Dominic Swire in Belgrade -
It's that time of year again. That annual bastion of kitsch, camp and mediocre music, the Eurovision Song Contest, is with us once again, this time in Belgrade. As Serbia braces itself for the formation of a new government that some fear may see the return of nationalist rule and isolationalism, the capital city is playing host to one of the most famous events in the European "cultural" calendar.
But while not everyone in Serbia is a fan of the festival that has brought us such musical legends as Cliff Richard and Celine Dion, Belgrade is welcoming the event with open arms as the country cries out for some positive media coverage and its own image makeover.
"I think the music's rubbish, really. I'm not interested," scoffed telecommunications student Novica waiting for a bus in the centre of Belgrade. "But it's good for the image of the country. A lot of people will come and see Serbia and that's a good thing. We are often presented as an evil people."
Press coverage of Serbia reached a recent low in March this year as news agencies around the world carried pictures of rampaging youths attacking the embassies of countries that recognised Kosovo's recent declaration of independence. A central branch of McDonalds was also hit and still stands empty - a husk with shattered windows.
"For Serbia, the Eurovision Song Contest is a highlight after a very difficult period in the history of the country," Sietse Bakker, communications manager at the European Broadcasting Union, the organisation that runs Eurovision, tells bne. "The event gives Serbia the opportunity to show the beauty and hospitaility of their country and capital, and their capability to host the biggest entertainment event in Europe."
People may sneer at the quality of music but no one can underestimate the size of the contest with an estimated audience of around 100m. This year Eurovision is bigger than ever, with 43 countries competing for the chance of Eurovision glory. An estimated 15,000 fans are expected to visit the city, not to mention 3,000 journalists (the declared independence of Kosovo in February only brought 2,000 journalists to Pristina).
The Eurovision Song Contest comes to Serbia at an uncertain time in its history. Despite the street celebrations of the pro-European Democratic Party following Serbia's general election on May 11, the future shape of the government is uncertain, and is likely to remain so for up to three months, with the nationalist bloc still upbeat that they can form a ruling coalition. Many commentators warn that this may lead the country into an isolationist policy and shatter any hopes of a swift integration into Europe.
However, Bojan Jankovic, deputy-director at Serbia Investment and Export Promotion Agency, argues it's the uncertainty more than anything that is currently holding the country back. "It's a shame Eurovision is coming in such a period between elections and with all those - how should I say - messages being sent between the Democrats and Radicals and so on. In general, I think Eurovision would have had a bigger effect if we'd had a stable and democratic government at this point. But still, it will have a huge, huge effect," Jankovic says.
Belgrade's charm offensive seems to be bearing fruit. Virva Sainio-Nuujtinen and friend Marja Liflander, both bookkeepers from Finland, were certainly impressed with their first visit to the Serbian capital. "We were surprised, we thought that Serbia would be more like Russia. The old town is beautiful and the new town could be anywhere in the EU. There are cafes and restaurants everywhere. The service is a little slow, but people are very friendly," said Sainio-Nuuntinen.
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