Daragh Brophy reports from Turin, Italy:
THE FRONTMAN OF Eurovision favourites Kalush Orchestra made an impassioned plea for help for the fighters trapped in the ruined city of Mariupol at the close of their performance in Turin tonight.
“Help Ukraine, help Mariupol, help Azovstal now,” Oleh Psiuk exhorted to the crowd of thousands in the Pala Alpitour arena and a live TV audience of up to 200 million.
The Ukrainian government remains locked in what it’s described as “difficult” talks with Russia to secure safe passage for 38 badly wounded fighters from the Azovstal steel plant in the city.
Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said earlier this week that there were more than 1,000 Ukraine soldiers in tunnels beneath the sprawling steel works in Mariupol, which Russia has claimed control over.
She said hundreds were injured and that Ukraine was in talks with Turkey to facilitate potential evacuations.
Ukraine has offered to release Russian prisoners of war in exchange for the safe evacuation of the most badly-wounded fighters from Mariupol.
Azovstal is the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in the devastated southern port city and its fate has taken on a symbolic value in the broader battle since Russia’s invasion in February.
There was some speculation the Ukrainians could run a risk of being disqualified from the song contest as a result of their frontman’s on-stage comments.
Rules laid down by the European Broadcasting Union, which runs the contest, say the host broadcaster must always take steps to ensure it remains a “non-political event”. However, a Eurovision spokesperson has since confirmed that organisers are regarding the comments as humanitarian rather than political.
Russia was banned from taking part in this year’s contest the day after the country’s invasion of Ukraine back in February. Steps are now being taken to fully suspend its broadcasters from the EBU, meaning it’s unlikely we’ll see a Russian performer back at the Eurovision any year soon.
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Folk-rap act Kalush Orchestra were selected to compete in Turin just days before the start of the war and were given special dispensation by Kyiv to take part in the contest. However, as men of fighting age they are under orders to return home tomorrow.
One of their members joined the army in the days following the invasion and remains in Kyiv this weekend on duty.
Their entry, Stefania, was written by Psiuk last year as a tribute to his mother. The song – with its haunting refrain and nostalgic lyrics – has since taken on a larger meaning in Ukraine and beyond.
Given the focus on Ukraine since Russia’s February invasion – not to mention the number of Ukrainians who have been forced to flee their home country to other European nations – the entry is expected to generate a huge public vote and the group have long been installed as odds-on favourites to win tonight.