Yulia Samoylova is left to watch from the sidelines after she was banned from entering Ukraine for this year’s Eurovision. (AP Photo: Alexander Polegenko)
The Eurovision Song Contest was designed in the aftermath of World War II to bring the nations of Europe together to settle their differences through music, rather than harsher means.
But politics has never been too far from the contest, and this year tensions have spilled over, leading to the absence of Russia from the world’s single biggest music TV event.
In 2004, Eurovision officials introduced semi-finals for the first time to sort out the competitors, because so many countries wanted to take part in the world-famous contest.
Since then, Russia is the only country that has made the final every single year.
This year, however, that streak will end, as Russia will have no competitor in Kiev, and Russians will be unable to join the big worldwide audience for Eurovision, because broadcaster Channel One is refusing to show the event on its station following the banning of Yulia Samoylova.
Russia v Ukraine: the backstory
There were two seeds that created this Eurovision crisis — the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and more directly, last year’s contest.
Russia’s Sergey Lazarev was the hottest of favourites for last year’s Eurovision, and his song You Are The Only One was the clear winner in the televote of the TV audience ringing in on the night.
But because the juries — groups of five music industry professionals who also vote on the top 10 songs — marked Russia well down, putting them fifth in their voting, Lazarev slipped to third overall.
Russia reacted angrily to Jamala’s Eurovision win for Ukraine in 2016, calling it a “politicisation of the contest”. (Reuters / TT News Agency: Maja Suslin)
The winner was Jamala for Ukraine, who performed the song 1944 alluding to the deportation of Crimean Tatars under Stalin.
Alexey Pushkov, chairman of the Russian Duma (parliamentary) foreign affairs committee, warned after the result, “the politicisation of the contest is the beginning of the end for Eurovision”.
Twelve months later, Russia sent Samoylova, who has used a wheelchair since childhood, as the performer of Flame Is Burning for the 2017 contest to be held in Ukraine.
In March 2017, Ukrainian authorities launched an investigation into Samoylova, and later that month the state security service (SBU) banned the 27-year-old from entering the country for three years.
They say she violated Ukrainian law by entering the country from Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.
Deputy head of Russia’s State Duma Culture Committee, Yelena Drapenko, was not happy, to say the least.
“I think it’s just a disgrace. What else could we expect from them?” she said.
“We should not participate at all in this competition. What they’ve done is a dirty act.”
Sure enough, Channel One pulled out soon afterwards, leaving a big hole in the competition.
Russia first entered the contest in 1994, three years after a reunified Germany had competed as Germany — rather than West Germany — for the first time.
It has become one of the central nations at Eurovision, finishing in the top five nine times since 2000 and winning the contest in 2008 with Dima Bilan.
Politics never far from the surface at Eurovision
It’s not the first time a country has been accused of playing politics with Eurovision to have a go at Russia.
In 2008, Georgia submitted a song called We Don’t Wanna Put In, which was widely viewed as an intentional pun criticising Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
The song was rejected by Eurovision organisers for breaching rules on political entries.
Green Jolly’s 2005 Eurovision entry for Ukraine was a song linked to the presidential campaign of Viktor Yushchenko (R). (Reuters: Mykola Lazarenko)
But Ukraine itself has a history with Russia at the contest. In 2005 Green Jolly performed hip-hop entry Razom Nas Bahato (Together We Are Many), which angered Russia as it was an unofficial anthem for the Orange Revolution which led to the election of Viktor Yushchenko over Russian-backed prime minister Viktor Yanukovych.
A rule requiring countries to broadcast Eurovision in order to be able to take part the following year has been removed, and Russia has already indicated it will name Yulia Samoylova as its performer for 2018.
Ukraine is one of the outsiders for this year’s contest, but if it happens to win, then the same deadlock could happen next year.
However, there is a possibility the European Broadcasting Union could sanction Ukraine for this year’s decision, banning them from taking part in 2018.