Kitsch pop-fest turns political in Ukraine

The Eurovision song contest, an annual extravaganza of Euro-pop kitsch, has taken a decidedly political turn for its 50th edition this Saturday in Ukraine.

One of President Viktor Yushchenko’s first moves after taking office in January was to state his commitment to hosting the event and to acknowledge that it would be a showcase that could help the new Ukraine move closer to its aim of joining the European Union.

“Eurovision 2005 is the first such event of this scale for Ukraine and will be an opportunity to let Europeans discover the country,” chimed the weekly magazine Korrespondent ahead of the event in Kiev’s Palace of Sports that will pull in hopefuls from 39 countries.

Ukraine’s Ruslana won the contest in Istanbul last year, and thus it fell to Kiev to host this year’s event.

The Eurovision contest, first held in 1956, is often associated with music of questionable merit, bizarre costumes and marked political bias in the voting. Yet all these elements have contributed to its enduring popularity.

Ukraine, the largest country in Europe but best known—before the “orange revolution” that brought Yushchenko to power—for its 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, has been hoping that the competition will let it show off its best side to the estimated 120-million television viewers expected to tune in.

But the organisation of the contest has hit trouble, including the choice of the group Greenjolly’s Razom Nas Bahato (Together We Are Many)—the hymn sung by demonstrators against former president Leonid Kuchma’s regime in Kiev’s Independence Square—as Ukraine’s competition entry.

The surprise choice of Greenjolly, a group largely unknown before the revolution and added to the list of entries at the last moment, unleashed an avalanche of criticism of the new government, which was accused of manipulating the vote that picked the group.

The criticism was all the more intense because Greenjolly were running against local pop star Ani Lorak, who backed the pro-Moscow former prime minister Viktor Yanukovich in the polls that eventually brought Yushchenko to power.

Yushchenko’s disputed election defeat by Yanukovich, Kuchma’s choice, triggered huge protests in Independence Square and brought an end to a decade of political corruption.

On Thursday, there were scuffles between police and several hundred opposition protesters who tried to approach the Palace of Sports, where on Saturday about 4 000 police officers are set to watch over the contest.

But the gripes are coming not just from the opposition.

“During the revolution, many no doubt listened with pleasure to this dilettante rap [Greenjolly],” said the online newspaper Ukraiinska Pravda. “But don’t the singers themselves understand that this emotion-charged work should have remained ...
a part of history and nothing more?”

To deflect criticism, the group were obliged to modify the lyrics of the song.

One verse in the original version went: “No falsifications! No lies! No machinations! Yes Yushchenko! Yes Yushchenko! This is our president!”

The new version removes mentions of the current president’s name.

Another headache for the contest is where to lodge the 40 000 people expected to turn up for the event. Kiev lacks mid-range hotels and the authorities have set up a tent city in a park on the Dnieper river that traverses the capital.

Eurovision fans will be charged $10 (about R64) a night for the amenity.

But even this has enraged ecologists, who complain that the campers will frighten the birds, especially the nightingales, that live in the park, and could cause them to abandon their nests.

“Is Kiev paying too dearly its conquest of European hearts?” asked the Den newspaper.—Sapa-AFP

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