Turkey (not) in Eurovision: Symbolic Actions and Branding

Last Saturday, countries from across the European continent came together for the 58th time, for the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest in Malmö, Sweden….but not Turkey!

Turkey explicitly expressed its concerns about the fairness of the contest – a concern that has not been voiced by any other country before. Therefore, Turkish decision is indeed a symbolic action that has implications for its reputation (or brand) as part of the European society.

As seen in the video above, it is quite difficult to take Eurovision seriously and discuss its fairness. But Turkey did it. What was Turkey thinking?

What is Eurovision?

Eurovision is a great opportunity for the host and participant countries to engage in cultural diplomacy. Over 125 million people watch this show across the world. If you don’t know what Eurovision is, here is a good guide for non-European audiences.

The contestants change every year as countries decide to participate in the contest on a yearly basis. Every now and then countries will cite ‘financial reasons’ (or sometimes no reasons) and withdraw from the contest in a given year.

For Eurovision 2013, Turkey did something quite extra-ordinary. Turkey’s state-owned broadcaster TRT (the official member of EBU and Eurovision’s -kind of- Turkey representative) argued that the Eurovision was not “fair”. Eventually, Turkey decided not to participate in Eurovision 2013. TRT gave the new voting rules and the Big 5 countries qualifying directly for the finals as examples of unfair behavior.

Moreover, a week before the contest, Turkey’announced that Eurovision 2013 was not going to be broadcasted in Turkey! TRT cited the same fairness concerns whereas many argued that TRT was just uncomfortable with marriage equality themes in the contest.

Did TRT decide not to air Eurovision for this kiss?

Up until the rule change on May 19th, airing last year’s contest was a prerequisite for participation. So, when TRT decided not to air Eurovision 2013 earlier last week, that meant Turkey was ready not to be a participant in Eurovision 2014.


What were you thinking, Turkey? 

From a Turkish perspective, it is possible to argue that the reaction to Eurovision is based on two main points.

1) Fairness: Turkey wants to make sure old continuing power relations do not get reproduced through certain organizations and institutions. For instance, the country similarly keeps asking for a reform in the United Nations Security Council. Eurovision’s Big 5, in this aspect, is no different than UNSC’s permanent members for the country.

2) Respected partner: Turkey wants to be heard in each and every possible platform, and is not afraid to leave the platforms that do not see it as a respected partner. From OIC to NATO, Turkey has been going after leading roles and positions. EBU ignored Turkey’s objections. Subsequently, Turkey did not want to be a part of EBU’s flagship project.

What were you thinking, Turkey? 

From a critical perspective, it is possible to argue that Turkey’s reaction is a continuation of current government’s conservative policies.

1) Not a ‘good’ player: Turkey is not a ‘good’ player in international relations. Turkey explicitly blames the international affairs community for favoritism in various issues, such as nuclear proliferation and Turkey’s EU membership bid when negotiations do not end in Turkey’s favor. Eurovision case shows that Turkey acts on an assumptions that the current institutions discriminate among countries and will leave if the decisions are not to their liking. A couple of years ago, Turkey started its own version of Eurovision, Turkcevizyon, that mainly attracted contestants from the Balkans, Central Asia, and the Middle East.

2) Motivation beyond the Decision: This year was the first year since 1980 that Turkey did not participate in Eurovision and first year since 1973 that Turkey did not broadcast the contest. The decision for not broadcasting was believed to be influenced by the marriage equality theme by many. Given the most recent conservative developments in the country  (i.e. the suspended jail sentence of a famous pianist for insulting Islam, increased taxes on alcohol products, and banning certain make-up products for Turkish Airlines’ stewardesses), it is difficult for certain audiences to give Turkey the benefit of the doubt and accept the official explanations. The role of conservative ideology still remains as a plausible explanation for Turkey’s actions.

In conclusion

  • The interpretation of this symbolic action depends on the audiences.
  • Turkey needs to act in cooperation with other countries to solve institutional problems, instead of portraying a “my way or highway” approach.
  • The relations with the West, especially on a public opinion level, will require attention as Eurovision and the politics of Eurovision voting are part of European culture. Turkish accusations could be seen as offensive by certain audiences.
  • Turkey needs to be careful in symbolic actions that might be related to issues which are already being questioned due to the conservative nature of its government; such as alcohol, gender equality, and GLBT movement.


Also, a special “what were you thinking” goes to Romania…


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