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By Hannah Ellis-Petersen,
The Guardian, UK,
15 April 2017

Russian withdrawal throws Eurovision politics into sharp relief

The spat between Ukraine and Russia is simply the latest in a longstanding tradition of political posturing around the contest


Julia Samoilova was chosen to represent Russia in the 2017 Eurovision song contest but denied a visa to enter Ukraine. Photograph: Maria Antipina/AP

Few rules have been bent, manipulated and outright broken quite like the Eurovision song contest`s ban on "lyrics, speeches [or] gestures of a political or similar nature".

Over the six decades of the competition there have been peace, war and the fall of the Berlin Wall - but this year politics has gripped Eurovision in a more brazen fashion than ever.

A high-profile tussle between the host nation, Ukraine, and Russia reached fever pitch on Friday when the Russian broadcaster Channel One announced it would not broadcast the contest next month. The move was in retaliation for the host`s decision to ban Russia`s contestant, Julia Samoilova, after it emerged she had visited Crimea, annexed from Ukraine by Russia in 2014, and performed there.

Russia`s decision has removed any chance of it competing this year, according to the European Broadcasting Union (EBU).

"We strongly condemn the Ukrainian authorities` decision to impose a travel ban on Julia Samoilova as we believe it thoroughly undermines the integrity and non-political nature of the Eurovision song contest and its mission to bring all nations together in friendly competition," said Frank Dieter Freiling, the chairman of the Eurovision song contest reference group, the event`s steering committee.

"However, preparations continue apace for the Eurovision song contest in the host city Kiev. Our top priority remains to produce a spectacular Eurovision song contest."

It is the first time the host state has banned another state`s entrant, and many within Eurovision accused Ukraine of politicising the contest.

However, others see the decision to put forward Samoilova as an equally political move on the part of Russia, forcing Ukraine to choose between upholding its laws and appeasing Eurovision. Russia had initially promised not to choose a contentious entry in the interests of peace and it was only on the night of the deadline that it finally put forward Samoilova.

Ben Royston, who formerly ran the largest Eurovision news website and has sat on several juries to select Eurovision entry songs as well as working on both Sweden`s and Azerbaijan`s past campaigns to win the contest, said: "Politics has always been synonymous with Eurovision," and this latest posturing was simply part of a long tradition.

Royston pointed out that many countries see Eurovision both as a platform to promote their national identity and culture and as a way to prove themselves as a modern political state. In 2011, Azerbaijan made it national policy to win Eurovision, which it managed two years later.

In previous years, the conflicts between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and then Russia and Georgia, have all filtered into the contest. In 2009, when Moscow was hosting - a year after after the Russia-Georgia war - Georgia withdrew its entry after the organisers told it to change the lyrics and title of its song We Don`t Wanna Put In after it was perceived as too much of a pointed criticism of Russia`s president, Vladimir Putin.

Similarly, Armenia chose not to go to the contest when it was held in Azerbaijan because of their ongoing territorial dispute, and last year the Armenian contestant was reprimanded after she waved the flag for the territory the two countries claim.

However, rather than disqualifying Russia for putting forward an entry who would clearly inflame Ukraine, EBU suggested that Samoilova perform by satellite, though that proposal was rejected by both Ukraine and Russia.

In a statement to Russia`s state-owned Channel One after Ukraine announced its ban, Samoilova said she did not understand why Kiev saw "some kind of threat in a little girl like me".

But according to Royston, "the real story this year is how Russia have manipulated that situation to politicise the contest".

He said: "They chose a wheelchair-bound contestant who had made pro-Russian statements about Crimea on social media. She was never going to be allowed in Ukraine, but they chose her anyway. And now Russia are very publicly saying: `How can Ukraine let this poor sweet girl in a wheelchair be the victim of your laws?` It seems clearly all part of the Russia PR machine."

Russia, however, has argued that its choice of Samoilova was in Eurovision`s spirit of embracing diversity, and the decision to deny her a visa "seriously devalues the upcoming contest".

Russia is one of the largest financial contributors to Eurovision through participation fees, and its broadcast viewing figures are the largest among participating countries. However, in recent years the state broadcaster has been under pressure from various Russian politicians to boycott Eurovision altogether for its perceived endorsement of LGBT values, which contravene Russia`s own laws banning "gay propaganda".

Catherine Baker, a lecturer in 20th-century history at Hull University who specialises in the Eurovision song contest, said it would be a shame if the organisers chose to clamp down on politics after this latest showdown.

"Every year Eurovision is telling stories about what it means to be European and that`s a form of political communication," said Baker. "One of the criticisms that Eurovision always gets is that it`s just kitsch and doesn`t mean anything. If you restrict that space further and take a harder line on what counts as political, you chip away more and more at the things that popular music can actually be about.

"It would end up damaging the contest and play into the criticism that it is just meaningless entertainment."

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