Julia Samoylova and Russia out as the EBU embarrassed

15 April 2017

The fiasco over Julia Samoylova’s and Russia’s appearance at Eurovision Song Contest of 2017 in Kyiv reached its predictable conclusion when the European Broadcasting Union announced Russia will not be participating. With the Ukrainian government refusing to permit Samoylova to enter the country and Channel One, Russia’s Eurovision broadcaster, refusing to make any compromises and then deciding not to broadcast ESC at all, the EBU was left with no choice.

Samoylova was banned for three years from entering Ukraine after it was revealed she had performed in Crimea in 2015. With that region annexed by Russia, Ukraine deemed her visit there as illegal and had already announced a blacklist of artists and other public figures banned from entering Ukraine for their public support of Russia’s actions in Crimea. Samoylova was not on this list when she was selected. Despite pressure from the EBU, including a letter to the Ukrainian Prime Minster to intervene, Ukraine authorities refused to budge, and even publicly rebuked the EBU for their threat to ban Ukraine from future events. Likewise, for Russia, an offer for Samoylova to perform via satellite or to change their artist was met with similar intransigence.

Julia Samoylova of Russia - banned from Ukraine for Eurovision 2017 in Kyiv

Julia Samoylova of Russia

Much emotion has been expressed by fans on this issue over the weeks since Samoylova was selected, with much of it starting with your view of Russia. As a rule, I steer clear of politics and prefer to focus on the music. That also included the contentious decision to allow Jamala’s 1944 to compete and win last year for Ukraine, which arguably was the start point of all this chaos. It was only after ESC 2016 that I began to have doubts about 1944, particularly as Eurovision is meant to be non-political, and that allowing even a hint of politics in the contest can see it snowball into a massive headache.

Browsing forums and social media, the most dominant impression noted was the sheer ignorance on this issue. Opinion really does seem to start with the individual’s perception of Russia, and then it’s blaze away, often with the most irrational, hypocritical and false thoughts and reasoning. So, for a better understanding of the issue, here are a list of the facts that played a part in this saga, then you make up your mind at the end.

* 1944 was a controversial song. While it explicitly was about events in 1944, there’s no doubt its purpose was to spotlight events of 2014. It could easily have been called 2014 and been just as relevant. Based on that, it should have been banned.

* A few months after Ukraine won in May of 2016, the government produced a blacklist of Russian artists banned for entry into Ukraine, with the explicit message to Russia not to pick anyone from the list. Julia Samoylova was NOT on this list despite performing in Crimea in 2015.

* Samoylova’s “crime” was to enter Crimea through a non-Ukrainian entry point. She didn’t shoot anyone. She didn’t bomb anyone. She didn’t shoot down a plane. She merely performed in a region of Ukraine that Ukraine deemed was unlawful to do without their permission. In creating their blacklist, Ukraine focused primarily on those that actually espoused pro-Russian sentiment about Crimea, not necessarily those merely entering the region. It’s doubtful they’d ever know who enters Crimea illegally anyway. After all, Samoylova wasn’t on the blacklist, and Ukraine only became of aware of it after she blabbed. If Russia really want to cause mischief she’d have revealed it during Eurovision.

* The EBU mentioned in a leaked letter to the Ukrainian Prime Minister dialogue with ESC organisers about security risks of anyone selected. One can only speculate that there was some sort of an agreement that Ukraine could not add anyone, or ban anyone, not on the blacklist unless they were a security risk and after the EBU had been consulted. That really is the EBU’s main grievance. So Samoylova entered illegally, big deal. It doesn’t conflate to being a massive security threat, and Ukrainian authorities should have explained it to the EBU first. Besides, if Russia wants to create mischief in Kyiv, any artist or member from their delegation could be capable of that – whether they ever entered Crimea illegally or not.

* Russia’s intention was almost certainly to boycott ESC 2017. Not only were they aggrieved about 1944, they were aggrieved by the bizarre jury voting that saw them lose jury points in the grand final despite twice as many juries voting. This was actually first spotlighted by one of the songwriters on Instagram. Typically raw scores of top contenders increase by 50% or 60% from the semi final to the grand final. Russia dropped from 148 to 130. Another sign of Russia’s indifference to Kyiv 2017 was the EBU said Russia had not attended the heads of delegation meeting, nor had booked any accommodation in Kyiv for the Eurovision period.

