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Eurovision’s New Cold War

Tensions between Russia and Ukraine complicate the song contest for the second year in a row

The long-simmering Eurovision beef between Russia and Ukraine has come to a boil again this year: Ukraine, which will host the European song competition in Kiev next month, has banned Russian participant Julia Samoylova for an unauthorized visit to Crimea. The three-year ban comes after Samoylova entered the disputed peninsula in 2015, which Ukrainian officials say she did without going through the proper border channels. Samoylova, who previously sang at the Sochi Winter Paralympics opening ceremony, was in Crimea for a concert to promote athletics. "We have to respect the local laws of the host country, however we are deeply disappointed in this decision," Eurovision's organizers said in a statement.

This marks two years in a row that Crimea has been the cause of trouble at Eurovision. Last year, Ukraine’s entry was Susana Jamaladinova’s “1944,” a song that explicitly referenced and denounced the 20th-century Soviet deportation of more than 200,000 Crimean Tatars. Jamala, as she is known professionally, wrote the song about the story of her great-grandmother, who was forcibly deported to Central Asia and lost a child on the journey. Under Joseph Stalin, the Soviets had accused the Crimean Tatars en masse of collaborating with the Nazi regime during the occupation, but their deportation led to mass starvation and deaths, and has been widely described as an act of ethnic cleansing (including, in 1989, being formally recognized by the Soviet government as a crime against humanity). Stalin's actions in Crimea have remained a point of conflict up to the present: In 2014, shortly after annexing the peninsula, Vladimir Putin encouraged the Tatars to return to mother Russia. The following year, Ukraine's parliament officially termed the events of 1944 a genocide and announced a yearly day of remembrance to be celebrated on May 18.

Jamala's song ended up winning Eurovision 2016, causing bristling among Russians who felt it was unfairly biased against their country. The controversy was also in part because of a general Eurovision rule against political content in songs. With its chorus in the Crimean Tatar language, of course the song was an unabashed nationalist statement on Ukraine's part. After it won, Russia's historic adversaries in NATO made a video congratulating her on the victory. But what's the point in attempting to separate out the nationalism implicit in Eurovision, which is after all a sort of musical Olympics? Just as global politics always affects the Olympics, it’s unreasonable to expect that European countries would be able to simply set aside hundreds of years of complicated politics to compete in a song contest.

Even so, we see people like Bulgarian contestant Kristian Kostov, who will compete this year with his song “Beautiful Mess,” complaining to Russian state media that Eurovision has become “overly politicized.” Yet longtime viewers know that this passive-aggressive retribution cycle has been going on for at least a decade. In 2007, the Ukrainian contestant was drag performer Verka Serduchka, whose song “Dancing Lasha Tumbai” was accused of containing the lyric “Russia goodbye.” Serduchka slammed the interpretation, arguing not quite convincingly that “lasha tumbai” was a Mongolian phrase meaning “whipped cream” or “churned butter.” The song finished in second place.

This year, contest organizers suggested by way of compromise that Samoylova perform via satellite if she could not enter Kiev. Russia nixed that idea. German broadcaster Thomas Schreiber chimed in to say that he felt Russia and Ukraine were both wrong, and needed to make peace for the sake of Eurovision. San Marino’s Carlo Romeo echoed this, saying that Eurovision is about laying arms aside to meet on “neutral ground” and the conflict over Samoylova's participation goes against the spirit of the song competition.

But with England leaving the European Union and debates over nationalism flaring up throughout the West, 2017’s Eurovision will be inherently political regardless of what happens with Samoylova — and especially so if Russia follows through on its threat to withdraw from competing.

Another source of discord around Eurovision in recent years has been the increasing number of songs performed in English, a concession to global pop trends and viewership that many feel robs the competition of its local flavor. While Eurovision entries were traditionally performed in native tongues, they now frequently feature English choruses or fully English lyrics. Ukraine’s contestant this year, the rock band O.Torvald, will compete with a song called “Time.” The words: "Slow down / Give me some time ... / Let's take time to find / A place without violence."