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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pop Trumps Politics at Eurovision

ReutersGreece's Helena Paparizou, right, holding up the Eurovision trophy as she celebrates with Ruslana early Sunday.
KIEV -- Resisting attempts by the Ukrainian government and opposition to hijack it, the Eurovision Song Contest kept the cameras focused on the performers as favorite Greece earned the dubious honor of its first win in Europe's biggest kitsch-fest.

None of the possible distractions -- the 300,000 people on Independence Square, opposition pickets or a tent city organized by pro-Orange Revolution youth group Pora -- could distract Europe's 120 million television viewers from rooting for their favorite act.

The contest -- the 50th since Eurovision began in 1956 -- attracted 39 entries, the most ever, from as far afield as Iceland and Israel.

Bulgaria gave its maximum vote of 12 points to Greece, as did Albania, Serbia-Montenegro and Cyprus, as traditional allies helped Helena Paparizou's seductive, Balkan-inspired performance, "My Number One," claim the top prize early Sunday with 230 points. Malta came a distant second with 192.

A favorite of the crowds in Kiev was Zdob Si Zdub, or West Meets East, from first-time entrant Moldova. The group's frantic chorus and drumming grandmother helped win the audience over to its weird folk-inspired tune, "Boonika Bate Doba" (Grandmamma Beats the Drum-a). It finished sixth on 148 points, despite a perfect 12 from Ukrainian viewers.

Once Paparizou and her winning group had run onstage though a hail of silver ticker tape and hugged friends along the way, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko came out to address the crowd, squeezing Ukraine's last few moments of glory before passing the torch to Greece with a special trophy for the new winner.

"This is the prize for the song that unites all Europe," he said, handing over the golden prize.

Whether the contest really did unite the continent, or even Ukraine, was another matter.

Ukraine's entry, Greenjolly's "Razom Nas Bahato," or Together We Are Many, a politically charged anthem from last year's Orange Revolution, did not go down smoothly with its eastern neighbors. Greenjolly earned a stingy two points from Russia and none from Belarus -- a big change from last year, when Russia gave Eurovision winner, Ukraine's Ruslana, 12 points, and Ukraine gave Russia 10 points -- on a night when many countries reaped the rewards of local allegiances.

Organizers ordered changes of the original lyrics, which included "Machinations, No. Falsifications, No. Yushchenko, Yushchenko, Yes!" But the message kept its revolutionary undertones with backing dancers wearing handcuffs before breaking free during the course of the song. The performance was preceded by images from last year's revolution. Poland and Moldova reacted warmly, however, giving the song 12 and eight points respectively, out of 20thplaced Ukraine's meager haul of 30 points.

Meanwhile, Belarussian-born Natalia Podolskaya, representing Russia, received the rowdy support and full 12 points of her native country for her anti-war soft rock anthem, "Nobody Hurt No One." Ukraine voted her a modest four points as Russia went on to place 15th.

Norway's glam rock band Wig Wam earned six points and a huge reaction from the home crowd -- with a little help from an orange ribbon hanging from the lead singer's microphone. An early favorite, the band finished ninth.

Over the course of the festival, there were several attempts to draw Eurovision into Ukraine's political trenches, including the organization of a tent city by Pora, a mass rally on Independence Square and anti-Yushchenko rallies close to the city's Sports Palace, where Saturday's final was held.

But none managed to grab the imagination of Europe's viewing millions, or take their minds off the golden miniskirts and skintight silver pants.

In particular, the revival of a version of the Orange Revolution's tent city on Trukhaniv Island showed that European visitors were reluctant to get too close to the sounds and smells of local revolution.

In all, just 600 of the 15,000 tent tourists originally planned actually turned up. Visits from foreign correspondents outnumbered those by foreign guests by 100 to 60, according to the coordinator of the event's press center, Nina Sorokoprud.


Gleb Garanich / Reuters

Moldova's entry, Zdob Si Zdub, performing "Grandmamma Beats the Drum-a" during a dress rehearsal on Friday.

A quick search for foreigners -- Sorokoprud helpfully explained that they "don't look like Ukrainians'' -- turned up just six Iranians and two Cypriots, who were spotted entering the tent camp later. The camp was distinctly less futuristic than on its web site, but it nevertheless had a touch of idyll from its lush island location a 20-minute walk from the city center. Several Ukrainians staying there said they were more than happy with their accommodation.

Meanwhile, although a crowd estimated at 300,000 waving orange flags gathered on Independence Square, it gained only a few moments of airtime in the middle of the final show.

Opposition demonstrations against Yushchenko's government gathered a few dozen supporters before and after the final but did not inspire more than a footnote in a few Western media reports.

While there appeared to be very few foreign visitors beyond the media and official delegations, there were signs that tourists may not be long in coming.

Between the usual mix of poorly worded ballads and a scantily clad Scandinavians, posed shots of ethnic harmony and rural idyll, golden domes, and wooden eggs tried to sell Ukraine to the scores of millions watching.

More likely to sway the opinion of potential tourists were the 1,500 journalists in Kiev to cover the show. Out of a dozen journalists polled, all seemed genuinely impressed by the city's potential as a tourism destination, two saying they were reminded of Belgrade, one of the boulevards of Barcelona and another of Prague.

But for the Ukrainians present, the events had a clear political tone.

Yury Toropenko from Dnepropetrovsk said the atmosphere on Independence Square was reminiscent of the Orange Revolution, and that Eurovision was vital for Ukraine "because we want to be in Europe."

"We've got no choice but to go to Europe," he added, echoing the views of supporters of the Western-leaning Yushchenko. He admitted that the feeling would likely not be shared throughout the country, doubting there would be a party in Donetsk, the hometown of Yushchenko's beaten presidential rival, Viktor Yanukovych.

"There'll probably a broadcast by [President Vladimir] Putin," he said, "and everyone will celebrate."

One aspect the weekend had in common with the Orange Revolution is that those draped in orange seemed to be having a lot more fun than their blue-and-white-clad rivals.

Outside, at a security cordon near the show, about 40 opposition supporters held flags and looked bored. Most of the younger protesters refused to elaborate on their grievances, some looking slightly embarrassed when asked. One, who refused to give his name, suggested it was unfair that two-dozen policemen were preventing them from passing the barrier to bring their protest closer to the festivities -- apparently unaware that he needed a ticket to do so.

Marina Perminova from Kiev said the country's democratic laws were being abused, but it took the subject of Eurovision for her to get really animated.

"I'm very happy that Eurovision is taking place in our country. It's a very big honor for us," she said. "But we don't have our representative in Eurovision. Greenjolly isn't our choice. They selected [the group] against our will," she said, referring to political machinations around a vote in which Yanukovich-affiliated singer Ani Lorak was eliminated.

"They sing political songs," she said. "Eurovision isn't political, it's musical."