The war-torn country had big plans to reform its state-owned media. Then it won Eurovision
THROW a glitzy party for all of Europe and controversy will arrive with bells on. Last year Ukraine won the Eurovision song contest with “1944” (by Jamala, pictured), a ditty about the deportation of Crimean Tatars under Stalin. Somehow that was judged to abide by Eurovision’s ban on politics, but it succeeded in infuriating third-placed Russia. It also won Ukraine the right to host this year’s edition, due in May. But the event is causing uproar even before the first song is sung. It has been beset by delays, funding woes—and even online chatter that the whole thing might be moved from Kiev to Russia. Then on February 13th a team of 21 organisers resigned from the National Public Broadcasting Company of Ukraine (NPBCU), throwing the festival of tawdry pop into doubt. The European Broadcasting Union, which owns Eurovision, urged Ukraine to “stick to the timeline” and politicians sought to soothe worried fans. “Absolutely nothing threatens Eurovision,” vowed Volodymyr Groysman, the prime minister. Why is Ukraine’s Eurovision party under threat?
Unlike other international shindigs, Eurovision’s hosts have months, not years, to fund and prepare their show. Doing so has been getting trickier ever since Denmark played host with a 36,000-capacity stadium in 2001: it is now a three-night extravaganza watched by 180m people. When Denmark hosted again in 2014, the bill came to $53m. Governments tend to get creative in order to find the cash. After Norway spent $37m on hosting in 2010, its public broadcaster had to sell its rights to the World Cup to a rival in order to balance the books. And the cost does not always fall on the national broadcaster that puts on the show. When Azerbaijan splashed out $76m in 2012, it poached the money from a fund meant to fix the country’s crumbling waterworks. Little wonder Ukrainian officials, who were already up against crippling deficits, initially preferred an “austerity Eurovision”, committing a mere $17m.
Eurovision’s bigger problem in Ukraine is that it has become entangled with one of the country’s most vital democratic reforms. After the revolution in 2014, the government passed a law to transform the old state broadcaster into an independent public one, with a beefed-up news service. That was sorely needed in a country where all other television networks are owned by oligarchs. The law promises the broadcaster funding of at least 0.2% of the budget—but this year that isn’t happening. In November 2016 the head of the NPBCU, Zurab Alasania, quit over concerns that Eurovision was eating into his budget at the worst possible time. Mr Alasania’s departure led to internal wrangling over control of Eurovision, which delayed preparations further. The final straw, before last week’s mass resignation, was a move to subtract $7.4m in expected revenue from fees, sponsorship and ticket sales from the broadcaster’s budget; the same amount was added to the Eurovision kitty. That swells the total cost of Eurovision to $32m, only slightly less than the broadcaster’s entire budget for 2017 ($33m).
The show will go on: few expect Ukraine to lose the right to host so late. The fuss may even lend a much-needed shot of publicity to the new broadcaster, which was legally registered last month. But it has also dampened the mood among ordinary Ukrainians, who long for the world to see their war-torn country in a positive light for a change. Politicians are hoping the event will boost national morale. That may yet happen, but balancing revelry with reform has proved difficult. One of the senior NPBCU officials who recently resigned says that as he watched his country triumph in last year’s Eurovision, his first thought was that hosting the contest would either invigorate the public broadcaster or kill it. “I still don’t know what will happen,” he says. One thing is certain: after the fleeting euphoria of this year’s Eurovision, the hard task of strengthening Ukraine’s media—and its democracy—will remain.