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Beef Of The Week #348: Russia v Ukraine

By | Published on Friday 24 March 2017

Eurovision Song Contest

You’d think Russia and Ukraine would have more important things to be talking about, in the wake of the apparent assassination of former Russian MP Denis Voronenkov, a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Kiev yesterday. But still, the growing diplomatic incident around this year’s Eurovision Song Contest continues to grab headlines.

The case of Voronenkov quickly reached something of a deadlock, with Ukraine’s President, Petro Poroshenko, claiming that the killing was an act of “state terrorism” on Russia’s part, while Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov has denied that the country had any involvement. Meanwhile, Eurovision organisers continue with their futile attempts to avoid this year’s competition becoming political.

If anything, it’s becoming more and more apparent that everything that involves the two countries (allegedly or otherwise) is political. As Skunk Anansie once sang, “Yes, it’s fucking political”. Maybe we should scrap our current Eurovision entry and put that forward instead, just to make a point. It would double up as a good Brexit reference too.

In the event you’ve missed all this, let’s have a recap. When Ukraine won Eurovision last year, Russia threatened to boycott this year’s event. The Russians were already angry about the song Ukraine had put forward in 2016, which they argued broke Eurovision’s ‘no politics’ rule. Organisers disagreed, despite the song being about Ukrainian territory of Crimea, which has been occupied by Russian forces since 2014.

It looked increasingly like Russia might go through with that boycott, but then earlier this month – with just a day to go before the deadline for entries – it was announced that Julia Samoilova would represent the country with the song ‘Flame Is Burning’.

Already well known in Russia and beyond, Samoilova was the runner up in the 2013 series of the country’s version of ‘X-Factor’, and she sang at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Paralympics. A perfect Eurovision entrant, you might say.

However, there was a snag. Ukraine holds a blacklist of artists who have performed in Crimea since it was annexed. Samoilova was not on that list, but it quickly emerged that she had played there in 2015. Ukraine security forces then said that they were considering banning her from entering the country, or they would let her in but then arrest her. Neither of which are good options for someone just hoping to come and sing a song.

After some deliberation, it was announced that Samoilova would be banned from entering Ukraine for three years. The Eurovision Song Contest is due to take place in May, so that’s really not going to work with her diary. On the plus side, she’s avoided jail time. So that’s a silver lining. It was also unclear whether Ukraine intended to actually enforce the ban.

Russian officials immediately spoke out against the ban though. One put forward the slightly peculiar defence that “practically everyone has been to Crimea”. They demanded that Eurovision overseer the European Broadcast Union do something about the situation, threatening that Russia would not only boycott this year’s competition, but as many future competitions as it took for it to calm down. Broadcaster Channel One Russia also said that it would not show the competition if Samoilova was not in it.

A cynic might suggest that this is exactly what Russia wanted. And many cynics have. It can’t have escaped Russia’s notice that Ukraine has been blocking musicians who perform in Crimea. Presumably someone would have checked it Samoilova had done so before putting her forward. Some particularly cynical cynics have also suggested that she was selected because she is a wheelchair user, because then any backlash against her in Ukraine could be spun as disablist, though this doesn’t seem to have been the case so far.

Yesterday, the EBU put out a statement to say that it was working hard to ensure that this extremely political situation does not become political. It had, it said, come up with a solution that should work for everyone.

It said: “Taking into consideration that this ban might be upheld by the Ukrainian authorities, and in order to maintain the non-political nature of the Eurovision Song Contest, the EBU has been working hard to find a solution to this situation and has taken the unprecedented move to offer Channel One Russia the opportunity for Julia to still participate in this year’s Contest by performing live in the second semi final via satellite”.

“Should the Russian entry qualify for the Grand Final the same solution would apply”, it continued. “This is something that has never been done before in the Contest’s 60 year history but, in the spirit of Eurovision’s values of inclusivity, and this year’s theme of ‘Celebrate Diversity’, the decision has been taken to ensure that all 43 entrants are given the opportunity to participate”.

Emphasising how non-political all of this was, Eurovision Song Contest Executive Supervisor, Jon Ola Sand, added: “We are continuing our dialogue with the Ukrainian authorities with the ambition to have all artists present to perform in host city, Kiev, which is, of course, our preferred option. It is imperative that the Eurovision Song Contest remains free from politics and as such, due to the circumstances surrounding Julia’s travel ban, we have felt it important to propose a solution that transcends such issues”.

Well, it’s lucky the EBU is still talking to Ukraine to try to ensure that Samoilova is allowed to appear in the country in person, because – guess what! – Russia’s not really down with the contingency plan.

In a statement last night, Channel One said that it just wasn’t into the idea. “We find the offer of remote participation odd and refuse it”, it said firmly. “It is going absolutely against the very essence of the event, one of the rules of which reads that the song should be performed live on the stage”.

Yeah, you wouldn’t want to go breaking any of the Eurovision rules. Imagine if that happened.

For her part, Samoilova has remained calm and dignified, while at the centre of a bizarre international incident. She has said that she is “not upset” about Ukraine’s decision, but can’t quite see why they would see “some kind of threat in a little girl like me”.

She also remains confident that some kind of resolution will be found. “I will keep going”, she has said. “I somehow think that everything will change”.

Of course, her being all nice and totally unthreatening might be part of a strategy to make Ukraine look bad. That’s probably what you cynics think. Although, it does also seem like she is genuinely nice and unthreatening, as I think you would generally expect a singer in the Eurovision Song Contest to be. It being both nice and unthreatening.

Samoilova is currently scheduled to perform in the second semi-final of the event on 11 May, and then in the final if she gets through. Though really, who knows what will happen in the next seven weeks leading up to event? If this turns out to be World War Three’s ‘Archduke Ferdinand moment’, I think that would be very embarrassing for all of us.