For Real – A Possible Turkish Return

Cover photo: AFP

On 24 June 2021, the European Broadcasting Union announced a development that hovered over the past week: they had started talks with the Turkish national broadcaster, TRT. According to Ibrahim Eren, the general manager, they were piqued into negotiations after the change of executive supervisors and the excellent production of the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest. This triggered waves amongst the fandom—it especially catalyzed a spark of hope amongst Turkish fans who have hoped to see the country return after their withdrawal in 2012.

Prior to their withdrawal, Turkey not only used Eurovision to showcase a variety of genres from swing to traditional music, but also to showcase how “European” Turkey can become. Intertwined with a struggle to become a part of Europe since the Ankara Treaty in 1963, Turkey’s arc in Eurovision was filled with more low points than high until Sertab Erener’s victory with “Everyway That I Can” in 2003.1 There, the Turkish people celebrated with joy, and the single made the charts in multiple European countries, topping them in Sweden and Greece.

The 2004 contest, held in Istanbul, used the motto “under the same sky”2 to represent Turkey’s wish for unity alongside Europe. Despite this, along with Turkey’s strong run of qualifying every contest except for one in the semi-final era, they withdrew in 2012 citing dissatisfaction with the voting system, and later the open expression of the LGBTQ+ community in the contest. This aligned with further breakdowns in negotiations to get Turkey into the European Union and the country’s continued descent into authoritarianism.

Knowing this, along with the possibility that talks might fall through, what would a Turkish return to Eurovision mean for the country and the contest as a whole?

An olive branch:

In May, 480 MEPs voted in favor of a report condemning Turkey’s foreign policy and human rights practices, which also urged the European Commission to suspend Turkey’s negotiations to join the European Union.3 In the past year, Turkey has confronted the European Union on gas in the Eastern Mediterranean, increasing operations to help Turkish Cypriots on the divided island.4 The EU condemned this as a violation of sovereignty against Greece and Cyprus, and several member states, including France, have hardened their stances on the country.

Turkey’s democratic erosion is intertwined with stalled EU talks and therefore amplified negative ambitions.5 A mix of the EU blocking several accession chapters in 2006 after Turkey didn’t recognize Cyprus frustrated them; over time, Erdogan appointed Euroskeptics into his government who were more conservative than before. 

Despite this, a poll taken by the German Marshall Fund showed that 37% percent of respondents believe that they should collaborate with the European Union to solve international issues, which rises to 42% amongst the 18-24 age group.6 During the past year, the EU and NATO also worked hard to deescalate Turkish-Greek relations and to resume talks about larger issues ranging from Covid-19 to climate change.7  While returning to the Eurovision Song Contest will not be a balm to heal existing wounds, it could be an important start towards reconciling the Turkish government with the rest of Europe. 

A reassertion of itself on the world stage: 

Since 2019, Turkey has been in a recession, with double-digit inflation and a sinking currency. The pandemic has amplified this; the tourist industry in particular has seen a 69% drop in visitors and a drop in revenues to $12 billion in 2020.8 To make itself more attractive post-pandemic, a return to Eurovision would open the country up more to the outside community, especially if Turkey were to win again.

Previously, the Eurovision Song Contest has been a platform for new countries to assert their new statuses and promote their own cultures. Back in Istanbul 2004, the top two showed different aspects of their countries and their new statuses. Ruslana, who won with “Wild Dances”, showcased herself with a warrior aesthetic and transcended what Europe could be. In addition, it showed off Ukraine as an independent country,9 and Ruslana would go on to be a supporter of the Orange Revolution later that year and a politician.10

After a twelve-year hiatus, Serbia-Montenegro debuted in the same year (formerly known as Yugoslavia), with the song “Lane Moje” by Zeljko Joksimovic. It came in second place, receiving points from every single voting country excluding its own. It introduced Eurovision to betting markets across the now-separated country, but more importantly established a new Serbia through Joksimovic’s new, gentler masculinity combined with the Balkan ballad.11 When the two countries split in 2006 and Serbia won the following year with “Molitva”, the 2008 contest in Belgrade was praised for how smoothly the production went, which furthered Serbian optimism that they had flipped the script on their international image.

