Skulduggery Claims Fly at Eurovision

KIEV, Ukraine -- Accusations of political skulduggery are flying in advance of tomorrow night's final of the Eurovision song contest, the annual extravaganza of Euro-pop kitsch.

The event is being hosted by Ukraine, last year's winners. But suspicions have been roused by the fact that Ukraine's entry for this year's competition is none other than the election campaign anthem of the new Ukrainian president, Viktor Yushchenko.

Ukraine's Ruslana winner of Eurovision 2004

The group Greenjolly’s "Razom Nas Bahato" (Together We Are Many) was sung by demonstrators on the barricades as they protested against former president Leonid Kuchma’s regime in Kiev’s Independence Square.

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 torrent of criticism of the new government, which was accused of manipulating the vote.

The criticism was all the more intense because Greenjolly was running against local pop star Ani Lorak - who backed the former prime minister Viktor Yanukovich in the Ukrainian presidential election that eventually brought Mr Yushchenko to power.

The victory of Mr Yanukovich, Kuchma’s choice, in last year's polls triggered huge protests in Independence Square which ultimately led to the result being overturned by the country's highest court. Mr Yushchenko then went on to triumph in rerun elections.

One of his first moves after taking office in January was to state his commitment to hosting Eurovision, describing it as a showcase that could help the new Ukraine move closer to its aim of joining the European Union. More than 150 million viewers from across Europe tune in to watch.

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

Ukrainian riot police hold back Yanukovich demonstrators

Yesterday, there were scuffles between police and several hundred opposition protestors who tried to approach Kiev's Palace of Sports, where on Saturday some 4,000 police officers will guard the contest.

And the protests are coming not just from disappointed Yanukovich supporters. "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 was 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.

The dilemma of where to lodge the 40,000 people who turned up in a city that lacks mid-range hotels has led the authorities to set up a tent city in a park beside the Dnieper river that runs through the capital. Eurovision fans will be charged 10 dollars a night for the amenity.

This in its turn 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.

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.

First staged in 1956, Eurovision introduced the world to ABBA - 1974 winners with "Waterloo" - and to the Canadian chanteuse Celine Dion, who won under a Swiss flag in 1988. More recent winners have tended to sink without trace, victims of the "curse of Eurovision."

ABBA - 1974 winners with "Waterloo"

Britain is a five-time Eurovision champion, but has not won the contest since 1997, when Katrina and the Waves took the title. Our heyday was the 1960s, when big names like Lulu and Cliff Richard flew the Union Jack and, in Lulu’s case, won the contest.

Most Britons profess themselves too sophisticated to embrace the sort of cheesy Euro-pop that Eurovision celebrates, but every year some 8 million viewers tune in to watch the British entry being trounced.

News that this year's British hopeful Javine Hylton has developed a sore throat the day before the contest seems unlikely to enhance Britain's chances. The 23-year-old Girls Aloud reject had an early night yesterday but woke up this morning with an inflamed throat. Her spokesman said she was still intent on singing, and that she had been prescribed antibiotics.

Ms Hylton says her aim is to restore British pride with the up-tempo number "Touch My Fire," but bookmaker William Hill rates her a 25-1 outsider. The smart money is on "My Number One" by Greek singer Helena, a sultry, bouzouki-flavored number that bookies make the 2-1 favorite.

Greek singer Helena favorite of British bookmakers

Many blame Britain's recent lack of sucess on politics. The contest’s complex voting system, where each country awards others a sliding scale of points from 1 to 12 based on viewers’ telephone votes, gives rise to allegations of bias and favoritism.

Research released this week by academics at Oxford University suggests disgruntled Britons may have a point.

"Our analysis enables us to confirm that there are unofficial cliques of countries," noted the authors of the scholarly paper How Does Europe Make its Mind Up? Connections, Cliques and Compatibility Between Countries in the Eurovision Song Contest.

The study identified clusters of countries with similar voting patterns, including the Hellenic axis of Greece and Cyprus and a "quasi-Nordic clique" of Scandinavian and Baltic states. Britain was among the countries that gave and received votes most widely.

"Despite the British tendency to feel distant from Europe, our analysis shows that the U.K. is actually remarkably compatible, or ’in tune’ with other European countries," said Neil Johnson, one of the authors of the study.

BBC presenter Terry Wogan, always sardonically unsurprised when Norway gives maximum points to neighbor Sweden, disagreed, blaming Britain’s dismal 2003 result, in which duo Jemini received the dreaded "nul points" on a backlash against the unpopular Iraq war.

But Mr O’Connor begs to differ. "It was because it was a really, really bad song," he said.

Despite the disagreements, it seems that nothing can lessen the appeal of a competition as fraught with diplomacy, feuding and delicate allegiances as the United Nations. Seven countries participated in the first-ever competition - 39 are competing this year, with 24 making it through to tonight's final. Lebanon, due to compete this year for the first time, pulled out after its national broadcaster refused to show the Israeli entry.

"The great thing about Eurovision is you can come at it from so many different angles," said John Kennedy O’Connor, a fan since the 1970s and author of the official history of the competition.

"There are some people who take it deadly seriously, as if it were a major political contest. Others watch to see how bad it will be. You can enjoy it on so many different levels."

Source: Times Online