Do Ukrainians Really Care About Eurovision?
9 May, 2017

The Eurovision Song Contest 2017 has officially begun in Kyiv, following Ukraine’s victory at the 2016 contest in Stockholm with the song "1944" by Jamala. Forty-two countries are participating in the competition, and the Ukrainian capital has been preparing itself for thousands of visitors. With safety being a major concern, dog-handlers, patrol officers and the ‘KORD’ special forces trained for how to deal with emergency situations in the Kyiv metro.

But do Ukrainians really care about Eurovision? How transparent is the Eurovision Song Contest preparation? Was Ukraine right in banning the Russian contestant? And are Ukrainian authorities prepared to ‘Celebrate Diversity’?

Hromadske’s Nataliya Gumenyuk sat down with Volodymyr Yermolenko, a Ukrainian philosopher and Hromadske's journalist who is engaged in public diplomacy communicating with many foreign experts, diplomats and foreign journalists who systematically cover Ukraine, on May 7th, 2017 in Kyiv.

How big is the discussion about this international event in the Ukrainian society now?

I think it’s an event that’s an opportunity for Ukrainians to talk about themselves abroad and to debunk some myths because there is a stereotype for example in Europe that Ukraine is a country fully covered by war. And cities like Kyiv, Lviv, Dnipro, Kharkiv are not safe—which I think is not true. And for Ukrainians, this is the way to show that the Ukrainian cities are quite safe for many people in terms of war security.

I’m not talking in terms of safety and terrorist attacks, which are possible everywhere. But in terms of cities or countries hit by a war, cities like Kyiv, Kharkiv, Dnipro, Lviv are fully safe. I think this this is kind of an opportunity to show this. This is not the first case that we are hosting the Eurovision—we already made it some 13 years ago. And afterwards, there was the Euro Championship in 2012. It’s always a kind of inner spiral helping the country to open itself a little bit more for the wider public.

There is the discussion when the country’s in a war, how much we can spend for the entertaining event. For instance, there was the case when the honorarium of Jamala — the Eurovision winner — and she had earned a bit more than 30 thousand euros. That was considered really big and that money had been paid by the Ukrainian state. How do you see that? Today we also have a lot of databases, and because of the new laws, we can check every salary of more or less every person. For example, there would be the salary of person A who earns 2,000 dollars, open for the public. And then later you go for the seller, which is 200 dollars, and they would be person B. Of course, there are still a lot of complaints so what do we know about the efficiency and what also are the thoughts about these kind of things? Should a country with a war spend that money?

Well, talking about the honorarium of Jamala, I think it’s kind of very strange that this topic is raised, because music is a kind of very expensive thing. I know from my personal experience and the money is going to Jamala who is, I think, a great singer who made the country widely known and especially in terms of diversity because she is Crimean singer. I think it’s great. It’s a little bit exaggerated but it shows how Ukrainian society can be, at this moment, maybe too neurotic to some case and maybe thinks everything in terms of war, which I think is a trap. Because the war is very important but it doesn’t cover everything.

Photo: Oleksandr Popenko, Hromadske

From what you asked about the transparency, I think the paradox of Ukraine is that Ukraine compared to European standards is now one of the most transparent countries. You have many of the property registers open; journalists can be quite free in checking everything. Not even the national one but when I talk to regional journalists I understand that many of them are much less dependent on the local authorities or local oligarchs than before. They can talk openly about all the schemes or the problems. The problem is whether the officials and whether the authorities react on that. So we are kind of facing a situation of post-Orange Revolution 10-12 years ago, when we had quite the same. Media can talk a lot, but then authorities do not react. I think this is kind of a difference of Ukraine from some of the Western European countries.

The biggest controversy is the banning of the Russian singer, Yulia Samoilova, by the Ukrainian Security Service. She wasn’t allowed to come to Ukraine because she has visited Crimea illegally—she had taken the flight from Moscow to Crimea and she’s now on the tour. Then there was the story that Russia wanted to do a Skype video. But the biggest story is that Yulia Samoilova is a handicapped singer. So people would say, ‘She’s in a wheelchair. That’s not good from Ukrainians.’ What would you say? We have read a lot from foreign reporters that that was really a bad move in terms of the image of Ukraine to do so.

I disagree with them, and we had lots of discussions with foreign journalists—a very open discussion which we have, for example, in Ukraine World group. I think it’s okay that we disagree. I think they tend to underestimate the safety and security issue and we tend to maybe overestimate it. But I think there are two things. First, you mentioned that she traveled to Crimea—but not only did she travel to Crimea but she openly took a position that Crimea is a part of Russian territory. And in this sense, of course she broke the Ukrainian law and we’re asking ourselves all the time, “How should Ukraine react to that?” I think that Russia made for Ukraine a kind of lose-lose situation; anything you do will be bad. Let’s imagine that she comes and here comes my first point, the second point she comes to Ukraine and then this provokes a huge controversy inside the country. We have some far-right activists, we have some nationalists, but we have some also political forces inside or outside the country that can provoke them, that can use them, that can manipulate them. So imagine the provocations against her. I think that could have very bad consequences.

What is really interesting for me is that I rarely hear that there would be some kind of demand for another EU state to do something else with their migration law, for instance, let the borders open for somebody who had previously violated the Schengen zone or the UK migration regime. So is there the Ukrainian law on migration is considered to be looser or more flexible than the laws in other countries?

I think here we are facing a situation that is not a political debate. It’s not a debate between the EU and Ukraine. It’s a debate between Eurovision as a kind of commercial brand and Ukraine as a state. And Ukraine as a state has all the sovereignty to protect its borders and to decide who to let in and who to not let in. If we go to the international law debate, then I’m sorry but this is Ukrainian sovereignty.

‘Celebrate Diversity’ is the slogan for this competition yet there is once again controversy. There is the case of the “Arch of Friendship”. This is and old Soviet monument in the heart of Kyiv and it was supposed to be painted as the rainbow flag yet the far-right group ‘Right Sector’ threatened to stop the work. In the end, Kyiv mayor Klitshcko decided to use to national Ukrainian symbols to fill some of the gap, which hadn’t been painted. So the question it, to what extent it’s indeed a concession and really is it a concession to the far-right? 

I think we should understand that the LGBT issue is still a hot issue in Ukraine and I think it’s not something original. I think you could take any Eastern European country you will have the same kind of debate. If even we talk about Western European countries in France, the issue of the so-called marriage for everyone was very hot and still is. So I think with this topic, we should go very progressively and slowly. We should understand that there is an irrational mood in Ukrainian society among many people, even among middle-class people that consider this topic kind of as an obscene topic or as something that should not be discussed.

But how do you see the way Ukrainian authorities are handling that? Because they would like to look progressive, and at the same time, they do the things that are really just the other side of that, trying to make them an excuse later in a way that it’s better to not ask for an excuse.

Exactly. I mean Ukrainian authorities are trying to balance and they understand that the patriotic mood or conservative mood in this country is something that is a fact. You cannot really change it in one night into a liberal or leftist liberal idea.