* Samoylova is not a victim here. Being in a wheelchair did not mean she was being used. No doubt, she was fully complicit in the process. How far back, no one knows. She might have been selected in good faith only to blab about Crimea in error. Or she was selected with full knowledge she had been to Crimea. All we know is once Samoylova revealed that she had performed in Crimea, that prompted Ukraine to consider a travel ban in accordance with their laws.

* The EBU never suggested Ukraine not uphold its laws. It only asked for an exemption, or an allowance, simply for Samoylova to compete at Eurovision. This is actually a normal and reasonable request. With nearly all laws, there’s discretion when it comes to sanctions. Border laws particularly so. While criminals are barred from entering the USA as a rule, applying to a American embassy will often result in a visa granted. Of course, there’s often asylum seekers, refugees and general immigrants crossing borders illegally, and authorities make individual judgments on them – with obvious emphasis on the legitimacy of their case and their security risk. In this case with Samoylova, Ukraine even dwelt on the decision for some time, with Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to the Ukrainian Prime Minister, saying Samoylova could attend Eurovision as long as she “doesn’t publicly announce her support for the annexation of Crimea and aggression against Ukraine”. To my knowledge, she never did. Ultimately, Ukraine saw her selection as “provocative” and hit her with the full and immediate ban of 3 years.

* Neither Russia nor Samoylova have broken any EBU rules with regards to this year’s Russian entry. Comparison’s to Georgia’s ban in 2009 or Romania’s in 2016 are nonsense when they broke EBU rules regarding political songs and unpaid debt, respectively. The ban is at Ukrainian government level, and it only applies to Samoylova, not a country. That’s why the EBU have been endeavouring to ensure Russia participates in Eurovision.

* While Ukraine remained firm on applying sanctions to their fullest and harshest level, Russia remained stoic in their zero tolerance to compromise – either to change the artist or allow Samoylova to perform via a satellite link from Russia. The latter option was absurd and it speaks to the EBU’s amateurish handling of the situation.

* Russian artists have been booed at previous contests, particularly 2014 and 2015, so the selection of a wheelchair-bound performer was seen as protection against that in the event Samoylova was allowed into Ukraine. Lost in this is the disgusting audience behaviour anyway. Booing artists totally betrays the ESC ethos and no doubt influenced Russia to find a sympathetic figure to perform in this potentially hostile environment. Had Russian artists been shown more decency over the past few years, then Russia would have felt more at ease at performing in Kyiv.

* Let’s pretend Russia won last year and they banned a Ukrainian artist because they entered Crimea through a non-Russian entry point. Do you really think all the people currently blurting “it’s the law” against Samoylova would be doing likewise if roles were reversed? No. In fact, it would be “let them in, let them sing”.

* There’s no right or wrong in this ordeal. Ukraine, Russia and the EBU each believe their case is legitimate. More than that, Ukraine and Russia are stubborn as hell and neither want to see each other in Kyiv. That’s why there was never any hope of reconciliation.

Conclusion

There’s only one real winner in this, and that’s Russia. They twisted their planned boycott of ESC 2017 from that of sore loser into that of a victim. They embarrassed the EBU in the process and exposed Ukraine as petty and ridiculous. They will be salivating at the outcome, especially that they won’t even need to broadcast the event in Russia – something they probably never wanted to do either – and escape sanction for not doing it. More likely it’s Ukraine that will be sanctioned, after the event, and Russia will notch up another win. As for the EBU, two countries played them as fools, and all they could do was flap hopelessly in response. It’s been a hard lesson to learn, and surely the response next time is if there’s even a hint of politics in a song, ban it.

The Official Statement from the EBU

Following the official confirmation that Russian Eurovision entrant, Julia Samoylova, will not be permitted to travel to Kyiv to compete in the Eurovision Song Contest 2017, the EBU formally offered two alternative proposals to Channel One in a bid to find a solution that would enable Russia to continue their participation in this year’s event.
“These proposals were to either take part via satellite or to change their chosen artist to one who could legally travel to Ukraine for the duration of the Contest. Sadly both proposals have been rejected by Channel One and they have now announced they do not intend to broadcast the Eurovision Song Contest 2017. Unfortunately this means Russia will no longer be able to take part in this year’s competition. We very much wanted all 43 countries to be able to participate and did all we could to achieve this,” the EBU states.
Frank Dieter Freiling, Chairman of the Eurovision Song Contest Reference Group, the event’s steering committee, said: “We strongly condemn the Ukrainian authorities’ decision to impose a travel ban on Julia Samoylova 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. However, preparations continue apace for the Eurovision Song Contest in the host city Kyiv. Our top priority remains to produce a spectacular Eurovision Song Contest with our Member UA:PBC in May.”
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