Fans protest as 'Russian Sinatra' hit by EU sanctions

Russian singer and lawmaker Iosif, or Joseph Kobzon, was targeted because of his support for the annexation of Crimea and his concerts in Donetsk, where he himself was born (AFP Photo/Alexander Nemenov)

Moscow (AFP) - Russian MPs spoke out and fans launched a Twitter campaign Tuesday after the European Union slapped sanctions on a popular singer often compared to Frank Sinatra who has performed for rebels in eastern Ukraine.

This week the EU blacklisted the 77-year-old crooner Iosif, or Joseph Kobzon, who is also a lawmaker for the ruling party that supports President Vladimir Putin.

Kobzon was targeted because of his support for the annexation of Crimea and his concerts in Donetsk, the rebel hub in eastern Ukraine, where he himself was born.

The singer responded by saying "I spit on these sanctions," although admitted he had planned to travel to Europe for medical treatment.

He is set to perform in the war-torn cities of Lugansk and Donetsk on Sunday and Monday.

Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov condemned Kobzon's inclusion on the sanctions list as "vile", while a ruling party MP, Vyacheslav Nikonov, spoke in parliament to support him.

"We are with you. If they're all Charlie, then we are all Kobzon," Nikonov said, quoted by TASS, playing on the "Je Suis Charlie" slogan used in the wake of the shootings of cartoonists and other staff at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

The speech prompted a Twitter campaign with the hashtag "#Je suis Kobzon" and photoshopped images with Kobzon's trademark black toupee.

Russia's outspoken culture minister Vladimir Medinsky said that Moscow could not impose retaliatory sanctions, because Europe simply lacks a star of the same standing.

"There are no artists there of Kobzon's level, to allow us to pass sanctions of equal weight," Medinsky said, quoted by TASS.

In October Kobzon performed at Donetsk's opera and ballet theatre, joined for a duet by the rebel leader, Alexander Zakharchenko.

On New Year's Eve, he performed a song on Russian state television mocking the Western sanctions campaign.

Like Sinatra, Kobzon has long been dogged with rumours of links to organised crime, although he says he simply met shady figures through his singing.

The United States has repeatedly refused him visas for several decades.

With his velvety baritone voice, Kobzon has been a popular star since the 1950s, with both patriotic songs such as "Victory Day" and lyrical ballads.

Kobzon was born in the Donetsk region and spent his early childhood in Kramatorsk.

A former member of the Soviet Communist Party, he has served as an MP for the ruling United Russia party since 2003.