Proud Russia hosts Eurovision extravaganza
Moscow -- The Eurovision Song Contest, the continent's annual over-the-top celebration of Europop, kicks off in Russia on Tuesday with the whiff of politics and conspiracy as distinct as ever.
Singers from around Europe will seek to impress television voters in the first of the semi-finals later Tuesday leading up to Saturday’s final at the 80,000 capacity Olympiysky Arena in central Moscow.
Russia is hosting the event for the first time after winning in 2008, a triumph seen here as part of a post-Soviet national renaissance, in which a Russian was also crowned Miss World.
Moods may have been darkened by the economic crisis but the Russians will be looking to show the world they can put on a show-stopping party as they prepare to host the 2014 Winter Olympics.
The capital has been festooned with Eurovision banners in the white, blue and red of the Russian flag and pictures of the Miss World 2008, Ksenya Sukhinova, voluptuously dressed in the national colours of all the entrants.
While Western European countries — which have found little success in the contest in recent years — often lampoon the quality of entries, the event is taken deeply seriously further east.
Russia, Serbia and Ukraine have all won in recent years, helped by the tendency of viewers in ex-Eastern bloc countries to vote for each other.
The winning Russian entry in 2008 was sung by pin-up Russian superstar Dima Bilan, in a routine that included ex-world figure skating champion Yevgeny Plushenko pirouetting on a mini ice rink.
"Eurovision is exciting, camp, foolish, spectacular fun," said Terry Wogan, who has stepped down as commentator for Britain’s BBC this year after almost four decades providing caustic commentary on the contest.
"But it’s not about politics, it’s not about asserting your place in the Community, it’s not about national pride. It’s not about flag-waving. It’s not a war. It’s a song contest," he said in speech this month at a television summit in Switzerland.
Norway is the bookies’ favourite to win the contest with an entry that appears aimed at beating the ex-Eastern bloc at its own game.
The song, "Fairytale", is sung by the Belarus-born Alexander Rybak and features a distinctly Eastern European sounding jaunty rhythm and even Cossack-style dancing.
Also high up in the running are the oriental rhythms and belly dancing of "Dum Tek Tek" from Turkey’s Sinan Akcil and disco beat of "This is Our Night" from Hellenic superstar Sakis Rouvas from Greece.
But the holding of the contest in Russia means that politics has inevitably not been far away.
Controversy was initially caused when Georgia, with which Russia fought a war last August, declared that its entry would be a song poking fun at Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
The song — with the catchy line ‘We don’t wanna put in’ — was rejected by organisers and a piqued Georgia pulled out of the contest altogether.
Then Russia’s own entry — sung in Ukrainian by a singer of Ukrainian origin and produced by a multi-national team — was slammed at home for not being Russian enough.
Russian gay rights activists are also planning to hold their annual gay pride parade on Saturday, defying a ban from the Moscow municipality and the fact previous such events have ended in violence and arrests.
"The scandals are louder than the songs," remarked Russian daily Kommersant.
On a more positive note, Israel’s song "There Must Be Another Way" will be performed by a Jew of Yemeni origin and a Christian Arab pleading for peace in the Middle East.
Western European countries have brought out some heavy weaponry to break the Eastern and Scandinavian dominance of the contest.
Britain’s entry "It’s My Time" has been penned by musical maestro Andrew Lloyd Webber while France’s "Et S’il Fallait Le Faire" will be performed by legendary singer Patricia Kaas.
Eighteen countries will take part in the first semi-final on Tuesday and 19 more in the second one on Thursday. A total of 25 acts will then compete in Saturday’s final.