Dominc Swire in Belgrade -
The Eurovision Song Contest is for the first time heading to Moscow in 2009 following the triumph of Russian heartthrob Dima Bilan's power ballad "Believe" in Belgrade. Yet while Russian fans celebrated noisily, there were the traditional accusations of bloc voting as Central and Eastern European countries once again outperformed their cousins in the West.
Bilan won the competition convincingly following an extravagant performance that was accompanied by Olympic figure skating champion Eugeni Pluschenko who skated during the performance, and violinist Edvin Marton playing an extremely rare 1697 Stradivarius, once used by Paganini.
Russian student Jevgeni who had travelled to Belgrade with his parents to watch Bilan play was certainly impressed. "I'm really happy not just for Dima Bilan, but also for Russia. Next year in Moscow is going to be cool!" He enthused.
But not everyone was cheering as once again West Europe was left feeling cheated out of points through political voting. The problem was particularly pronounced last year when Greece in 7th place was the only country in the top 10 not from Eastern Europe. The bias was even more blatant in the semifinals where all 10 of the 28 countries that were required to go through the qualifying round were from CEE. The results were met with scathing criticism from the West, especially in the UK where a question was tabled in the House of Commons by MP Richard Younger-Ross, who described the voting procedure as "a joke."
Eastern bloc voting
To combat the same problem this year the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) that runs the event introduced two semifinals. The tactic appeared to work with the qualifying countries split almost half and half between east and west. However, this ratio did not carry into the final with only three of the top 10 coming from Western countries. Collectively, CEE garnered a total of 1,703 points, compared with 965 from the West. This, coupled with the fact that all but one of the seven countries that awarded Russia the maximum "douze points" were from the former Soviet Union has led to continued accusations of bloc voting and despair in the West about entering a competition they have virtually zero chance of wining.
Veteran BBC commentator Terry Wogan, the "voice of Eurovision" to many of the competition's fans in the UK, was so frustrated that he is considering quitting his role, claiming that the show is "no longer a music contest." Despite submitting a critically acclaimed song by former bin man Andy Abraham, UK's entry came last with a paltry 14 points - five points worse than last year's no hopers Scooch.
Head of communications at EBU Sietse Bakker acknowledges that there are factors other than the music that are likely to influence voting, such as if a song is performed in your own language by a neighbouring country, or if the artist is well known in the region. The latter is certainly true of Dima Bilan, who has been very popular across the whole ex-Soviet region for a number of years now. "You will always see this," admits Bakker. "But what you also see is that a successful song always needs broad support from the whole of Europe. You can't win the song contest just by getting some points from neighbouring countries or diaspora outside your own country."
Some say the real winners of the 2008 contest were hosts Serbia who for once had the rare luxury of seeing their country hit the headlines for positive reasons. Belgrade's organisation of the world's largest music festival was extremely well managed, particularly considering the first-time hosts had to cater for 3,000 journalists as well as 15,00 fans.
However, Dusan Vulovic, Regional Public Relations Director for McCann Erickson in Belgrade warns that the transformation of Serbia's image on the international stage will take more than the successful hosting of one event. "The Eurovision Song Contest is a great opportunity to 'show ourselves off' in a good light, but I don't see that this can change the image of Serbia significantly. Creating a positive identity of a country is a long-term process and does not happen overnight," Vulovic told bne.
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