We always knew that this year’s Eurovision was going to be a politically charged one, but Russia and Ukraine have got the games started early, engaging in a fascinating series of tactical manoeuvres with one another – a full two months before the contest starts…
After Ukraine caused huge upset at last year’s Eurovision by snatching the competition from hot favourites Russia with a song about Stalin-era Soviet war crimes, we were expecting all-out retaliation from the Russians.
Instead, after a short-but-expected spate of pant-pissing and tantrum-throwing – where Russia made its usual threats to pull out of the competition for good and start their own competition with the kids from the other side of the street – this time they’ve responded with a cold, calculating masterstroke.
The Ukrainians aren’t stupid though. They know Russia of old and they have their own plans.
And the whole thing is currently playing out in the most fascinating manner.
Move One: Russia
It wasn’t clear if Russia was going to take part in this year’s Eurovision until the very last minute. Having dragged their heels right up to the deadline, Russia finally announced their Eurovision entrant for Ukraine 2017: Julia Samoylova.
The choice is notable for two reasons:
First, Julia is a wheelchair user. Wheelchair users are not so unusual in Eurovision (Poland sent Monika Kuszyńska in 2015; Lithuania had Vytautas Matuzas put in a decent showing in their national heats back in 2012) so it’s not as if Russia are trying to make some bold, new, groundbreaking statement with this.
What’s more likely is that they are cynically looking to put up a sympathetic entry so that when Ukraine starts kicking up a fuss, they look like the bad guys – picking on a woman in a wheelchair.
This is not the first time Russians have pulled this trick. They did something similar in 2014, which was the first competition since their most recent invasion of Crimea. Russia sent two teenagers to perform knowing that, as strongly as people may have felt about Putin’s shitty regime, his anti-LGBT legislation or his advances in Eastern Ukraine, it’s hard (but not impossible) to boo two young girls.
Second, and more interestingly, it transpires that Julia has performed in Crimea since it was annexed – so Ukrainian authorities are entitled, by law, to refuse her entry into their country.
Which, sure enough, is exactly what they’ve done.
Move Two: Ukraine
Realising that they were going to look like total shitbags by announcing their plans to ban a wheelchair user from entering the country – but also realising that the European Broadcast Union would twist itself into an intercontinental pretzel to try to keep the competition apolitical – Ukraine told Russia that Julia Samoylova was blacklisted.
They didn’t outright ban Russia from entering the competition. Nor did they object to the song. Nor, in fact, the performer. They just said she wouldn’t be allowed in the country.
Which seemed, on the face of it, to mean that she was effectively banned. That is until the EBU swooped in.
Move Three: EBU
The EBU found itself in a bit of a bind with this situation too, as Eurovision 2017’s theme is ‘Celebrate Diversity’ – and it’s not much of a celebration if it’s not wheelchair accessible.
So, keen to keep fuss to an absolute minimum, and cut whatever deal they needed to in order to make sure that nobody gets mad at them, the EBU tried to pour a bit of oil on things – hoping this was a troubled water, and not a raging fire.
They said they would allow Julia to perform remotely by satellite link for her semi-final; then again for the show (should she qualify).
It’s a bold move – one that breaks with over 60 years of tradition. But did it solve the problem?
Of course not…
Move Four: Ukraine
Rather than letting the Russians respond, Ukraine’s Vice President whipped straight in, responding to the EBU’s offer with a firm middle finger.
Apparently, according to Ukrainian law, the Crimean travel ban doesn’t just restrict her physical entry into the country. Julia is now on a blacklist which means that it would also be illegal for them to broadcast her on Ukrainian national TV, so that doesn’t solve the problem at all.
Ukraine clarified their position: Send someone else, or don’t bother.
Move Five: Russia
And how did Russia squirm out of this particular hole? Extremely successfully, is how. Much to people’s surprise, Russia also said that the EBU’s offer was unacceptable to them; that it wasn’t in keeping with the spirit of the competition.
Moreover, they said that if Ukraine wouldn’t accept Julia for the 2017 competition, then they would pre-emptively sign her up for 2018. Not only does this show a bit of solidarity with Julia (dampening down any suggestions that Russia is being purely cynical in sending her to Ukraine as a political pawn) it also puts Ukraine in a bit of a bind with their televisual blacklist next year.
This move is more fiendish than it first appears, because if Ukraine stands by its word and continues to ban any blacklisted Russian from their national broadcast when the contest is in Turin (or wherever else it’s likely to be) next year, then they won’t be able to show Julia’s performance then either.
This would put Ukraine in direct contravention of a major Eurovision rule that states you have to show all performances unhindered. Breaking this rule is what got Lebanon booted out in 2005 before they even made their debut (they refused to broadcast the Israeli performance) so the EBU would find it tricky to back down on this.
What that all means is that Ukraine would be unable to appear next year. And if that tactic works once, all Russia would have to do is to keep sending blacklisted performers for the next few years (of which there are at least 150 at the last count) and Ukraine will be disbarring itself from entering the contest for the foreseeable future.
Where it goes from here, no-one seems to know – and there’s a lot of misinformation doing the rounds.
The EBU have said that the Russian delegation hasn’t booked any accommodation in Kyiv while they wait for these difficulties to resolve themselves, but Russian sources are contradicting that by telling a tabloid newspaper that they absolutely have booked hotel rooms there (30 rooms in one of the city’s most fashionable hotels, no less) and that they fully intend on going.
Who’s telling the truth? Who knows?
Beyond that, if Ukraine really are going to be sticklers for the Crimea travel ban then we can expect to see a number of countries who are embroiled in conflict trying to dob each other in. (Already there’s whispers doing the round that Armenia’s entry has been to Crimea too; but can we really put it past the Azeris not to have made that up?)
But the best rumour we’ve heard so far? Apparently Robbie Williams has sent word to Russia that he’s prepared to fill Julia’s shoes if the ban holds.
Which sounds stupid, but does it sound any more stupid than his recent Party Like A Russian single?
(Of course not. Nothing sounds that stupid.)