My take on the Ukraine/Russia Eurovision saga…

So as you all know by now, Russia has picked up her toys, stamped her tiny feet, won’t broadcast the contest and is therefore OUT of Eurovision 2017 and, in the process, blames Ukrainian law for being inflexible and the web decides to explode.

However, the interwebs have missed one crucial aspect …

Russia were NEVER going to take part

We’ve all been played by the Putin government and its broadcasters into believing that some compromise might happen, and that the contest heals divisions. Nah mate, I reckon it’s been a totally cynical ploy by Russia from start to finish.

But how, Mr Phil?

Relations between Russia and Ukraine nosedived after the annexation of Crimea and a subsequent separatist conflict in east Ukraine which Moscow is accused of stoking. Not a good thing for international relations. Ukraine entered a song into the 2016 contest about Josef Stalin's mass deportation of Crimean Tatars during World War Two in order to make a point. Russia was already trying to buy victory by throwing the kitchen sink at their entry (it came third).

Tail very firmly between its legs, Russia realised that they must do something to undermine Ukraine ... and what better way than to say you’ll enter the contest ... in Ukraine. What a noble gesture! However the silence from Channel One Russia spoke volumes. All through the National final season the interweb was abuzz with will they – won’t they fervour as deadline day drew close. It appears now, though, that C1R, arguably aided and abetted by the Russian government, played the most cynical of all cards.

Is she all she's cracked up to be?

YuliaThey revealed Yuliya Samoylova as their contestant. Knowing full well that she had broken Ukraine’s law on entering Crimea by anything other than an approved route. Yulia uses a wheelchair, so surely Ukraine would have to bow down from international pressure: they can’t not allow in “crippled Yuliya". With smug satisfaction, they must have thought they'd trumped Ukraine. Their plan had worked. There was no way that Mother Russia wouldn’t enter the contest.

Except there was.

That little thing called Ukrainian law. Ukrainian government officials checked and Yulia had indeed broken their laws. There was no way they could allow her in, and so they prompted issued a ban - as is their right. A ban against her and not the broadcaster.  Cue Russian posturing (as planned all along): “Look at the bad Ukrainians being all mean to Yulia … aren’t we the paragons of virtue?

Step forth the EBU

EbuAt this point the EBU tried to do something. For the record, the EBU has no right to intervene in international law disputes, because they are a broadcasting union and not a political entity - something the masses of the interweb should remember.

“Change the singer,” they said. As is Russia’s right, they refused, citing that Yuliya was picked as their singer and they had every right to send whoever they wanted.

The EBU then played a master stroke, in my opinion. “ OK then,” they said. “Sing the song live by video link. We'll amend things here and allow it.”

That flummoxed everyone.

The Russians - who had clearly hoped for a lot more mileage out of “crippled Yuliya” - were wrong-footed. There was an acceptable solution after all.  She wouldn't be in the country- and no laws would be broken. They'd have to showcase the song for what it was: something  entered at the last minute as a cover for their real plan.

They panicked and said no outright. And then said it wouldn't be fair to poor little fragile Yuliya and was against contest rules (It isn't, for the record). It didn't matter anyway, because Ukranian TV issued a statement saying she was 'persona non grata ' - meaning that her ban extended to appearing on state TV, via satellite or on stage.

And thus the stalemate continued. Ukraine officials time and again confirmed that laws had been broken. Russian officials issued photos of Yulia diligently preparing for Eurovision - even going so far as to show her filming her postcard.

And then, because it seemed as if nothing was happening, Russia blinked first by saying, “We won’t broadcast it and we’ll not come”. A final desperate act to make sure that they were seen as the “bigger men”, playing the martyr card to the last.

The truth is, Russia have played the game. They knew exactly how every step of this would go. Certainly from March when they presented their “song” and perhaps as far back as last July, when there was the first sniff of a problem with “blacklisted” artists. Creating the list, in my opinion, gave the Russian broadcaster a perfect way out, and they knew it. They formulated their strategy well and played it to perfection.

But what does the web think?

The interwebs seems to blame either Ukraine or the EBU, and I don’t get it. It seems that the morally affronted are quick to say, “Well it’s all Ukraine’s fault, their contest is a shambles and this proves it.” In fact, it shows that Ukraine’s law (remember Russia invaded Ukrainian territory) should have primacy.

This is, let us not forget, the very same interweb that thought Polina was the anti-christ (although Sergey was perfectly fine because he fitteds into their “mould” of the contest).

Is it OK that a sovereign state can push around the government of another one in the name of a song contest? Of course, it isn’t, and this is, ultimately, about much more than that.

This is about power, emanating from the Kremlin, over everything and everyone it sees fit. It’s about an ex-KGB agent who believes that he alone should bring back the Soviet Union and he’s going to be the glue that holds it together. It’s about a media PR Machine, backed by the Kremlin, using its influence to ensure that Mother Russia is seen as the one shunned - not only by Ukraine but also by the European Broadcasting Union.

Ah yes, another favourite topic of the interwebs: the EBU has been ineffective. If you read some of the dross on social media, they should have banned Russia, banned Ukraine, taken the contest to Berlin, or cancelled the event completely. What, seriously, do you think the EBU is? It’s a umbrella organisation that handles cooperation and resource sharing between broadcasters. Taking the contest away would almost certainly damage this 'union' and, by definition, the future of the contest. And then people like me would have nothing to write about.

