They’re two of the most competitive nations at Eurovision and in recent years their geopolitical conflict has spilled into the song contest. And on Thursday evening the ongoing feud between Russia and Ukraine at ESC 2017 finally reached its conclusion, with the EBU’s confirmation that Russia “is not eligible to participate in Eurovision 2017”.
The spat — which saw Ukraine place a travel ban on the Russian competitor Julia Samoylova, owing to her illegal visit to Crimea in 2015 — has made headlines around the world.
Now, as we hopefully wrap up the drama on Eurovision 2017, let’s take a look back on what exactly went down…
Ukraine wins — will Russia participate?
Last May Ukraine won Eurovision 2016 with Jamala’s “1944” — a song sung partly in Crimean that was described as personal, but which read as very political with its discussion of the forced deportation of Crimean Tartars under Stalin. Almost immediately people questioned whether Russia would participate in the 2017 edition in Ukraine, where anti-Russian sentiment has been on the rise owing to the illegal annexation of Crimea and ongoing military conflict.
But on October 31 Russia’s broadcaster Channel One said “yes” to participation. The sky seemed clear and it was even rumoured that Russia would send Ukrainian-born singer Alexander Panayotov to Kyiv. Months passed without any update, but by January 2017 the rumour mill suggested everything was on track with the leak of a supposed shortlist with five acts.
By March 13 it was time for the Heads of Delegation meeting — also known as the deadline to present your song and artist to the EBU. Russia remained silent and fans began anticipating a withdrawal. Days before the meeting Pavlo Hrytsak — the newly installed executive producer — commented that he was 90% sure Russia would not be present at the meeting, as they had not yet booked a hotel.
Russia selects Julia Samoylova with “Flame Is Burning”
On March 12 — the eve of the Heads of Delegation meeting — Russia announced that it had selected Julia Samoylova with the ballad “Flame Is Burning” for Eurovision 2017. With that one announcement Russia erased fears of withdrawal (for a moment anyway). Julia, whose name was not among those rumoured previously, rose to fame on Faktor A, the Russian version of X Factor, where she sang the Eurovision 2007 winning song “Molitva” during the audition stage.
She touched people with her beautiful voice and her moving backstory. Julia lives with spinal muscular atrophy, a condition that leads to a weakening of the muscles and which has left her confined to a wheelchair. As a child she found solace through music, cultivated her talent and, with Russia’s announcement, was poised to become the second person to perform in a wheelchair on the Eurovision stage, after Poland’s Monika Kuczynska became the first person to do so back in 2015.
Julia’s selection sparked mixed reaction. Many praised Russia’s choice as upholding the theme of #CelebrateDiversity. Others suggested that Russia had simply chosen a singer in a wheelchair to mitigate against booing. Still others were thrilled that Russia had chosen a singer who represented another form of diversity, but they thought it best not to mention her wheelchair, as she should be treated as any other singer. Regardless of one’s approach, this much was clear: Russia got Europe talking.
Did Julia Samoylova break Ukrainian law?
Around the time of her announcement, Julia traveled to Finland to undergo medical treatment and rehabilitation. “They have the best statistics for successful surgery,” Julia told Russia’s Gazeta.ru. “They do not exceed the risk threshold. I pondered the matter for a long time. I was talking about similar things with a lot of experienced people, and chose the Finnish clinic.”
But as Julia sought restorative treatment, controversy erupted over her participation.
Two days after Russia’s artist announcement, Ukraine’s security services revealed that Julia Samoylova had illegally entered Crimea.
Ukraine does not recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea (nor do international bodies such as the United Nations and the European Union). Ukrainian law requires that foreign visitors must obtain legal documentation from Ukraine to enter its territory, which includes Crimea. Julia performed in Crimea in 2015 and did not obtain this documentation, having presumably entered through the Russian border.
Vasyl Hrystak — the head of Ukraine’s security services — said that her potential ban went beyond her performance in the disputed territory.
“The law should be one for all — she did not just visit Crimea, she also left comments on social networks, where she spoke about Ukraine, its authorities and its course for Euro-Atlantic integration. My own position is clear: I think she should not come to Ukraine.”
The Ukrainian secret service launched an investigation. And on March 22 it announced that Julia Samoylova had been officially barred from entering Ukraine for three years, making her ineligible to participate in the Eurovision Song Contest.
Julia told Russia’s Channel One that she was not upset over the decision — and that she remained hopeful she would make it to ESC.
“It is very funny to look at all this, because I do not understand what they saw in me — such a small girl. They saw some kind of threat. I am not actually upset. I continue to practice. I think somehow that everything is going to change.”
Julia Samoylova to represent Russia in 2018?
Shortly after the news that Julia could not enter Ukraine, Russia’s two broadcasters agreed that Julia should represent the country in 2018.
The 2018 representative will be selected by the VGTRK, as they select Russia’s Eurovision participant in even years, while Channel One does it in odd years.
