On 22 March, the Ukrainian Security Service barred Russia’s entrant to the Eurovision Song Contest from entering Ukraine. They told Julia Samoylova that she may not enter the country for three years because she broke Ukrainian law by entering Crimea from Russia rather applying for special permission and taking an approved route.
A further complexity comes from the law banning any performer who breaks this law from appearing on state television.
The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) has spent the past weeks trying to find a solution, culminating in a letter from EBU Director Ingrid Deltenre to the Ukrainian PM, Vladimir Groisman, asking him to consider an exception. She threatened the Ukrainian state broadcaster with exclusion from future contests, and closed with words about how Eurovision should not be seen as a political event.
A reply published online today by Ukrainian State TV condemns Deltenre and asks that she respect the right of Ukraine to make its own laws. It also questions her threat to ban the country from future contests. The broadcaster accuses her of hypocrisy by making a political decision to back Russia.
Speaking in Riga today, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko also defended the ban, saying admitting her would be against the law.
“Russia didn’t want to participate in Eurovision but wanted a provocation,’ he said. “I’m pleased that thanks to the actions of the Ukrainian government this provocation will not be realised.”
It is the EBU that allowed politics to dominate by picking a side. There can be little doubt that when choosing Samoylova, Moscow knew she had performed in Crimea. She should have appeared on a list of banned performers compiled by Ukraine. But they did a shoddy job and she didn’t. And so they put her forward. With the deadline for submissions fast approaching, a rough demo tape arrived of a singer barely able to pronounce the words of her song.
Whatever we might want to think, the fact Julia performs in a wheelchair seems to have been key to the Russian plan. Media outlets need a simple hook for news stories. Their readers don’t care for the intricacies of international law. The angle was obvious. Big bad Ukraine bans defenceless wheelchair user. Samoylova herself gave smiling interviews where she wondered out loud what threat Ukraine saw in ‘a little girl’. (She’s actually 27). Things played out much as Moscow intended.
The perfect storm
The storm is doubtless seen by Moscow as a perfect revenge for last year when the EBU, against all advice, chose to allow Ukraine to enter ‘1944’ a song about the deportation of Crimean Tatars by Russia. It raised hackles long before the contest took place. Even now, the EBU insists they don’t see the song as political, rather it dealt with something historical.
Politically (sorry EBU), Moscow has played a blinder. If Ukraine had allowed Samoylova in, it would have been seen to break its own laws and the move could be used in any international court to infer recognition of Russian rights over Crimea. When Ukraine banned her, their international reputation took a hit – it’s a piece of Eurovision history that will stick. If they had responded favourably to Deltenre’s frankly idiotic letter, their government would have been painted as a stooge for ‘the west’.
It was Deltenre who wrote to the Prime Minister rather than the head of Ukrainian State TV. It’s worth noting that Groisman didn’t reply. The answer came from the Supervisory Board at the broadcaster. She chose to raise the stakes. He lowered them.
Is there anywhere left for this to go? The EBU could, in theory, ask Russia to find a different performer, arguing this is a ‘song’ contest after all.
EBU Senior Communications officer Dave Goodman told Russian news agency TASS on Wednesday that the debate over Samoylova’s entry ban was not yet over. “We will have another communication in the coming days,” he said.
And as for next year? Channel 1 Russia has already announced they plan to send Samoylova again. And of course, Ukrainian law bans their state broadcaster from transmitting her performance. Eurovision rules forbid any country from not showing all entrants. Lebanon was denied entry in 2005 when they refused to show the Israeli song.
So perhaps the EBU have their job done for them Ukrainian TV will they exclude itself.
And what about 2019? Maybe the EBU will (for once) stick to its guns and deny a place for a few years – after all the 2017 contest has been beset by problems. And they’ve already suggested which country they seem to favour.
It’s a soap set to run and run.