Ukraine's Zelenskiy will no longer address Italian song festival

ROME, Feb 6 (Reuters) - Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy will no longer address Italy’s biggest showbiz event - the Sanremo song festival - its organizers said on Monday, following criticism from across the political spectrum.

Sanremo, which runs from Feb. 7 to Feb. 11, is a glitzy event first held more than 70 years ago that attracts record audiences on TV and that inspired the more famous Eurovision song contest.

Zelenskiy was expected to make an appearance via a video message on the closing night, but a manager for Italian state broadcaster RAI said the festival’s presenter, known as Amadeus, would instead read out a statement by the Ukrainian leader.

“The president told us via his ambassador that he was happy to write me a letter and that I would read this letter on the stage,” Amadeus said in a press conference in which the RAI manager, Stefano Coletta, also spoke.

Zelenskiy’s appearance at Sanremo had sparked a string of critical remarks from a range of political figures, as well as an online petition urging RAI to drop the idea. As of Monday afternoon, it had garnered almost 95,000 signatories.

Deputy Prime Minister and right-wing League party leader Matteo Salvini was among those who expressed doubts on whether it was appropriate to mix entertainment with talk of war and death.

Zelenskiy, a former comedian and actor, appeared via video message at last month’s Hollywood Golden Globes awards. He used the platform to express confidence in victory in the war with Russia and thank “the free people of the free world” for their support.

News of his change of plans for Sanremo drew a Telegram social media post from Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry.

“Zelenskiy will not make a video message at the Sanremo Italian festival, but will send a statement, the organizers said. Well, I do not know. Would you suddenly win this song contest with a rap?”, she wrote. (Reporting by Federico Maccioni, additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin, editing by Alvise Armellini and Hugh Lawson)