Ruslana, winner of the 2004 Eurovision Song Contest in Istanbul (source)

Zeljko Joksimovic took 2nd place for Serbia and Montenegro in 2004 (source)

Winning the 2003 Eurovision Song Contest made the Turkish population feel they were finally “European”, though the winning song, “Everyway that I Can”, took elements from “auto-Orientalism” by deploying Oriental elements such as belly-dancing, combined with English lyrics which initially stirred controversy for abandoning the Turkish language.12 When they hosted the following year, the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism emphasized advertising Turkey’s hosting job to the “tourist gaze”, which ranged from postcards showing off different regions of Turkey to featuring whirling dervishes during Sertab’s opening performance.13 The latter received controversy as it was severed from its original religious intent, but the controversy diffused before the final.

Turkish soft power fluctuates with time depending on how much they focus on security. Prior to the Arab Spring, Turkey had maximum potential with this, because they were a Muslim-majority country with a democratic government.14 With the instability in the Middle East, combined with the revival of a multipolar global sphere, Turkey reverted back to a hard power stance, with any cultural influence rooted on political Islam.15 A return to Eurovision could see a small reversal in this, as Turkey could show a softer side of their country, along with a culture beyond a neo-Ottoman lens.

Democracy and the Turkish Art Scene:

Recently, Hungary and Belarus left the contest, the former because of Eurovision’s embrace of the LGBTQ+ community and the latter due to its increased authoritarian bent. In the case of Belarus, the national broadcaster was expelled from the contest and the EBU because of their two proposed Eurovision entries made pro-government metaphors and the broadcaster persistently cracked down on the opposition protesting Aleksandr Lukashenka’s regime. 

While not to the same extent, the Turkish government has made things harder for artists over the past decade. Even in the last few months, when Covid cases were 1/5 of that in May and business establishments from health clubs to restaurants were opened to limited capacities, live theatres and music remain restricted.16 The restrictions on the Turkish art scene, which arose from Erdogan’s desire to appeal to his more conservative voters, resulted in artists falling into poverty, selling their instruments, and even dying by suicide.17

Despite this, there are several artists who persist in their work and in advocating for social justice. Tarkan, the pop superstar, called out the Turkish government’s restrictions on live music as disrespectful to music artists. Gaye Su Akyol, a psychedelic rock singer-songwriter, has poetic lyrics commenting on Turkish society and fights on behalf of women’s rights.18 The rap scene also uses its platform to criticize the Turkish government’s actions; the track “Susamam” managed to get 30 million views on YouTube despite having to face restrictive government oppression.19

While Turkey managed to liberalize in the early 21st century, they danced at the mercy of the AKP (the ruling Justice and Development Party), who would later use their power to eventually erode freedom of speech. The 2016 attempted coup resulted in further tightening of press; 69% of the Turkish population were at least “somewhat concerned” about the effects of censorship, with 51% believing it will affect their life in some degree.20 Beneath all this, Turkey sustains a vibrant forum of thought. Music can enhance it rather than stifle it, not only in a political but also in a cultural sense. Eurovision can give a spotlight for those who might not get it otherwise.


With the exception of the Portuguese “E depois do Adeus”, which served as a signal for the Carnation Revolution in 1974, Eurovision songs haven’t had much direct impact on the politics of a nation. This doesn’t mean that participation in Eurovision can’t have a significant role in a country’s perception of itself, and a Turkish return can affirm this in more ways than one.

Regardless of the outcome, the talks between the EBU and TRT can act as one channel to reconcile the two parties. The EBU can ride on the momentum that the 2021 contest brought in terms of viewers and hype because of the commercial success of top songs, whereas the TRT is willing to negotiate about the issues which kept them out. Should it succeed, it would be a return celebrated with a fervor not unlike with Italy a decade before.

