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Ukraine 'Celebrates Diversity' With Eurovision, But Critics Complain It's All 'A Show'


A Ukrainian serviceman rests near the Eurovision Song Contest fan zone on Khreshchatyk Street in downtown Kyiv.

KYIV -- One could forgive the casual observer for thinking revolution had returned to the Ukrainian capital, what with the boisterous tent city that sprang up this week on its main drag, Khreshchatyk Street.

Fear not; it's the Eurovision village.

As Kyiv prepares to host more than 20,000 visitors expected to arrive for the annual Eurovision Song Contest, the city is in overdrive to conceal the scars of its past and put on its best face in an attempt to show the West that Ukraine has overcome political upheaval, endured a bloody war, and become more European in recent years.

The Eurovision village, with its beer garden, giant screens, and high-tech stage, now stands where blood was spilled during the Euromaidan uprising that ousted Ukraine's Kremlin-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovych, three years ago.

It officially opened on May 4, as rehearsals for the May 9-13 song contest got under way at the main venue across the Dnipro River. On nearby Independence Square, the hub of the 2013-14 protests, a canvas screen reading "Freedom is our religion" in English and Ukrainian covers the Trade Union Building that was gutted by fire during that unrest. And everywhere you look in the city, there is the slogan for this year's event: "Celebrate Diversity."

Artists perform during the opening of the Eurovision Village in central Kyiv on May 4.
Artists perform during the opening of the Eurovision Village in central Kyiv on May 4.

But some Ukrainians are questioning whether Kyiv is merely papering over more deep-seated problems. The visible changes for the song contest, they suggest, might reflect a cynical and superficial approach by the government to crucial reforms -- especially relating to diversity, inclusion, and human rights -- since Euromaidan swept new leaders into power. (Choosing three male hosts for the event didn't score Ukraine's Eurovision committee any points.)

Others point to scandals involving corruption and Russia, afflictions that Ukraine has been unable to shake since independence, as evidence that it has not shifted as far west as it might claim.

"The [Eurovision] slogan sounds hollow in a country where LGBT people still do not enjoy equal protection under law and in employment, journalists and rights activists are harassed and attacked for a different point of view, and people with disabilities are virtually invisible in public life," Tanya Cooper, a Kyiv-based Ukraine researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), told RFE/RL. "It seems that the authorities put on the show for public and international partners by taking a step forward just to take two steps back later."

Cooper acknowledged that there has been some improvement in Ukraine's human rights situation in recent years, including better protection of public LGBT events, some investigations into the Euromaidan-related violence against protesters, and the acquittal of Ruslan Kotsaba, a journalist and blogger convicted of obstructing the military over his defiance of a conscription order to avoid participating in what he regarded as Ukraine's "fratricidal war" against Russia-backed separatists.

But, Cooper added, "the lack of enthusiasm and genuine commitment to meaningful human rights reforms is palpable."

Right-wing nationalists have managed to halt work on Kyiv's "Arch of Diversity," which was meant to symbolize how far Ukraine has come since the Maidan protests.
Right-wing nationalists have managed to halt work on Kyiv's "Arch of Diversity," which was meant to symbolize how far Ukraine has come since the Maidan protests.

One colorful, glaring example of Ukraine's apparent lack of commitment rises steps away from European Square, where the towering Soviet-era arch symbolizing the unity of Russians and Ukrainians has been -- partly, at least -- transformed into an "Arch of Diversity." It remains only half-colored with an adhesive rainbow film after ultranationalists, incensed by the "gay propaganda," halted city workers' progress as police stood by.

The symbolism isn't lost on many here.

Zoryan Kis, a Ukrainian LGBT activist and one of the organizers of Kyiv Pride, called the arch "a good metaphor" for contemporary Ukraine, as it reflects the country's unfinished revolution and shows "only changes on the outside."

Shedding Its Soviet Past

With a new government comprising many old faces still, Ukraine has struggled to change since Yanukovych's ouster.

