Eurovision, the other battleground between Ukraine and Russia

“It’s like we won the World Cup!” Hardly time to announce the results of the vote of the Ukrainian public from Kiev, and presenter Pavlo Shylko can’t help but explode with joy, in the small window in the center of the screen of the Eurovision’s 100 million viewers Song Contest 2004. “We were very concerned about giving Serbia and Montenegro 12 points, clearly our main rival.” But the Ukrainian vote goes last and the chips are already down. It is the local singer, Ruslana, who will win. “It was the general euphoria in the studio”, the attendant recalls. That year, Ukraine secured a place on the European map and plans to advance in the grand final on Saturday, May 14 in Turin, Italy, as the country has resisted the Russian invasion for more than two months.

At home, we love it when a plan goes smoothly. “Ukraine had only joined Eurovision a year earlier, at the initiative of a PR agency commissioned by the Ministry of Culture, with the roadmap for the general public to stop being associated with communism or Chernobyl”, emphasizes Paul Jordan, an excellent connoisseur of the great European song route. Mission accomplished beyond all expectations. The 2004 winner, singer Ruslana, may be singing with faux fur on her back, but the rest of her costume, very, very low cut, fits the competition dress code. “It’s an image Ruslana had worked on a lotdescribes Marko Pavlyshyn, head of Ukrainian studies at Monash University in Melbourne (Australia). She wanted to show a new facet of Ukraine, multicultural, associated with globalized pop culture, with the figure of the badass girl, sexualized, powerful.”

The following year, the Ukrainian leaders didn’t even pretend to get involved in the competition. The show takes place in Kiev, a few weeks after the end of the “Orange Revolution”, in which pro-European President Viktor Yushchenko won his showdown with his pro-Russian opponent. “We had chosen as slogan ‘the awakening’* [le réveil, en bon français]details Pavlo Shylko, mastermind and host of the 2005 show. The dominant color was green, a symbol of freshness.” Apparently, it is the largest international event to be held in Ukraine since independence. “What struck me was the pride of the people of Kiev. They chatted three words of English, but they were so happy to welcome foreigners,” remembers Paul Jordan. Sign of opening: Tourists can enter the country for the occasion without a visa. Almost twenty years later, the measure is still in effect, in times of peace.

Between two songs, we see a report on the “Orange Revolution”, events led by local celebrities such as the Klitschko brothers and Ruslana (elected Member of Parliament the following year*) and, at the end of the competition, President Yushchenko, who took the podium to present a prize to the winner. “It was a mistake. The broadcaster, the EBU, then vetoed it, even when Vladimir Putin wanted to do the same, in 2009.”, emphasizes Paul Jordan. Without forgetting the choice of song to represent the host country, Razom Nas Bahato, of the group GreenJolly, anthem of the revolution. “I’ve been in show business for over twenty years, I knew it was a monumental blundersighs Pavlo Shylko. It would have been a bull’s eye for a national competition. But fun is expected at Eurovision! Our politicians who had just come to power wanted to play politics…” Indeed, the rappers break their chains on stage, but are locked in the depths of the table, collecting the worst ranking in the history of the country*.

This is the beginning of political kicks against Russia. In 2007, the actor Andriï invented Danylko, an old lady made up for his character Verka Serduchka, which bursts off the screen. the Guardian erect* his title Dancing Lasha Tumbai if “the best song to never win Eurovision”† Behind the succession of profound formulas in half a dozen languages ​​is a finer critique than it seems. “At first glance, it looks like he’s joking about the typical Ukrainiandecrypts Marko Pavlyshyn. For the Ukrainian viewer it is self-mockery; for the Russian it strengthens his superiority complex. Until that famous ‘Russia goodbye’.” During the song Andriï-Verka indeed swings a “lasha tumba”which literally means: “whipped cream” in Mongolian. At real speed, live, all of Europe hears quite a “Russia goodbye” grumbled. Pavlo Shylko, co-writer of the song, sticks to the official version for fifteen years. “It was never ‘Russia goodbye’. We just threw in bits of phrase that sounded funny”, he still defends himself today. Yes…

On the Russian side, we play on subtlety. Sometimes we remember in a nutshell who’s boss in this corner of Europe, like with the song Mom, performed in 2009 in Moscow by… Ukrainian singer Anastasia Prikhodko, first in her language, then in Russian. Many saw it as a song advocating loyalty to Mother Russia. Rebelote five years later, with twins Anastasia and Maria Tolmatchevy singing under their baby clothes “one day you will be mine” in their song To shine, a few weeks after the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Did you say “double talk” under the guise of a syrupy song? Mariya Yaremchuk represented Ukraine that year and is still choking: “As if Russia is a bearer of peace in the world!”

