MOSCOW — The Eurovision Song Contest, the international music competition that introduced the world to Abba’s mercilessly upbeat pop and the Italian paean to blue-skies optimism, “Volare,” has become clouded by nationalistic feuds .
A particularly chauvinistic drumbeat is crescendoing around this year’s festival in Kiev: Ukraine said Monday that it may bar Russia’s contestant from entering, on the grounds that she illegally toured Crimea after Moscow annexed the peninsula in 2014. Or, it may arrest her, according to one official.
That this year’s installment would be as politically charged as ever was clear the moment that Ukraine’s contestant, Jamala, took home the prize in 2016, which gave Kiev the right to host. That stung in Russia, especially because the winning entry, performed by an ethnic Crimean Tatar, veered from rules banning political lyrics by alluding to the mass deportation of her people by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, and hinted at mistreatment under Moscow’s current rule.
Some Russian lawmakers and glitterati have called for a boycott, but instead, Russia has announced that it will send 27-year-old Yulia Samoylova to perform, immediately stirring a new refrain of controversy in Russia and Ukraine.
Samoylova, who has used a wheelchair since childhood, will perform “Flame is Burning,” which has an upbeat message more in the spirit of Eurovision’s historical mission than “1944,” Jamala’s 2016 winner.
But politics may prevent Samoylova from being in Kiev when Eurovision kicks off in May. She performed in Crimea in 2015 and Ukrainian law gives authorities to the right to bar entry to the country for anyone who has been to the peninsula without crossing the de facto land border and going through Ukrainian border control and customs. Visitors from Russia, who can fly from Moscow to Crimea, rarely go through the trouble.
Olena Gitlyanska, press secretary of Ukraine’s security service, said on her Facebook page that the agency will decide “based exclusively on the norms of Ukrainian legislation and interests of national security” whether Samoylova should be allowed in.
Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister and a legislator in the national parliament, suggested on Facebook that Samoylova be allowed to perform in the competition but also that she serve time for breaking the law.
“We are not denying the Russian contestant entry to Ukraine, but also will demonstrate in public from her example that we aren’t going to tolerate the violation of the Ukrainian border,” he said.
The Russian singer could face up to three years in prison “for breaching the order of entering the temporary occupied territories of Ukraine and leaving them for the purpose of infringing the interest of the state.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman shot back, telling reporters “practically everyone has been to Crimea,” and that it was “absolutely unacceptable” for Ukraine to politicize the contest.
Eurovision has seen political scores settled before. A year after it fought a brief war with Russia, Georgia pulled out of the 2009 competition — held in Moscow thanks to Dima Bilan’s winning entry in Eurovision 2008 — after organizers banned Georgia’s entry because it contained a reference to Putin.
Some Ukraine supporters protested that Russia, which is supporting separatist rebels in the east of the country, should not be allowed enter a contestant this year.
“Russia doesn't have the moral right to take part in the Eurovision contest while Russian shells are destroying our cities,” commented Twitter user Vlad Velichko.
And nothing happens in Russia without an accompanying conspiracy theory. Commentators in Moscow were quick to cast the choice of Samoylova — who was the runner-up in 2013 on Russia’s “Factor A” televised music contest and sang at the opening of the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi — as a cynical Kremlin ploy to generate sympathy.
“They are knowingly sending a young woman with a disability so that they can later report on the ‘inhumane Ukrainians’ who boo the Russian artist (if any of that happens),” television producer Sergey Kalvarskiy wrote on Facebook.
“For a country where people with disabilities unfortunately are treated as inferior, such a choice is unexpected,” wrote Vladimir Varfolomeyev, a reporter for Ekho Moskvy radio station. “It could be a sign of changes in the state policy toward people with disabilities but that’s hard to believe. Most probably Moscow wants to avoid any possible problems for its representative in Kiev (nobody will want to boo a disabled singer) or even hopes to win the contest by stirring up sympathy.”
It’s still rare, in fact, to see a person out in public in a wheelchair in Russia — or Ukraine. Getting around is a formidable challenge. Legions of apartment houses have elevator doors that are too narrow to accommodate a wheelchair.
And then there was Josef Kobzon, a Russian crooner-turned-nationalist lawmaker, who struck a bellicose sour note, saying that Samoylova should not go to Kiev because it would make the country look weak for people to see “Russia in a wheelchair.”
“Why should we appeal to pity to those who hate our country,” Russian news agencies quoted Kobzon as saying.
One person who spoke about Russia’s Eurovision entry was able to rise above the controversy: Samoylova herself.
Asked by the RIA-Novosti news agency about the squabble over her entry, the singer said she was focusing on the contest.
“I put all off that other stuff aside, none of it is really important,” Samoylova told the agency. “I sing, my job is to sing well, to represent Russia and not disgrace myself.”