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Sing When You’re Winning

Russia has gotten the upper hand in the Eurovision propaganda war.
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Ukraine has fallen into a clever trap by banning Moscow’s Eurovision contestant from competing in the song contest in May.

© picture alliance/AP Photo/Ekaterina Lyzlova

Eurovision, the annual contest in which European nations compete against one another to produce the best song, has been no stranger to political controversies over its 60 years. But nothing compares to what is now unfolding in Kiev.

This year, the song contest has become entangled in today’s most controversial and beguiling geopolitical conflict – Russia’s 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea.

The stage was set last May, when Ukrainian contestant Jamala scored a shock win in the 2016 contest with a song about Crimea. It wasn’t explicitly about the current conflict. Instead, it was an emotionally intense song about the Soviet Union’s mass deportations of Crimean Tatars to Siberia in 1944.

In that song, the Kremlin did not see an innocent historical tale. They saw a protest against the current Russian actions in Crimea, by a singer they say has close ties to Ukrainian nationalists. The Russian media and political elite were furious. The winning country always hosts the contest the following year, and it was widely expected Russia would refuse to participate in the contest in 2017.

As the time for this year’s contest drew closer, Russia kept everyone guessing. For months, they would not say whether they would participate. Finally, on March 12, just one day before the deadline to submit an entry, Moscow suddenly announced they would enter the song “Flame is Burning,” to be sung by Julia Samoilova. She is a former finalist on the Russian version of X Factor.

Had Russia relented? Had they decided to extend an olive branch, and stand by their insistence (made vociferously in objection to last year’s win) that the contest should remain free from politics?

At first it looked that way. The song is completely innocuous. Samoilova is a lovely woman, who has been in a wheelchair since childhood, suffering from spinal muscular atrophy. But it soon emerged that all was not as it appeared. Samoilova had performed a concert in Crimea in 2015, one year after Russia’s annexation, which is considered illegal by most of the world. Under Ukrainian legislation in place since 2014, anyone who has visited the territory under Russian occupation has violated Ukrainian law and is not allowed to enter the country.

Falling into the Kremlin’s Trap

Moscow certainly knew that by selecting an artist who had performed in Crimea, they were putting Kiev in a difficult situation. Either they would climb down from the ban, exempting Samoilova from the law during her visit for the Eurovision contest, or they would ban a sweet girl in a wheelchair from participating.

On Wednesday, the Ukrainian security services confirmed that they have chosen the latter. Samoilova will be prevented from entering Ukraine if she tries to travel to Kiev to compete in the song contest.

And with that, Ukraine fell right into Russia’s trap.

The indignant reaction from Moscow was as swift as it was predictable. The Russian deputy foreign minister called Ukraine’s decision “outrageous, cynical, and inhumane.” Several Russian MPs are calling for the European Broadcasting Union, which organizes the contest, to move it to a different country. One MP has said that if Russia can’t participate this year, then it should never participate again.

The EBU is now in a difficult situation. The contest is two months away and it would be almost impossible to move it to another location. If they lean too heavily on Ukraine to not implement its own law, it will look like they are giving in to Russian pressure.

But that pressure is intense. The folks at EBU headquarters in Geneva are terrified of Russia pulling out of Eurovision, given that the song contest has some of the highest ratings in that country.

The Wurst Factor

This is not the first time that Russia has threatened to walk away from Eurovision. After the bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst won the contest in 2014 for Austria, Russian politicians demanded that the country pull out because Eurovision had become “a celebration of perversion.”

In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to revive the old Cold War alternative to Eurovision, Intervision. Plans were announced just two weeks after Conchita’s victory in 2014, but they never got off the ground.

The contest was going to include any Eastern European states that wanted to join, as well as Central and East Asian states. The EBU is very worried about Russia breaking away and establishing its own rival contest, particularly after Turkey’s then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pulled his country out in 2012 to launch his own Turkvision contest with other Turkic-speaking nations.

Eurovision has seen its ratings explode over the past two decades as the contest has gained a huge new audience in Eastern Europe. It’s now the most widely watched live entertainment event in the world each year, with new audiences developing globally. It is big business, and a Russian withdrawal could jeopardize that.

And so, the EBU tried to walk a fine line saying that while they are “deeply disappointed” in the Ukrainian decision, “we have to respect the local laws of the host country.” They also said they would enter into talks with Ukraine, “with the aim of ensuring that all artists can perform.”

But the EBU has lost this battle before – there is precedent in Azerbaijan. That country won the song contest in 2011, creating an awkward situation because it is still in a (cold) war with its neighbor Armenia, another participant in the contest. Armenians are banned from entering Azerbaijan, leaving it an open question of how Armenia would compete in the contest in Baku. The EBU entered talks with Azerbaijan about making a two-day exemption for the law for Eurovision, but Baku wouldn’t budge. In the end, Armenia decided to pull out.

Given its track record, it seems uncertain that the EBU will be able to convince Ukraine to bend its law. Then again, the aggrieved country is in a very different league this time around. The EBU could afford to anger Armenia in 2012. Can it afford to anger Russia?

Either way, Moscow will win this battle. If Kiev is forced to back down and allow Samoilova into the country, it will be a humiliating blow to the Ukrainian cause. If Russia pulls out of the contest this year because Ukraine banned their singer, it will be Ukraine that looks petty and irrational – and Russia who looks misunderstood and persecuted. More importantly, it may give Putin the excuse he needs to permanently pull out of the contest despite its huge popularity in Russia and revive Intervision.

Once again, Russia’s president has outmaneuvered his opponents. And he did it by manipulating them into harming themselves. All for the sake of a song contest.