The room is not mistaken and chased the twins out during the semifinals.

“These two children were not guilty of anything, and that was exactly what Russia was looking for.”

Mariya Yaremchuk, Ukrainian singer

at franceinfo

Whoever is sixth that year – ahead of… Russia – insists: “It was a propaganda trick to use these images. I had nothing against these two girls. But I understood the whistles, addressed to their country.” As of the 2015 edition, anti-hooting technology has been installed to prevent new incidents. Anyway. The breach has been completed. An ice age is brewing between the two countries, which have exchanged many points via public vote. ‘I avoided talking to the Russian press at all costs. Journalists wanted me to say things to argue about later.’

Outside the stage, the current is still flowing. “Philipp Kirkorov [le “Michael Jackson russe”, grand manitou de l’Eurovision dans les pays de l’Est] asked me to take a picture with the binoculars, between two doors. “These two girls haven’t done anything wrong, they just want a picture with you. And I said yes.” Even in 2016, when Ukrainian Jamala wins with the song 1944 about the deportation of the Crimean Tatars – a roundabout way of talking about the news, as she herself later admitted – behind the scenes she and Sergei Lazarev, the Russian superstar who fails on stage, exchange not only a facade smile: “She had just received an informal award and she did not hesitate to pose with him”, says Paul Jordan, who attended the scene*. It is between the delegations that the sideways glances are more numerous. “When Jamala won, a member of the Russian delegation said with tears in his eyes: ‘Have fun with the Ukrainians!'”

If, as in 2005, organizing the match in Ukraine is a logistical nightmare, on the side of the EBU (European Broadcasting Union)the organizer, is a lesser evil. “Our biggest fear was that Russia would win.recognizes frankly Guillaume Klossa, Communications Director of the Association of Broadcasters from 2013 to 2018. He continues in more chosen words: “We could not have prepared for the competition in good conditions. During my mandate, I had put the promotion of a diverse society at the heart of the Eurovision Song Contest. From the Russian authorities…”

Cunning, on the other hand, is what the Russian authorities insist. For the 2017 edition, to be held in Kiev, Russia offers to send a disabled singer, who had the misfortune to perform in the annexed Crimea. A condition worthy of a ban on Ukrainian territory for several foreign personalities, from Gérard Depardieu to Steven Seagal *. “We offered them a solution, says Paul Jordan, who recalls being presented with a fait accompli at the last minute. Have the singer perform live, from Russia, but via satellite. They didn’t want to know. It was inevitable that the Ukrainians were trapped.” No Russia on the podium that year, so So no whistles. “I’m Not Sure If There Would Have Been”Contest host Volodymyr Ostapchuk wants to believe that five years later he is still able to recite the voting rules in one go in French, one of the official languages ​​of Eurovision Song Contest.

Presenter Volodymyr Ostapchuk dances with traditional dancers on stage of the second semifinal of the Eurovision Song Contest on 11 May 2017 in Kiev (Ukraine).  (MICHAEL CAMPANELLA / GETTY IMAGES EUROPE)

Also no Ukrainian president on the podium. However, it was not the wish that was missing Petro Poroshenko – president of the country from 2014 to 2019 who nevertheless took part in the debriefing meeting the day after the ceremony. “I even taught him to take a selfie with his phone”acid Volodymyr Ostapchuk. “It was less necessary for him to appear on the screen anyway. For Eurovision viewers, Ukraine is that distant cousin who came home a while ago.” While Russia, absent from the competition in 2017, 2021 and 2022, is singled out, even sidelined. It’s no coincidence that the role of the villain in Netflix’s Eurovision* TV movie is Russian. Ukraine favorite with bookmakers for 2022 edition with the pipe Stefania of the Kalush Orchestra group, the problem of the interference between politics and polished songs could arise sooner than expected. Or not, laughs Volodymyr Ostapchuk. “This time the EBU will beg Volodymyr Zelensky to open the contest!”

* Links followed by an asterisk lead to content in English.

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