Explaining the Russian-Ukrainian feud that looms over the Eurovision Song Contest

19 Oct 2017

Eurovision is meant to be a happy time for all to enjoy, whether you are a singer, a member of a delegation, an official or a visiting fan. This year’s contest however hosted in Kiev, Ukraine, was to be overshadowed by many controversies, but one political controversy stood out above the rest.


Rewind to 2016: Ukraine won the Eurovision Song Contest for the second time, making them the only former Soviet state to do so (they had previously won in 2004). Jamala was the name of the singer and the winning song was entitled ‘1944’. The story behind the song was about her grandparents and their deportation from Crimea under the regime of Joseph Stalin. The Russian media and Russian political scene took offence to this, and subsequently tried to get her disqualified from the 2016 contest quite early on. Their attempts to have Jamala disqualified were unsuccessful since her song did not directly mention Putin, Stalin or any other Russian political figures.


Both Ukraine and Russia qualified for the Grand Final in Stockholm and Jamala then went on to win the entire contest in Stockholm with a total of 534 points. Both Russia and Ukraine qualified to the 2016 Grand Final. Jamala scored nothing from the Russian jury, but got 10 from the Russian tele-vote, whereas the Russian entrant for 2016, Sergey Lazarev scored nothing from the Ukrainian jury but scored 12 points from the Ukrainian tele-vote. This means Jamala placed 2nd in the Russian tele-vote and Sergey Lazarev placed 1st in the Ukrainian tele-vote.


The discrepancies that ended up appearing between the jury and the tele-votes of both nations showed us that the Russia-Ukraine conflict is a conflict of the elites and not the people, as the tele-voting public in both countries still awarded points to each other.


Fast forward to the 2017 Eurovision season. Even before the internal selection took place, rumours had been flying around as to whether Russia would take part at all. When Kiev last hosted the contest in 2005, during the Orange Revolution, Russia took part with no apparent problems. As time grew closer to the heads of delegations meeting, people started questioning Russia’s motives for not choosing yet. On the 2nd March 2017, the Russian press secretary, Dmitry Peskov had said that the Kremlin had not stated that Russia will be withdrawing although they were under growing pressure from members of the Russian public and influential Russian figures such as Phillipp Kirkorov to make that speech.


For the 2017 contest it was Channel One’s turn to choose the competing act for Russia. They had chosen a disabled artist called Julia Samoylova, whom Kirkorov said he would have composed and produced a track for. She was announced as the Russian representative on the 12th March, which was one day before the heads of delegations meeting was due to take place. Her song was going to be called Flame is Burning, sung entirely in English.


But things started to go from bad to worse the day after her selection. It was discovered that Julia had performed a concert in Crimea many years before her selection. This in itself was not the problem, but the way she got there created the problem: she entered Crimea illegally. At this present moment in time, you need to enter Crimea via Ukraine and have the correct validation papers from the Ukrainian government. It was discovered that Julia did not have these, and as a result the security service in Ukraine decided to put Julia on what was dubbed as the ’blacklist’.


This is a blacklist of people who are banned from entering Ukraine for a variety of different reasons. People on this list include Nick Clegg (Former leader of the Liberal Democrats), Andrew Robatham (former Conservative MP for South Leicestershire) and Robert Walter (former Conservative MP for North Dorset). However, the most prominent figure to be banned from Ukraine, although he has constantly breached this banning order at the border with Poland is ex president of Georgia, and supporter of Yulia Tymoshenko, Mikheil Saakashvili.


This spilled into Eurovision because both sides had determined for a few weeks that they were in the right, and neither side would back down. The European Broadcasting Union, the organisers of the Eurovision Song Contest, had to step in. It was Jon Ola Sand job, the executive Supervisor of The Eurovision Song Contest to make sure the contest ran as smoothly as possible. 2017 would not be the case for him. He offered a unique alternative to the Russian delegation, for Julia to perform via satellite, but this would be in breach of a Eurovision rule that states all performers must be performing live and without any backing tracks. Almost immediately after this was proposed, the Russian delegation turned it down.

Many of Ukraine’s top political figures were involved. The president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, stood his ground. After consulting with the security service in Ukraine, he felt as though he needed to make a public address, as his word would be final. However, The European Broadcasting Union were trying everything in their powers to try and get Ukraine to overturn the ban, or even ask for the ban to apply after the contest had taken place. The chief of the European Broadcasting Union, Ingrid Deltenre had sent a letter to the prime minister of Ukraine, Volodmyr Groysman, threatening them with exclusion, if they did not adhere to the European broadcasting Union suggestions.


The quote from the chief of the European Broadcasting Union read as follows: “Should this ban be confirmed by your office, it would certainly have a very big impact on Ukraine’s international reputation as a modern, democratic European nation.” Deltenre goes on to say the following: “No previous host country has prevented an artist from performing at the Eurovision Song Contest and we would not like to see a precedent set in 2017. We consider the current ban of the Russian singer unacceptable. As a consequence, UA:PBC might be excluded from future events.”.


It is worth noting that Ukraine received a hefty fine, with Reuters reporting it to be more than 200,000 euros (just over 6.5m Ukrainian hryvnias). Russia did not escape without punishment. They did not attend the obligatory heads of delegation meeting, the day after their entry was selected. As a result of this, the European Broadcasting Union handed them an undisclosed punishment.


The question that the top officials in Ukraine were asking themselves was ‘why is an outside organisation interfering in the running of our country?’, the Russian delegation and officials were asking themselves: ‘why is every other country allowed to send any singer they want while our singer has been blacklisted and banned?’ and the officials at the European Broadcasting Union were asking themselves: ‘why does the Ukrainian government want to discredit the independent and non-political nature of our Song Contest?’ That is why the situation went on for so long, all parties had so many unanswered questions, and someone had to make the ultimate final decision.


A joint statement was issued by Channel one in Russia and the Russian head of delegation Yuri Aksyuta which stated that they were not happy with the propositions made by STB/UA:PBC (Ukrainian host broadcasters), Zurab Alasania (elected head of UA:PBC), the Ukrainian head of delegation  (Victoria Romanova), the European Broadcasting Union and Frank Dieter Freiling, who is head of the Eurovision Song Contest Reference Group. It was after Russia, Ukraine and the EBU had exhausted all possible solutions that the final decision was made to withdraw Julia from the contest. After this decision was made, Julia still travelled to Sevastopol, which is part of Crimea, to perform in a victory day parade on May 9th. That day would have been the same day as her semi-final qualification in Kiev.


Since this saga, Julia has put claims in international media that she will be representing Russia at the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest in Lisbon, Portugal. This is not been confirmed or denied by either Channel One or the other Russian Broadcaster VGTRK. Although Phillip Kirkorov has said that he is seeking someone to work with for 2018. Does this mean that Julia is out of the picture entirely? 

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