Brexit and Putin: the politics that could determine Eurovision 2017

As Russia boycotts Eurovision, Steve Rosenberg, the BBC’s man in Moscow, says international relations are centre stage – and Britain has no chance

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I wonder whether the European Union would excite more people if it were more like the Eurovision Song Contest. Of course, that might mean EU Commissioners having to wear outrageous sequin-encrusted costumes; using telephone voting and juries to decide fishing quotas; and employing a Norton, rather than a Marr or a Dimbleby, to comment on events in Brussels.

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But the EU and the ESC already have one thing in common – and that’s politics. The aim of the 62-year-old contest may be to transcend the political divide and bring countries together through song.

In reality, though, Eurovision and politics go together like Christmas and pudding. The history of the song contest is littered with examples. Greece boycotted in 1975 due to Turkey’s participation, a year after Turkish troops had invaded Cyprus.

Armenia pulled out of Eurovision 2012 in Azerbaijan: the two countries are locked in a long-running conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Three years earlier, Eurovision had ruled that Georgia’s entry broke contest rules banning political lyrics. The title and chorus of the Georgian song We Don’t Wanna Put In was considered a sly reference to Russia’s president.

Politics has always been a sideshow at Eurovision. This year, however, with the final being hosted by Ukraine, it’s centre stage. For the first time in the contest’s history, a host nation has barred an artist from entering the country and taking part.

Ukraine’s state security service recently slapped a three-year travel ban on the Russian singer Yulia Samoilova. It declared that back in 2015 Ms Samoilova had violated Ukrainian border rules by visiting Crimea (the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Russia) without obtaining permission from Kiev.

The Kremlin condemned the decision, claiming that it “seriously devalues” the competition. The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which organises the contest, was furious. In a letter to Ukraine’s prime minister, Ingrid Deltenre, the EBU’s director-general, said she was “…frustrated, in fact angry, that this year’s competition is being used as a tool in the on-going confrontation between Russia and Ukraine.” She warned that Ukraine could be banned from future contests.

In a desperate attempt to reach a compromise, the EBU made an unprecedented offer to Russia: Samoilova could take part by satellite. Her performance in a Moscow studio would be beamed live into the contest. Russia rejected the idea and has now pulled out of the show and Russian TV won’t broadcast this year’s final.

The Ukrainian authorities are unrepentant: they dismiss Russia’s actions as a “provocation”, convinced that Moscow purposely entered a singer it knew had broken Ukrainian law.

What’s more, Yulia Samoilova suffers from spinal muscular atrophy and has used a wheelchair since childhood. To some observers, it makes Ukraine’s travel ban seem all the more heartless.

Was that Russia’s intention? This is the second year that the issue of Crimea has sparked controversy at Eurovision. In 2016, Ukraine’s winning entry, 1944, was about Joseph Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars.

Russia had complained that the song was political and called for it to be excluded. The EBU allowed the entry. In the final, Russia’s song won the popular vote, but Ukraine triumphed with the help of the jury scores. Moscow cried foul and claimed the result was political.

So should we, like the Russians, be blaming the UK’s Eurovision failures on politics? Has the rest of Europe (plus Australia) got it in for us? Is this payback for the Iraq War? Extraordinary Rendition? It couldn’t be the quality of the songs we enter, surely? It’s a conundrum: British artists enjoy chart-topping success across Europe. Yet the UK hasn’t won the Eurovision Song Contest for 20 years.Even then, in 1997, it was an American, Katrina Leskanich, who sang us to victory. If it is politics, then fasten your seatbelts: the UK could be in for an even bumpier ride on the Eurovision rollercoaster. Courtesy of Brexit.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X8oTtSTRdSw

Let’s face it: in recent years it’s been hard enough to earn points from our European neighbours when we’ve been on speaking terms with them. But now that the UK is quitting the European Union amid public recriminations and “entente most uncordiale”, who on Earth is going to vote for us?

True, this is not the EU Song Contest; not all Eurovision participants are EU member states. But most are: 26 of this year’s 42 participating countries. Will Brexit condemn the UK to the dreaded nul points from here until eternity?

Should we spare ourselves the embarrassment, not to mention the entry fees, cut our losses and bow out gracefully? The answer is, emphatically, no. In the words of Theresa May, “We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.” She might have added: “And we are certainly not leaving the Eurovision Song Contest.”

The UK belongs in Eurovision. We’ve won the event five times and I’m convinced we can win it again. How? It’s devilishly simple: we need a great song and a great singer. In short, a standout entry.

There may be an element of politics in Eurovision, but a quality song will usually (though, not always) come out on top. For that to happen, we need to be serious about winning the thing. In recent years our Eurovision competitors have appeared more determined to succeed than the UK.

Russian music critic Artemy Troitsky once told me that, as far as Russia is concerned, “Every time there is Eurovision, it feels like we have a Stalingrad battle where the fate of the country is at stake.”

Troitsky attributed that to Russia’s “huge inferiority complex when it comes to considering its place in Europe.” Other nations set out to win the song contest to boost tourism, investment and strengthen their voice on the international stage.

Mind you, do we really want to treat the Eurovision as a Battle of Stalingrad? I fear that approach would spoil the fun. And fun – not first place – is what the Eurovision Song Contest is really all about. After all, this year’s competition features Romanian yodelling and an Italian gorilla…   

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Steve Rosenberg is the BBC’s Moscow correspondent. He’ll be covering the Eurovision Song Contest in Kiev for BBC News, including a Eurovision Piano Request Hour, where he’ll play Eurovision winning songs since 1956 on the piano.