Ukrainian Eurovision pop star becomes voice of protest

Thu Dec 12, 2013 1:01pm EST

* Singer Ruslana leads protesters occupying central Kiev from stage

* Protest stems from Yanukovich decision to scrap EU trade pact

* Opposition camps raises barricades, defies police

By Alissa de Carbonnel

MOSCOW, Dec 12 (Reuters) - A Ukrainian Eurovision song contest winner is pushing her voice to the limit belting out songs nightly to keep up the morale of protesters camped out a snowy Kiev square - the unlikely figurehead of movement to oust President Viktor Yanukovich.

Ruslana Lyzhychko won with a song "Wild Dances" in 2004, becoming Ukraine's only Eurovision winner. For political elites that contest may seem a celebration of inanity, but for Ukrainians dreaming of a European future it brought recognition before a huge continental audience.

"Last night was a record for me - eight hours on stage," Lyzhychko told Reuters. "People look to me and they also stay."

The long nights in freezing temperatures have taken their toll. She looked worn to the bone, her face bare of make up and hair dishevelled, sucking throat lozenges as she whisked into the opposition's improvised HQ for another night.

Lyzhychko, her petite form belying a powerful deep voice, has been on stage virtually all night, every night in more than two weeks since protesters occupied the main square, enraged by Yanukovich's decision to scrap an EU trade deal and move the former Soviet republic closer to Moscow.

"She is fantastic. She is our voice, our soul, our face and our inspiration and our endurance," said activist Yegor Sobolev, draped in a yellow-blue Ukrainian flag.

Although she has become a hero to protesters camped out inside the barricades, not everyone shares their qualms about the beckoning of powerful northern neighbour Russia.

"When Ruslana won the Eurovision, we were proud of her... but now it is shameful," a reader from the largely Russian-speaking eastern Ukrainian region of Donbass commented in a local newspaper. "I am ashamed of Ruslana."

President Vladimir Putin wants Kiev, heavily indebted over Russian gas, as a central pillar in a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan to rival the EU and the United States.

BARRICADES

But Lyzhychko sings on as protesters prepare for mass weekend demonstrations and Russia and the EU vie for Kiev's favour, all the while cautious of the country's huge debts.

At night, Kiev's central Independence Square, or Maidan Nezalezhnosti, is filled with young men in hard hats and makeshift protective guards - volunteering as self-appointed security to man the barricades against any police raid.

Instantly surrounded by a half-dozen activists at Maidan, Ruslana plots strategy, ignoring the make artist and hair-dresser who fuss around her. Minutes later, she is transformed and ready for battle: eyes rimmed in sultry, dark eye-shadow and jet black locks swept up into an Amazonian pony tail.

One night, Lyzhychko's voice boomed out from the stage like a commander rallying troops as protesters shoved back against black-clad riot police, who tried to clear the streets without using force but eventually withdrew, far outnumbered.

Rock music blaring and fists pummelling the air, she belted out the refrain of a popular hit by one of Ukraine's most popular bands, Okean Elzy: "I won't give up without a fight," calling on people to wake friends to swell their numbers and rasing chants of "Maidan, exists!"

"I am Ukrainian. I believe in my people, I believe in justice. I will stand firm," she yelled, stamping her Ugg-clad feet to keep warm.

Lyzhychko is adored among protesters who see her as one of their own in a civil movement wary of politicians after being disappointed over the perceived failure of 2004-05 Orange Revolution to get rid of official corruption and bring change.

CHRISTMAS TREE

Some said they would vote for her, if she chose politics, but for now it is a mantle Lyzhychko rejects.

"You cannot lead Maidan, you can only join it," Lyzhychko said. "I think of myself as a volunteer ... showing people that we need to be here because there is no other way."

The pop star was also active in those 2004-2005 streets protests that succeeded in overturning a fraudulent election won by Yanukovich but not in reforming the political system that saw him again win the presidency in 2010.

"Russia is our past, Europe must be our future," said Lyzhychko, who is from Lviv, about 60 km from Ukraine's western border with EU member Poland where many see Russian as occupiers who oppressed their country in the Soviet era.

Like others, Ruslana answered a Facebook call on Nov. 21 to protest on the square where days later she had been booked to unveil a Christmas tree. That tree has now been torn to shreds by protesters using it to build barricades.

"After that night, the Kiev city administration called to cancel her participation, but anyway there was no opening and the Christmas tree is no more," Lyzhychko's spokeswoman said.

What is left of its towering wire carcass is now festooned with flags and political messages. (Reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel; editing by Ralph Boulton)

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