And for one night, they could be the same again.


[1] ARSLANBENZER, Hakan. “Sertab Erener: Turkish winner of the Eurovision Song Contest”. Daily Sabah, 26 Feburary 2021, ref. 24 June 2021.

[2]  Jordan, Paul. “What’s in a name? Eurovision slogans through the years”, 30 January 2017, ref. 24 June 2021.

[3]  Bahgat, Farah. “EU-Turkey relations at ‘historic’ low point: European Parliament”. DW, 19 May 2021, ref. 24 June 2021.

[4]  Scazierri, Luigi. “FROM PARTNERS TO RIVALS? THE FUTURE OF EU-TURKEY RELATIONS” A Center for European Reform, 23 June 2021, accessed 21 August 2021.

[5]  Kirişci, Kemal and Amanda Sloat. “The rise and fall of liberal democracy in Turkey: Implications for the West”. Brookings Institute, February 2019, accessed 21 August 2021

[6]  GMF Experts. “Turkish Perceptions of the European Union”. The German Marshall Fund of the United States. 29 April 2021, ref. 24 June 2021.

[7]  Berger, Miguel. “Prospects for EU-Turkey Relations from a German point of View”. European Council on Foreign Relations, 9 June 2021, ref. 24 June 2021.

[8] Bilginsoy, Zeynep and Mehmet Guzel. “Turkey welcome backs tourists, hopes to recoup losses”. AP News, 24 June 2021, ref. 24 June 2021.

[9]  Aksamija, Azra. “Eurovision Song Contest: Between Symbolism of European Unity and a Vision of the Wild, Wild East”. PSU, ref. 24 June 2021.

[10] Peter Dickinson, “Why Eurovision is Ukraine’s soft power secret weapon,” Atlantic Council, 1 June 2021.

[11]  Baker, Catherine. 2015. ‘Introduction: Gender and Geopolitics in the Eurovision Song Contest’. Contemporary Southeastern Europe 2 (1): 74–93.

[12] Scott, Derek B. 2013. “Imagining the Balkans, Imagining Europe: Balkan Entries in the Eurovision Song Contest.” Ottoman Intimacies, Balkan Musical Realities, edited by Risto Pekka Pennanen, Panagiotis C. Poulos and Aspasia Theodosiou, Finnish Institute at Athens, 2013, pp. 125–35

[13]  Şahin, Nevin. “Dervish on the Eurovision Stage: Popular Music and the Heterogeneity of Power Interests in Contemporary Turkey.” Popular Music and Public Diplomacy: Transnational and Transdisciplinary Perspectives, edited by Mario Dunkel and Sina A. Nitzsche, Transcript, pp. 69-92.

[14]  Oguzlu, Tarik. “Conceptualizing soft power in Turkish foreign policy”. Daily Sabah, 4 August 2020, ref. 24 June 2021.

[15]  Çevik, Senem B. “Reassessing Turkey’s Soft Power: The Rules of Attraction.” Alternatives, vol. 44, no. 1, Feb. 2019, pp. 50–71, doi:10.1177/0304375419853751.

[16]  AFP. “Silenced musicians see Turkey playing politics with Covid ban” France 24, Modified 15 June 2021, accessed 21 August 2021.

[17]  Nurtsch, Ceyda. “Turkish artist ‘witch hunt’ deepens” DW, 15 July 2021, accessed 21 August 2021.

[18]  Marshall, Alex. “Turkey’s Psychedelic Rock Star Speaks Her Mind, Ambiguously”. The New York Times, 4 December 2019, accessed 21 August 2021.

[19]  ”Rapping for Rebellion: Turkey’s Hip-hop Artists Fight Back with Words” Fanack, 3 October 2019, ref. 9 September 2021.

[20]  PERCEPTIONS TOWARDS FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION IN TURKEY Freedom House, RIWI and Freedom House, March 2020, ref. 9 September 2021.