"It takes time," Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze defended the slow pace of progress, adding, "but departure from Soviet legacy and approach took decades in other countries as well."

Internal political battles have hindered Ukraine even more, and reformers working to root out corruption say they have been obstructed at nearly every turn.

The Eurovision preparations themselves have not been immune to allegations of misconduct. An April investigation by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service found that local planners withdrew from a contract with a German company for bleacher construction inside the show's main venue and instead gave the job to a Lviv-based company with connections to organizers.

In February, Hromadske TV reported that 21 members of the Ukrainian organizing committee had resigned, complaining that their work was being blocked and that those managing the process were not being transparent in their decision-making.

Ukraine's Western backers have repeatedly warned it to avoid repeating the mistakes of the 2004 pro-European Orange Revolution, when momentum for reform waned amid political infighting and rampant graft. Kyiv is heavily reliant on billions of dollars in credits to keep its economy afloat.

Russian Meddling

Ukrainian officials have expressed concerns that neighboring Russia might try to put a damper on Eurovision, a raucous celebration of camp that draws hundreds of millions of viewers and pits dozens of contestants from Europe and beyond against each other in combined call-in and jury-based voting.

Russia occupied and annexed the Crimean Peninsula and allegedly thrust eastern Ukraine into war in 2014. The resulting conflict has cost at least 9,940 lives and displaced roughly 2 million people, but has also crippled Ukraine's economy and impeded progress on reforms.

Kyiv has beefed up security around the country ahead of the Eurovision Song Contest.
Kyiv has beefed up security around the country ahead of the Eurovision Song Contest.

Ukraine fears Russian-orchestrated provocations during Eurovision, said Mariana Betsa, head of communications for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry.

"It could be asymmetrical. It doesn't mean they could be in Kyiv," she said. Law enforcement, she added, has beefed up its presence around the country and at border control points. In all, roughly 16,000 police, military personnel, and emergency-services workers will patrol Kyiv throughout the five-day event.

Of course, there is a Eurovision element to the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

"Russia is using hybrid warfare against us -- that includes in the cultural sphere," said Svitlana Zalishchuk, a reformist member of the parliamentary Committee for Foreign Affairs who was elected to the Ukrainian legislature in 2014.

She cited as an example Russia's "cynical" but "very wise" move to select singer Yulia Samoilova, who uses a wheelchair and violated Ukrainian law by performing in annexed Crimea in 2015.

Russian singer Yulia Samoilova (file photo)
Russian singer Yulia Samoilova (file photo)

Zalishchuk argued that Russia chose Samoilova knowing that Kyiv would bar her from the country, which its security service did, in an effort to "earn it sympathy" from the international community at a time when it is under Western sanctions over its military interventions in Ukraine and faces allegations that it hacked U.S. electoral institutions and is meddling in European elections -- and hopefully discredit Ukraine in Western eyes in the process.

The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) that runs Eurovision took Moscow's side in the Eurovision dispute, urging Kyiv in an angrily worded letter to lift the ban on Samoilova. The EBU further warned that Ukraine's future participation in the contest might depend on it. That decision has not yet been made, but Russia has since backed out of the competition and scheduled a performance by Samoilova in Crimea for May 9, the night of the first Eurovision semifinal.

For some in Russia, that is all well and good. Ukraine earned the right to host this year's content by winning Eurovision 2016 with a song by Crimean Tatar singer Jamala that was inspired by the Soviet authorities' deportation of her relatives to Central Asia in 1944. Her win prompted calls by some Russian officials, who said the song was political and thus violated contest rules, to boycott this year's event in protest.

But the show must go on.

This year, Ukraine went a less political route in choosing the rock band O.Torvald to represent the country with its song Time.

Oleksiy Ryabchin, a reform-minded Fatherland lawmaker, said he hopes the band -- and a successful job on the part of Kyiv hosting the event -- will help convince visiting Europeans who might still see the country as existing in an "Iron Curtain" zone that "Ukraine is a European country."

"Ukrainians are no different than their European neighbors," Ryabchin said.

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