Friday, 14 April 2017

It's official - Russia has pulled out of Eurovision

For the first time since the country entered the song contest in 1994, Russia will not broadcast the event. Will they ever come back? Or will they launch their own 'illiberal' Eurovision alternative?

After weeks of protracted negotiations, the organiser of the Eurovision Song Contest announced the news everyone expected: Russia will not participate in this year's competition.

The big question now becomes - will they ever come back?

Eurovision is hugely popular in Russia, and the loss of this significant audience is a big blow to the European Broadcasting Union, the coalition of national broadcasters that stages the contest. What is terrifying for the EBU is the prospect that Russia will now permanently pull out of the contest. 

Russian politicians have been calling for it to do so for years, ever since a bearded drag queen named Conchita Wurst won for Austria in 2014. One Russian MP said the contest had become 'a celebration of perversion', and said Moscow should revive the old Cold War alternative, Intervision, as a family-friendly alternative.

The path to Eurovision war

The stage was set last May, w
hen Ukrainian contestant Jamala scored a shock win in the 2016 contest with a song about Crimea. Russia was furious. It wasn't explicitly about the current conflict. Instead, it was an emotionally intense song about the Soviet Union's mass deportations of Crimean Tatars to Siberia in 1944.

In that song, the Kremlin did not see an innocent historical tale. They saw a protest against the current Russian actions in Crimea, by a singer they say has close ties to Ukrainian nationalists. The Russian media and political elite were furious. The winning country always hosts the contest the following year, and it was widely expected Russia would refuse to participate in the contest in 2017.

As the time for this year's contest drew closer, Russia kept us guessing. For months they would not say whether they would participate. Finally on 12 March, just one day before the deadline to submit an entry, Moscow suddenly announced they would submit the song 'Flame is Burning', to be sung by Julia Samoilova. She is a former finalist on the Russian version of XFactor.

Had Russia relented? Had they decided to extend an olive branch, and stand by their insistence (made vociferously in objection to last year's win), that the contest should remain free from politics? At first it looked that way. The song is completely innocuous. Samoilova is a sweet girl, who has been in a wheelchair since childhood, suffering from spinal muscular atrophy.

But it soon emerged that all was not as it appeared. Samoilova had performed a concert in Crimea in 2015, one year after Russia's invasion and annexation, which is still considered illegal by most of the world. Under Ukrainian legislation in place since 2014, anyone who has visited the territory under Russian occupation has violated Ukrainian law and is not allowed to enter the country.

Your move, Ukraine

Moscow certainly knew that by selecting an artist who had performed in Crimea, they were putting Kiev in a difficult situation. Either they would climb down from the ban, exempting Samoilova from the law during her visit for Eurovision, or they would ban a sweet girl in a wheelchair from participating in the contest.

Today the Ukrainian security services confirmed that they have chosen the latter. Samoilova will be prevented from entering Ukraine if she tries to come in to compete in the song contest.

And with that, Ukraine fell right into Russia's trap.

The indignant reaction from Moscow was as swift as it was predictable. The Russian deputy foreign minister called Ukraine's decision "outrageous, cynical and inhumane". Several Russian MPs are calling for the European Broadcasting Union, which organizes the contest, to move it to a different country. One MP has said that if Russia can't participate this year, then it should never participate again.

Conchita, Intervision and Turkvision

The EBU has been negotiating with Ukraine and Russia to see if a live satellite feed of the Russian entry could be arranged, but Ukraine refused to allow this.

Now that Russia's withdrawal has been confirmed, Eurovision-watchers will be looking for signals that Moscow intends this to be permanent.

Vladimir Putin knows that reviving Intervision will be an uphill struggle, and the public will be unhappy if they have no song contest at all.

He has already tried revive the old Cold War alternative to Eurovision, Intervision. Plans were announced just two weeks after Conchita's victory in 2014, but they never got off the ground.

The contest was going to include any Eastern European states that wanted to join, as well as Central and East Asian states. North Korea was ready to participate. 

The EBU is very worried about Russia breaking away and establishing its own rival contest, particularly after Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pulled Turkey out in 2012 to launch his own 'Turkvision' contest with other Turkic-speaking nations.

Eurovision has seen its ratings explode over the past two decades as the contest has gained a huge new audience in Eastern Europe. It is now the most widely watched live entertainment event in the world each year, with new audiences developing globally. It is big business, and a Russian withdrawal could jeaporise that.

Setting the scene

The fact that Russia chose to engage in this drama this year, rather than just not fielding an entry, suggests that Moscow may be prepping the ground for a permanent withdrawal next year. The Ukraine ban may give Putin the excuse he needs to permanently pull out of the contest despite its huge popularity in Russia - giving him the green light to revive Intervision. 

We likely won't know the answer until next year. I will be in Kiev for the contest this year, and I will certainly be canvassing the room to see what people think comes next.

Once again, Putin has outmaneuvred his opponents. And he did it by manipulating them into harming themselves.

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