EBU proposes a satellite performance
The day after the ban, March 23, the European Broadcasting Union reacted to the news publicly.
Eurovision supervisor Jon Ola Sand stated that the EBU must respect Ukrainian law, but that it was “deeply disappointed in the decision, as we feel it goes against both the spirit of the contest and the notion of inclusivity that lies at the heart of its values.”
The EBU soon offered a solution, which many Eurovision fans had previously tweeted and blogged about in jest: Russia should be able to perform via a satellite connection from Moscow. It worked for Amy Winehouse at the Grammys, so why night for Julia at Eurovision?
Both Russia and Ukraine refused the option. Russia thought the solution was a “strange offer” by the broadcasting union. And, as our editor William pointed out in an interview with BBC Radio 4, it would treat Julia as a second-class performer, and deny her the cauldron of energy that comes with performing in front of an excited Eurovision audience.
Ukraine stated that although Julia Samoylova would not enter the country, showing material of persona non grada was also illegal.
It seemed that the only thing Russia and Ukraine could agree on was rejecting the EBU’s peace offer.
Behind closed doors
As Jon Ola Sand spoke publicly, Ingrid Deltenre — the chief of the EBU — was getting tough with Ukraine behind-the-scenes.
“Should this ban be confirmed by your office, it would certainly have a very big negative impact on Ukraine’s international reputation as a modern, democratic European nation,” Deltenre wrote in the letter which was sent on March 23 (but which didn’t leak publicly until March 31). “Needless to say that we are also very concerned for the damage this will inflict on the Eurovision Song Contest and the European Broadcasting Union.”
“No previous host country has prevented an artist performing at the Eurovision Song Contest and the EBU would not like a precedent to be set in 2017. We consider the current ban of the Russian singer as unacceptable. As a consequence the UA:PBC might be excluded from future events.”
“Russia should send a different representative”
All sides faced criticism over the ongoing feud. Ukraine’s Vice Prime Minster Vyacheslav Kyrylenko sought to calm the waters by saying russia was welcome to compete, so long as they send a new representative to the contest. In a statement he said:
“I can reiterate that Russia can take part in the Eurovision Song Contest 2017 in Kyiv, but only if there is a participant who has not violated Ukrainian legislation. I think that France, Germany, Great Britain, Poland or any other member of the European Broadcasting Union would have taken the same decision.”
Can the decision still be reversed?
Reference Group chairman Frank-Dieter Freiling reacted to the scandal in an interview with the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel on March 26.
He said that the EBU had not received any official notification from the Ukrainian government or broadcaster that Julia Samoylova would not be able to travel to Ukraine.
“We are still waiting for the final decision by the Ukrainian government. If they decide to not lift the ban, we will continue the conversation with Russia to see what solutions are useful. One thing we noted before the ban is that the Russian delegation did not take part in mandatory previewing sessions and did not reserve any accommodation, in contrast to all other delegations. Russia has to make its participation clear, just as we make must make it possible for them.”
Russian stars show support for Julia
Russian stars showed their support for Julia Samoylova by staging a flashmob.
The flashmob featured former Eurovision participants Dmitry Koldun and Arsenium, as well as the Russian singer Valeriya, who tried to represent Russia in 2009 but lost out to Ukrainian Anastasiya Prikhodko in the final round.
Russia films their postcard on Moscow’s Red Square
Moscow Eurovision Party cancelled
The annual Russian pre-party confirmed that although Julia Samoylova would be unable to travel to Ukraine, and despite the fact that Russia might possibly withdraw, they would still proceed with their party. Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Greece, Israel, Italy, Moldova and Sweden were set to perform at the annual event, which has been praised in recent years for its top-notch production.
But on April 4 the organisation suspended ticket sales, as several countries planned to withdraw. That came after the bombing of the subway in St. Petersburg, which unnerved many performers and potential visitors.
A week later, on April 11, the organisation confirmed that the Moscow Eurovision Party 2017 was cancelled.
Russia will not compete at Eurovision 2017
On April 13 Russian broadcaster Channel One confirmed that the EBU had been unable to resolve the issue with Ukraine and, as a result, Russia would not broadcast Eurovision 2017.
Russia made its announcement in a press statement. The statement reads that the EBU has been unable to come to terms with Ukraine’s Security Service, who banned Julia from entering the country in March. The statement said:
“The First Channel finds the Ukrainian refusal completely unreasonable. The reason for it, of course, is Ukraine’s attempt to politicize the contest, whose goal throughout its 62-year history has been to unite people.”
On April 14, the National Public Broadcasting Company of Ukraine released its own statement, saying that it had “repeatedly proposed to the Russian Federation to send to Kyiv a participant who did not violate the laws of Ukraine. However, the Russian side has left the decision unchanged.”
They added that “the aim of the Russian side from the very beginning was not the competition, but the creation of negative information and atmosphere around preparations for the competition.”