In 2015, Russian singer-songwriter Yulia Samoylova performed several concerts in the annexed region of Crimea, an area previously considered a part of Ukraine. Samoylova did not seek permission to enter Crimea from the Kievan government, nor did she pass through the de facto border separating it from Ukraine’s mainland. As such, the Ukrainian authorities imposed a travel ban on Samoylova for a minimum of three years. Ukraine considers Crimea illegally occupied by Russia; therefore, the Ukrainians argue that anyone who enters the territory without proper authorization is subject to legal repercussions. This 2015 story regained relevance when Samoylova was selected as Russia’s Eurovision 2017 contestant— and this year, the competition was to be held in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Eurovision began sixty-two years ago as a trivial contest between seven European nations. The idea was that the show would simultaneously exemplify national pride and European unity. It has grown exponentially since then; as of 2017, it has featured nearly 1,500 original songs from around 50 different countries across primarily Europe. Every year, Eurovision attracts nearly 200 million viewers around the world, rivaling only the World Cup and the Olympics. The 2017 contest was originally set to have 43 contending countries, but Ukraine refused to lift the travel ban on Yulia Samoylova so that she could could travel to Kyiv and compete. The European Broadcasting Union, the organization responsible for creating and running Eurovision, reportedly offered to allow Samoylova to perform via satellite, or Russia’s selection of an alternate contestant could perform in Samoylova’s stead. On April 13th. 2017, the Russians officially rejected both options and withdrew themselves from the 2017 competition.
Eurovision’s organizers have strongly condemned Ukraine’s decision to bar Samoylova, namely because they believe that the 28 year-old performer, who is wheelchair-bound, poses no threat to Ukrainian national security. To many, Ukraine’s actions are seen as a petty political play in response to increasing tensions between themselves and Russia. However, one could argue that Russia is ultimately responsible for the quarrel, because they were aware of her preexisting travel ban when they selected her as their contestant. They claimed to believe, however, that Ukraine would allow her to travel and compete in the largest non-sporting spectacle of the year.
Their selection may have been in retaliation to Ukraine’s Eurovision 2016 winner Jamala’s performance. The Crimean singer claimed victory for Ukraine after performing a song that alluded to Stalin’s mass deportation of Crimean Tartars in 1944, but the piece was viewed by many Russians as a political statement about Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Songs with political overtones are theoretically blocked from the competition; in 2009, the EBU prohibited The Republic of Georgia’s ‘We Don’t Wanna Put-In,’ a thinly-veiled criticism of the Putin’s actions in the Russo-Ossetian War. Therefore, as political scientist Anton Shekhovstov explained, Russia’s response to Ukraine’s victory was to “choose a disabled person as Russia’s Eurovision entrant in the full knowledge that Ukraine would be compelled to ban her and, thus, sully its own international reputation.”
Should Ukraine have risen above and allowed Samoylova to compete regardless? Yes, and no. Russia has been bullying Ukraine for decades, from interfering in the nation’s internal politics to blocking NATO membership to the 2014 annexation of Crimea. By sticking to their ban, Ukraine has taken a stand against Russian aggression visibly, though in a non-militaristic fashion. Eurovision has given them a public stage on which to resist. However, their actions also “[undermine] the integrity and non-political nature of the Eurovision song contest and its mission to bring all nations together in friendly competition.”
It is difficult to make Eurovision an entirely apolitical entity. In competitions like the Olympics or the World Cup, there is little room for political statements of any kind, other than refusing to compete outright. You simply play the game, or run the race, and a winner is objectively obvious at the end. But when you put 43—or rather, 42—countries on a stage and provide them an outlet with which to express themselves, it is easy for politics to spill over into artistic expression. It is easier still for the judges to score acts based on their own nationality or political biases, making an objective winner difficult to come by. However, it is important that an outlet such as Eurovision continue to exist in the world. During times of strife, Eurovision “suggests a model for European unity worth following.”