 21st century. While Poland and Hungary raced to the contest and were both commended for finishing 2nd and 4th respectively in 1994, it wasn’t until 2004 that Albania followed suite with a 5th place finish on their debut, and 2005 for Moldova to accomplish the same feat. Slovakia were present in Dublin for Eurovision 1994, but their neighbour the Czech Republic is one of the contests most recent debutees, first singing in Helsinki in 2007 – by which point the Slovaks hadn’t been seen at the contest for 9 years!

It is also interesting to note how some debuts at Eurovision were met more enthusiastically than others. Indeed, for Poland and Hungary’s high-flying first entries, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Romania all also debuted in the same year and had a much less auspicious night – occupying 4 of the 6 bottom places on the scoreboard, including a dreaded nul points for Lithuania. The previous year in Millstreet, none of the 3 new countries made much impact, with the highest scoring debutee being Croatia at 15th – followed by Bosnia and Herzegovina in 16th and Slovenia at 22nd. While this of course can be put down to how in touch individual songs are with the tastes in the continent at the time, it’s still noteworthy how some countries have run with their successes, while others have simple run off.

Logically, having entered less contests would immediately limit the scope for winning. True, winning on a first try isn’t unheard of as both Switzerland and Serbia did it, but the majority of other countries need at least a few practice runs at the contest before they can contemplate winning… from just 4 years for Azerbaijan to almost 50 in the case of Portugal!

But while entering the contest is an essential step to winning it, frequently returning is an equally vital step to Eurovision success.

Got To Be In It To Win It

Having a shorter back catalogue at the contest, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the countries along this corridor haven’t had many chances to be absent – but the vast majority have missed at least one Eurovision since their first forray into the contest.

Below is a table looking at each of the 15 countries in this corridor and comparing how many contests have taken place since they first took part, as well as a percentage of how many possible contests a country has entered since their debut. The following statistics do not include planned entries for 2020.

COUNTRYNumber of Appearances at Eurovision/
Number of Contests since Debut
Percentage of Possible
Contests Entered since debut
#
ALBANIA16/16100%1st
BELARUS16/16100%1st
BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA19/2770.37%12th
BULGARIA12/1580%9th
CROATIA25/2792.59%4th
CZECH REPUBLIC8/1361.54%14th
HUNGARY17/27*62.96%13th
LITHUANIA20/2676.92%11th
MOLDOVA15/15100%1st
MONTENEGRO11/1384.62%6th
NORTH MACEDONIA19/24**79.17%10th
POLAND22/2684.62%6th
ROMANIA22/27*81.48%8th
SLOVAKIA7/27*25.93%15th
SLOVENIA25/2792.59%4th
* includes the entries from Kvalifikacija za Millstreet that failed to qualify. Romania, Slovakia and Hungary all attempted to enter the contest in 1993, but their official debut is counted as being 1994.
** includes entry that was eliminated in the untelevised pre-qualification round. North Macedonia attempted to debut in 1996, but as they did not qualify their official contest debut is counted as being in 1998.

With the exception of Albania, Belarus and Moldova, all the countries in this set have missed at least one Eurovision since debuting – in Slovakia’s case, 2 decades worth!

Furthermore, nearly a third of countries on this list are currently on a break from Eurovision. Montenegro and Hungary have regularly taken off the odd year or two from participating, so their future return seems likely. Other countries though, this is much harder to predict: Lithuania flounced off for 5 years following their 0 points debut in 1994 while Slovakia had a break of over a decade before coming back in 2009. This stint, however, lasted only 4 years before Slovakia bowed out again – even today, rumours of a Slovak return are frequently dismissed. Only Bosnia and Herzegovina have explicitly stated that returning to the contest is priority, but the timescale of this depends on clearing debts with the EBU.

The reasons for non participation have ranged from non-qualification from the pre-shows of the mid-1990s, relegation in the early 2000s to financial difficulties with the broadcaster and even unceremonious disqualification for unpaid EBU debts in the case of Romania in 2016. But whatever the cause of these non-participations, the fact remains that not taking part regularly at the contest limits the chances of winning – not only from the practical point of being an entrant, but also for securing votes.

But before our countries have to worry about securing points in the grand final, they first have to overcome the hurdle of the semi-finals!

Our Next Qualifier Is…

As none of the countries along this corridor are members of the Big 5, before these 15 can think about winning the contest they all must earn their spot in the final by competing in one of the semi-finals. Only a handful of the countries will remember the days when you were automatically in Saturday’s final just by taking part. But while for countries like Sweden and Russia qualifying for the final is merely a formality, for these 15 countries it is a much more daunting task.

Below are the qualification rates for the 15 countries, showing the number of finals qualified for out of the number of potential finals, then converted into a percentage.

COUNTRYNumber of final appearences
/ Number of potential finals
Percentage of finals qualified for#
ALBANIA9/1656.25%5th
BELARUS6/1637.25%12th
BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA11/1291.67%1st
BULGARIA4/1233.33%13th
CROATIA9/1656.25%5th
CZECH REPUBLIC3/837.50%11th
HUNGARY10/1566.67%3rd
LITHUANIA9/1656.25%5th
MOLDOVA10/1566.67%3rd
MONTENEGRO2/1118.18%14th
NORTH MACEDONIA9/2045%9th
POLAND7/1546.67%8th
ROMANIA13/1776.47%2nd
SLOVAKIA1/616.67%15th
SLOVENIA8/1844.44%10th
Includes Pre-Qualification Rounds in 1993, 1996 and any Top 10 placings the previous year that didn’t require entering a semi final for 2004-2007 inclusive. Years without semi-finals not counted.

