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Ukraine: Kyiv Abuzz As It Hosts Eurovision Song Contest

Tomorrow sees the finals of the 50th Eurovision Song Contest, which is being staged in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. Many in Western Europe have for years viewed the contest as an exercise in kitsch and said most of the songs are dull and lack imagination. But when Ukrainian singer Ruslana won the contest last year, the honor -- or as some see it, the burden -- of hosting the show fell to Ukraine. Ukraine has taken the organization of the event very seriously, seeing it as an opportunity to put the spotlight on a country that many in Europe knew little about until the dramatic events of the Orange Revolution, which brought a western-leaning government to power. RFE/RL visited the Eurovision venue to watch rehearsals and spoke to some of the foreign visitors and to Ukrainians about the event.

Kyiv, 20 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The Eurovision song contest is one of the biggest international events that Ukraine has ever hosted.

The finals of the competition to select the best song from entrants all over Europe will be watched by an estimated 120 million television viewers.

For Ukrainians, the contest has to some extent become bound up with the country's Orange Revolution, when hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators took to the streets in November and December to protest the falsification of the presidential election. They forced a new election that swept pro-western President Viktor Yushchenko to power.

The 2004 winner of the song contest was Ukrainian Ruslana with a song called "Wild Dances," which combined traditional Ukrainian instruments from the Carpathian mountain region with a pulsating, seductive beat. Ruslana backed the pro-democracy demonstrators, and her song became familiar to protesters as she played it during her appearances alongside Yushchenko in the midst of the crisis. Eurovision has used a portion of her song as the signature tune for announcements and programs about the contest that cram the television and radio schedules of all Ukrainian channels.

The rap song that became the Orange Revolution anthem, "Razom Nas Bahato" ("Together We Are Many"), was chosen -- in a modified, less-politicized, form -- as the Ukrainian entry for the contest.

The group that composed the "Razom Nas Bahato," GreenJolly, was virtually unknown before the Orange Revolution. And while many Ukrainians have great affection for the song, they don't seem to think it stands much chance of winning.
"Ukraine is almost unknown in Europe. Eurovision gives us a chance to bring Ukraine closer to the European people."

The slogan for Eurovision 2005 is "Awakening" and reflects the new government's hope that the Orange Revolution prodded Ukraine out of a somnambulant acceptance of a corrupt and increasingly authoritarian rule for 14 years. The government hopes that Western Europe also sees that Ukraine is changing for the better.

Kyiv has for the past week been swelled by thousands of foreign visitors for the contest. The capital's authorities have turned much of the main boulevard into a pedestrian zone. There is a festival atmosphere with tents that serve refreshments. A lot of effort has been made to provide information about recent political changes and to portray Ukraine as a place that is on the move.

Under Mediterranean-type, sunny hot skies, hundreds of visitors listened to traditional folk songs today.

All the hotels are full, and tents and eating and washing facilities have been set up on an island in the Dnipro River that bisects Kyiv for those who can't find room elsewhere. Ukraine has lifted visa requirements for European visitors. Thousands of people have arrived in the delegations of the 39 countries taking part in the contest, as well as the fans wishing them luck. Twenty-four contestants remained after the 19 May semifinal competition to compete in the 21 May finals. In addition, hundreds of journalists have arrived to cover the event.

"Ukraine is almost unknown in Europe. Eurovision is our chance to show cultural and artistic Ukraine," said Pavlo Hrytsak, the contest's executive producer. "It gives us a chance to bring Ukraine closer to the European people."

Most Ukrainians seem to share his sentiments and are happy the contest is taking place in their capital.

"I'm convinced that there will only be positive results from this, and one of the main ones will be that Ukrainians will see Europeans face to face -- they will be able to hold one another and see that Ukrainians aren't bears that come from Siberia," said journalist and political observer Yuliya Lymar. "And they themselves will realize that Europeans are not strange, impenetrable people but that they are ordinary, straightforward people who have the same interests and can live together on the same island, love the same girls, and listen to the same music. I think that form of socializing really brings people together and in a more fundamental way than any declarations by parliament about 'Euro-integration.'"

British music fan and visitor Michael Payton said he had always wanted to go to Kyiv because he had read a lot about Ukrainian and Russian history. He admitted that he and his friends had been apprehensive when he first arrived because they did not know what to expect.

"It's quite interesting just after the Orange Revolution," said Payton. "Everything is more open minded now. We were very, very, very surprised about Ukraine. We were worried before we came, but everything is absolutely wonderful. The organization is great, the people are friendly, and it's just a great place."

Andrew Gerdler had been in Ukraine as a 12 year-old schoolby in the late 1970s. He said things are very different now.

"They [Ukrainians] seem very free and easy, very much like anywhere in the West these days," Gerdler said. "It has changed an awful lot."

Irish fan Daniel Fay said he has been to three previous Eurovision contests and said Ukraine's management of the event is very impressive and is much better than last year's event, held in Turkey.

"I'm really, really impressed," Fay said. "Before we came out, we thought things weren't going to run smoothly with ticket sales and everything being unavailable. [But] it's really impressive: the city, the hotels, the staff. Everybody you meet is so nice and friendly. The friendliness of the people and how they've really come together because they really want the Eurovision and to join Europe. It's really turned out well. As you can see the venue, it's magnificent."

A group of around 100 protesters supporting the losing pro-Russian candidate from last year's presidential election, Viktor Yanukovych, tried to break through to the contest complex at Ukraine's "Palace of Sport" venue before last night's semifinal concert to publicize their demands. But their way was barred by detachments of police and they eventually dispersed peacefully.

Another, more friendly, group of demonstrators was from the Pora youth organization, which played a prominent role in supporting Ukraine's Orange Revolution.

One of the Pora members, a student from the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk, Oleksandr Vukhov, explained why he and his friends were at the event: "We want to show that we are together with Europe, not only Pora but Ukraine today supports Europe; and Europe, we think, should support Ukraine."

He said he thought the contest would bring benefits for his country because once people learned about Ukraine they would be more ready to visit and do business there.

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