May 14, 2016 / 7:57 AM / a year ago

Russia and Ukraine set to battle it out on stage at Eurovision

Russia's Sergey Lazarev rehearses the song ”You Are The Only One” during the jury show at the Ericsson Globe Arena in Stockholm, Sweden May 9, 2016. TT News Agency/Maja Suslin/via REUTERS

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Politics could take center stage at the usually kitsch Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday, with bookmakers making Russia favorite to win and the Ukrainian entry featuring lyrics about deportations by the Soviet Union.

In “1944”, Ukraine’s 32-year-old Jamala sings about strangers coming to “kill you all”, saying “we’re not guilty” - remembering a time when Josef Stalin deported Tatars from Crimea.

Jamala, herself a Tatar, stands alone on the Stockholm stage and sings “you think you are gods” against a blood-red backdrop - leading reporters and online commentators who have seen Ukraine’s rehearsals and semi-final performance to draw parallels with Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Tatars, a Muslim people indigenous to the Black Sea peninsula and numbering about 300,000 in a population of 2 million, opposed the annexation, which followed the overthrow of a Moscow-backed president in Kiev.

Meanwhile, Russia, is tipped to win with a breezy europop number “You are the Only One”, by Sergey Lazarev. A victory for Russia, which started competing in the contest in 1994, would be its second since 2008.

In a glittery show best known for camp song and dance routines, Russia has been booed at the past two editions - over Crimea and a 2013 law against so-called gay propaganda.

Sweden’s SVT broadcaster has said it will not adjust the live sound to filter out any booing during the show.

While the public voting has long been tainted by political affiliations among competitor countries, songs are not allowed to be political. Event organizer, the European Broadcasting Union, said Ukraine’s offering did not contain political speech.

Nonetheless, among many commentators making a similar point, Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter said in a column: “You must close your eyes really hard not to see the parallels between this year’s contribution from Ukraine, which is about Stalin’s deportations from the Crimea in the 1940s, and contemporary events.”

Security for the event will be tight in the wake of militant attacks in Europe and safety issues were further highlighted after Bosnian officials said police had arrested several people suspected of trafficking arms to Islamists in Sweden.

Eurovision, which was started in the 1950s with the aim of uniting Europe after World War Two, has expanded ever further outside the continent in recent years due to its popularity.

Organizers expect more than 200 million viewers to tune in from Australia and New Zealand to China and the United States, where Saturday night’s final is being broadcast live for the first time in both countries.

The internationalization of the contest is underlined by the performance of U.S. singer Justin Timberlake who is set to premiere a new song during the final.

Australia, competing for the first time last year and taking part after accepting an invitation from organizers, could yet steal the show with bookies making Dami Im’s power ballad “Sound of Silence” second favorite.

Editing by Mia Shanley and Alison Willaims

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