As over half of the countries in this corridor have a qualification rate of under 50%, it’s little wonder that winning the contest has been beyond their reach for the time being. Looking at the last few contests alone, only 6 countries from this corridor made it to the final of Eurovision 2016, 7 in both 2017 and 2018 and only 5 in 2019. Of course, not all of these 15 countries took part during those years, but still the relatively few qualifications are a hindrance to anywhere in the region winning.

But let’s say that you’re a country that has debuted at Eurovision, you’ve kept at it for years, you’ve made it through the to the final… now where are those all important points going to come from?

Oh Neighbour, Wherefore Art Thou?

People who watch Eurovision once a year are often quick to squeal about the bitter unfairness of bloc voting, but cross-border shared cultural spheres are common across all of Europe and have been around almost as long as the contest has. This particular corridor of countries has come under fire for its neighbourly voting practises over the decades – indeed, out of the 15 only 4 were not part of either Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union! But while you’d think this gives certain countries a pool of neighbours to call on for votes, it’s not as clear cut as you’d imagine.

As the former Yugoslav voting bloc is particularly infamous, let’s take a look at a case study of Croatia and the votes awarded to it by other former Yugoslav republics in the early days of its Eurovision participation:

1995 1996 1997 1998 19992000TOTAL
Bosnia & Herzegovina10102n/a8n/a30
North Macedonian/an/an/a12n/a1022
Slovenia12301212n/a39
Points awarded to Croatia by other former Yugoslav republics 1995-2000

As Croatia managed to finish in the Top 10 of 5 out of these 6 contests, these figures suggest that having neighbours to vote for you in the contest is a huge advantage. Indeed, one could make the argument that Serbia didn’t win the contest until all 6 fully recognised Yugoslav republics were taking part – especially as almost a quarter of all Molitva’s points, 60 in total, came from within the former Yugoslavia. So why then has this not benefited the other Yugoslav republics? Bosnia and Herzegovina came 6th in 2011, gaining 12 points from the majority of present ex-Yugoslav states, but got little else from the rest of the continent. Slovenia and North Macedonia have never got higher than 7th, Montenegro a sobering 13th… could it be that being part of a large voting bloc dilutes the voting power too much? In recent years some singers from Croatia and Serbia have even publicly lambasted the other republics for their lack of votes! It would therefore seem that while bloc voting is enough for some countries to garner a handful of points, but not enough to win outright.

Although Croatia’s experience of neighbourly voting is generally positive, it seems to be a vastly different case for other countries. Below is a summary of the points that other ex-Soviet republics awarded to Lithuania:

19992001200220062007TOTAL
Estonia2028012
Latvian/a56101031
Russian/a1045019
Belarusn/an/an/a628
Ukrainen/an/an/a505
Moldovan/an/an/a404
Points awarded to Lithuania by other former Soviet republics 1999-2007*
*Lithuania did participate at Eurovision in 2003 and did not qualify for the final in 2004-2005

Lithuania’s support from its neighbours has been a lot more sporadic. Granted, many of the other former Soviet Republics didn’t start taking part till years after Lithuania but even when more did start taking part, little changed. Only their direct neighbours Latvia and Belarus have consistently award points to Lithuania over the years – just no where near on the same scale as the former Yugoslav republics. Lithuania’s qualification record has also impacted on their chances at Eurovision with several missed finals. A similar story can been seen with Belarus, who occasionally score big from Russia and Ukraine, but make it to the final so infrequently they don’t get to capitalise from it – and similar stories are echoed throughout the corridor.

Many for example would naturally assume that the Czech Republic and Slovakia would exchange points given their shared history and closely related cultures, but the countries have never participated at the contest at the same time! Conversely, Romania has awarded Hungary at least 1 point every year bar one since both countries debuted in 1994 – many suggesting Romania’s Hungarian speaking population is the source of these votes. However, when you consider that this has only occurred at 10 contests out of a possible 27, it suddenly seems a lot less lucrative.

Some nations have doubtlessly been helped up the scoreboard by their neighbours at Eurovision. The issue in this particular region seems to be the variability of support within perceived voting blocs, compounded by the inconsistencies of countries in this corridor entering the contest and qualifying for the final. As both Croatia and Lithuania prove, bloc voting is not a guaranteed method to gain votes, and very rarely enough to seal a victory by itself. Broad appeal is doubtlessly the basis of any winner of the Eurovision Song Contest,

In Conclusion

Central Europe current lack of Eurovision wins is multifaceted. While the fact that these countries have shorter histories at the contest would appear to be the immediate answer, unfavourable winning conditions have been exacerbated by a combination of factors, including irregular participation over the years, haphazard qualification records and the pitfalls of trying to secure points as part of a voting bloc. Indeed, although many of these countries seem to belong to a sphere that often exchanges points, the traffic often seems to be one way and almost never amounts to enough to climb the scoreboard to victory.

All this being said, there are always exceptions to any set of stats and theories. Serbia lies at the heart of this region and claimed a debut victory in 2007, as did Yugoslavia before it in 1989, occupying much the same space on the map. So it isn’t impossible for any country in this region to lift that glass microphone, as these victories and Poland and Bulgaria’s near misses prove. In recent years, many countries along this corridor have secured their best ever placing… North Macedonia coming 7th in 2019, the Czech Republic’s 6th place in 2018 and Moldova’s 3rd in 2017… these countries are slowly but surely coming to the fore of the contest…

It’s definitely not a question of if, but rather when.

What do you think? Do you agree with this editorial? Do you think we’ll soon see a Central European Eurovision win?

Let us know what you think!

Author: James Scanlan
Source: Eurovision Ireland

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