Russia’s leading state broadcaster has announced plans to boycott the Eurovision 2017 song contest after the host country, Ukraine, barred Russia’s contestant, wheelchair-bound singer Yulia Samoylova, from entering the country.
Kyiv’s decision in late March to ban the 28-year-old Russian paraplegic vocalist stemmed from her June 2015 performance in Crimea, where she appeared without the approval of Ukrainian authorities after Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula.
Announcing the boycott Friday, Channel One, the state broadcaster that transmits the competition to large Russian audiences, said event organizers had offered the option of sending a different contestant or having Samoylova perform via video link from Moscow.
“In our view this represents discrimination against the Russian entry, and of course our team will not under any circumstances agree to such terms,” said Yuri Aksyuta, the station’s chief producer for musical and entertainment programs.
The contest organizers also condemned the Ukrainian decision but said the event will go ahead.
In March, a Ukrainian security services official told VOA that the ban on Samoylova was “based solely on the norms of Ukrainian law and national security interests.”
The Kremlin called it political pettiness.
“Practically everyone has been to Crimea; there are hardly any people who haven’t been to Crimea,” said Dmitry Peskov, spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Peskov also challenged criticism that Samoylova’s nomination was a deliberately provocative act by Kremlin officials — an attempt to make Kyiv appear cruel for restricting participation of a disabled artist.
“We don’t see anything provocative in this,” Peskov said, explaining that Channel One producers had nominated Samoylova independently.
Despite the high-blown kerfuffle, Ukrainian political analyst Mikhail Bassarab told VOA that Ukraine’s law can’t allow for exceptions.
“On the basis of Ukraine and international law, the Russian contestant violated the law,” he told VOA’s Russian service. “Naturally, anybody, including this particular Russian citizen, should be barred entry into Ukraine. There is nothing personal in this position. We can’t make exceptions … [just because] they were nominated for an international contest or have a disability.”
Politics or entertainment?
Ukrainian political analyst Yaroslav Makitra says Kyiv’s ban touches on a broader range of questions.
“It’s critical to decide what matters to us more, politics or entertainment,” he said. “If it’s politics, then we should have said ‘no’ to hosting Eurovision. … But if we want to promote the Ukraine across the globe, then we need to seek legislative and legal opportunities that would allow the Russian contestants to come to Ukraine.”
Otherwise, he said, Kyiv risks turning Eurovision into a competition of political finger-pointing.
Samoylova, a 2013 runner-up in the Russian version of The X Factor, who also performed at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Paralympics, says that if she were permitted to perform, political tensions would be far from her mind.
“I’m simply not thinking about that. It is all out of the mix and it’s not very important,” she said. “I sing and my goal is to sing well, to represent Russia and not to embarrass myself.”
Frank Dieter Freiling, chairman of Eurovision’s steering committee, issued a statement Friday condemning Kyiv’s decision to ban Samoylova on the ground that it violates Eurovision’s ethos as a nonpolitical event.
“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.”
Dima Bilan was the last Russian to win Eurovision in 2008. The 62nd international song contest will be held in May in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital.
Svetlana Cunningham translated from Russian. This report was produced in collaboration with VOA’s Russian service. Some information is from Reuters.