Banning Russia and/or Ukraine would be self-defeating. Russia brings in money and viewers. Ukraine has (legally) done nothing wrong. Whilst we saw the outgoing head of the EBU claim that she wouldn't have handled things in this way, she isn't in charge of the Eurovision Song Contest.  Jon Ola Sand and the Reference Committee are. Like it or not, they're making a television show, and not hoping to deliver on anyone's 'hopes and dreams'. A television show that needs money and entrants to survive.

Ukraine’s only “crime” appears to be that they have been woeful in its organisation, but (my experience of attending Eurovision for longer than seems right) is that this is simply the Eastern European way of doing things.

Are you going to get a show? Of course you are, and you always were.

Russia have played a PR Masterstroke. Like the evil villain in any James Bond film, they can sit back and stroke their pussy, safe in the knowledge that they believe they are right and that the world is against them. Ukraine and the EBU can insist that they tried their best and point out they banned nobody. The Interwebs too may be satisfied: they have their pound of flesh and license to righteous indignation - no matter how ill-informed or misdirected.

Ultimately, everyone is getting what they wanted, and that’s no bad thing ... is it?

OnEurope kicks off its rehearsal blog on Sunday, 30 April and we'll be telling it as we see it each day leading up to 13 May. Join us and contradict every word. It wouldn't be the same without you.

If you'd like to be notified each time we report, sign up now.

Follow OnEurope during Eurovision week

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

  • John P Egan, PhD

    The EBU are at fault. Not for how they responded to this–for how they allowed this to happen. Most international high profile competitions have accreditation rules: aside from numbers and short of a violence criminal record, each delegation chooses whom they accredit, particularly their competitors. Yulia has no such record–in fact, she hasn’t been tried in Ukraine on these allegations. She should have been accredited.

    Had they granted her the right to compete–when the Russians hadn’t even booked hotel rooms in Kyiv, showing they never planned to participate–would have required the Russians to scramble to get Yulia ready. Doubtless there’s been no planning for staging, cameras, costumes, background singers, or training to improve her diction in English.

    This entry had the distinct possibility of being the first non-qualifier from Russia: certainly it is their weakest entry since the 1990s. Not because of her, because of the song. Even if it did make the final, it would struggle to place higher than the bottom 5, even with the bloc behind it. THAT would have been more satisfying for the Ukrainians.

    Ukraine has scored a massive own goal here–not because people love Putin. Most of us see all the manipulations you’ve described above. Have they checked ALL the competitors on the Crimea question? Clearly not. Russia are being their usual cagey but clever selves. Sometimes when dealing with the shady, the best strategy is to look for their traps and step around them.

    • Phil Colclough

      She broke Ukrainian law, and boasted about it. Full stop. Everyone including her knew the law, C1R chose to ignore that. The EBU can’t override national law, nor should it. They didn’t “allow it to happen”. It happened outside their control.

  • Jayuu

    I’m tending towards Phil’s side of the argument here.

    It was fairly clear that Russia’s participation in this year’s contest was going to be controversial no matter what (similar to Georgia in 2009 and Armenia in 2012). We know that Russia was pissed off with Ukraine’s song from last year (a potentially valid criticism) and were furious when it won as this was perceived as a big defeat given the effort Russia put in to win last year. So they were always potentially going to do something to try and undermine Ukraine’s hosting this year.
    Picking Yulia was basically picking a fight with Ukraine. They knew she had performed in Crimea and was on the Ukraine banned list. If she was allowed to perform in Kyiv then Ukraine’s ban of performers who have entered Crimea would be significantly undermined and if she was refused (as was inevitable) then Russia could play the “victim” card. Russia also waited until the last possible moment to announce who was their
    participant was so as to make any possible change or negotiation arond this
    difficult if not impossible.
    Yulia herself hasn’t covered herself in any glory either by her boasting about playing in Crimea or her attempts to portray herself as a little innocent paralysed girl being picked on by an agressive state. The cynicism also of using somebody’s disability in this manner is also entremely unsavoury.

    The EBU do share some of the fault here in that knowing the sensitivies around this year’s contest they should have been far more pro-active with both parties earlier to ensure that such a situation didn’t arise. However if Russia were determined to try and provoke a crisis then really the EBU were never going to be able to resolve it.

    This is going to leave a bitter legacy for years to come and the EBU are going to have to get both parties into a room to resolve this.
    If Russia refuse to show the contest this year, as they are threatening, my understanding is that they won’t be able to participate in 2018 either because doesn’t a country have to show the contest for a year before they participate? Unless of course this rule has changed.
    Ukraine are also probably going to face defined penalty for refusing participation from a contestant. Perhaps an EBU ban for a year or two. Also if they refuse to show a future Russian entrant who has performed in Crimea which I understand their TV station is obliged to do under law then Russia can effectively lock the Ukraine out of future by picking such entrants.

    No doubt the Russians will also be hoping that their non-participation will dominate in the media through the rehearsals and the contest themselves thus firmly undermining Ukraine’s hosting. This can’t be allowed to happen so it’s up to the international media covering the contest to just concentrate on the contest as is and ignore their absence.

    • Hi

      The rule about needing to show the contest in order to take part the following year was removed some time back. It was needed in a time when countries could be ‘relegated’ to limit numbers, but since the semi final system kicked in, that rule went away. But … we are only talking about the rules for the 2017 contest, the EBU will (I think) need to amend some of the rules for 2018 anyway. However, adding a retrospective rule about having to have shown a previous contest would be seen as unfair if added after compliance became unachievable. I do anticipate new (vague and possibly unenforceable) words aimed at clarity around political content, but that horse bolted in 2015. To stretch another metaphor, genies don’t fit back in bottles.

      Mo