Crimea river

ODDLY for a pop show that is meant to be apolitical, the Eurovision song contest causes a fission of fury nearly every year. In 2014 Conchita Wurst, a bearded drag queen from Austria, won the annual festival of kitsch, leading to calls in Russia and Belarus for Ms Wurst’s song not to be transmitted and accusations that the show was a “hotbed of sodomy”. Last year Ukraine won the contest with “1944”, a song about the deportation of Crimean Tatars under Stalin sung by Jamala, herself an ethnic Crimean Tatar. This infuriated the Russian government, which had invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014.

This year yet another squabble is brewing among the latex and glitter. Ukraine is hosting the contest, which will be held on May 13th. Channel One, Russia’s main broadcaster, has put up as Russia’s representative Yulia Samoilova, a 28-year-old wheelchair-bound singer (pictured). Ms Samoilova performed in Crimea in 2015; this means she falls foul of Ukraine’s travel ban on prominent Russians who have either been to Crimea since the annexation or who openly support their government’s policy there. Shortly after she was selected, the Ukrainian security service announced that she would not be allowed in.

Eurovision’s organiser, the European Broadcasting Union, criticised Ukraine’s decision as undermining “the integrity and non-political nature” of the show. It suggested that Ms Samoilova might perform remotely or that Russia might choose another contestant. Channel One refused, of course; a bully’s taunt stings less if retracted. Ms Samoilova will now perform in Sevastopol, the main city in Crimea, on the day of the semi-final, and Russia will not take part in the contest.

The squabble plays well in Russia. It lets Vladimir Putin’s state media portray Ukraine as a country run by horrid nationalists who are mean to people in wheelchairs. (Rather than, say, a country that dislikes being dismembered by its stronger neighbour.)

It helps Ukraine’s government, too, distracting public attention from its failure to fulfil the promises of the Maidan Revolution of 2014, which triggered the war. Complaining about Russia can be an excuse not to pursue difficult reforms, such as tackling corruption, says Balázs Jarábik of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think-tank.

Problems were already afoot at the Eurovision party in Ukraine, which had hoped to host an “austerity” show (costing only $16m, compared with Denmark’s $61m extravaganza in 2014 and Azerbaijan’s $76m bash in 2012). But costs have spiralled. In November the head of the newly-independent public broadcaster quit, accusing the government of chipping away at his budget for the bash. As with so much in Russia and Ukraine, television drama overshadows reality.