Eurovision strikes wrong note with UK over Zelensky ban

·4-min read
Ukrainian electronic music duo Tvorchi's song 'Heart of Steel' is inspired by the Azovstal steelworks siege
Ukrainian electronic music duo Tvorchi's song 'Heart of Steel' is inspired by the Azovstal steelworks siege

The UK government on Friday hit out at European broadcasters for banning a Eurovision message by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, as host city Liverpool decked out in yellow and blue for the annual carnival of kitsch.

Twenty-six countries have made it through to Saturday's final of the globally watched songfest, which was won last year by Ukraine weeks after Russia launched its invasion.

Britain stepped in to host the 2023 edition on Ukraine's behalf, and Zelensky had asked to deliver a message by video.

But the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) said "strict rules" prevented it from granting the Ukrainian leader's request, arguing that the contest was "non-political".

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak "believes it would be fitting for President Zelensky to address the event, and we're disappointed by the decision from the European Broadcasting Union", Sunak's spokesman said.

"The values and freedoms that President Zelensky and the people of Ukraine are fighting for are not political, they're fundamental," he told reporters.

"Eurovision themselves recognised that last year when they rightly suspended Russia's participation from the competition."

Organisers may want to avoid politics but some of the performers have clearly taken inspiration from current events.

Ukraine's entry by electronic music group Tvorchi, "Heart of Steel", was inspired by the nearly month-long resistance put up by Ukrainian fighters at Mariupol's besieged Azovstal steelworks.

- Home of The Beatles -

Croatia's song, "Mama SC!" by the mustachioed Let 3, is a thinly veiled attack on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Switzerland's singer Remo Forrer has opted for a more traditional message of peace with his entry "Watergun".

Britain's former prime minister Boris Johnson -- an early supporter of Ukraine during his premiership -- also defended Zelensky's right to speak.

"There is only one reason the contest is not in Ukraine and that is because of Putin's illegal war," he tweeted.

Zelensky told the BBC this week that notwithstanding his "great respect" for the UK, he would have preferred Eurovision to take place in a neighbouring country, so more Ukrainians could have attended.

Liverpool -- home of The Beatles -- and the BBC have gone all out to pay tribute to Ukraine in events leading up to the climax of the annual contest.

As part of events around Eurovision, the port city has unveiled a monument designed to be a "symbol of hope" for Ukraine.

The aluminium statue of a man holding up a book, from which a dove takes flight trailing a Ukrainian flag, is in Strawberry Field, the garden that gave its name to the Beatles's psychedelic hit.

Liverpool landmark the Superlambanana -- a half-lamb, half banana statue by Japanese artist Taro Chiezo -- has been repainted in Ukraine's blue and yellow colours.

- Superpower -

Saturday's grand final is set to include a special tribute to Ukraine, with 11 of its artists performing including last year's winner Kalush Orchestra.

"It means a lot," said Ukrainian fashion designer Liudmyla Kaminski at the sight of her country's national colours decorating central Liverpool.

Scarves are on sale with messages including "Ukraine is my superpower" and "I thought I knew what bravery is but then I saw Ukraine".

Stuart Andrew, a minister in Sunak's government who has been overseeing Eurovision preparations, said that he had guided the wife of Ukraine's ambassador around Liverpool.

"She said as she walked around, she felt she was in Ukraine. And that meant a lot to us," he told AFP.

"As far as we're concerned, we're going to get on with having the best show on their behalf."

Eurodance anthem "Tattoo" by Sweden's entry Loreen -- Eurovision winners in 2012 -- is the bookmakers' favourite for Saturday night.

But with the winner determined by a mix of national juries and public voting, surprises are common.

Andrew said the UK authorities, EBU, BBC and others involved had deployed the "best brains" to ensure the security of Eurovision voting, amid warnings of possible Russian hacking.

The full line-up of the grand final was revealed following a second knockout round on Thursday.

The final 10 spots went to Albania, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland and Slovenia.

Ten countries had already qualified from Tuesday's semi-final: Croatia, the Czech Republic, Finland, Israel, Moldova, Norway, Portugal, Serbia, Sweden and Switzerland.

Along with Ukraine, they will join the EBU's five biggest contributors, which qualify automatically for the final: Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain.