Eurovision arrives in Belgrade
BELGRADE, Serbia -- It's not an eventful week for Belgrade, it's an eventful month. But this week is surely the most exciting. With its first entry into the Eurovision Song Contest as an independent state, Serbia won the world's biggest music contest in 2007. Following tradition, when we watched late that night as Marija Å erifoviÄ‡ took home the most points from voters across Europe, we knew that she secured Belgrade's place as host of the 2008 Eurovision competition. I won't lie; there were tears as it became instantly clear what that meant for my adopted country. Serbia, the country with perhaps the worst public image on the continent, would for one week become the center of Europe, with all eyes focused on its capital as the cheerful host of everyone's favorite outlandish spectacle.
Hundreds of millions of people would watch an event with Serbian hosts, organized by Serbs, with frequent mention of what we're most proud of: our hospitality, culture, and most prominently, Serbian sports heroes, and it would all be bright lights, big dance numbers, and over-the-top entertainment. This year's contest takes place this week and, like New Years Eve, when partiers from Slovenia, Croatia, and other former Yugoslav states forget about their differences to descend on Belgrade for the region's best and biggest party, fans from the rest of the world are arriving in Belgrade.
These days a frequent topic of discussion begins with €˜have you seen any strangers around?' It's a reminder of how new it is for citizens here to see visitors from outside the region in their streets. What many visitors may not see is the context of this week's events. May 11 was the snap parliamentary elections, called following the breakdown of the government over Kosovo's declaration of independence and the disagreement over Serbia's path toward the European Union. Weary of elections, Serbs still managed to go to the polls, but after a victory for democratic parties, Serbia still lacks a government, a situation Serbs have sadly become familiar with.
And last year's winner, SerifoviÄ‡, has not escaped national controversy, something else perhaps unknown to foreign Eurovision fans. She appeared and performed at rallies for the Serbian Radical Party, and although subsequently claimed that rather than being a supporter, she did it for other (suspected material) reasons, her reputation nevertheless emerged tarnished. It has not been an easy year for Belgrade, that's for sure. It was only three months ago, after all, when the world's eyes were cast on Belgrade in shock as videos of riots and the fires of burning embassies and western businesses covered international broadcasts.
But Belgrade has managed to pull the whole thing off. Thanks to a colleague, I had the great fortune of attending the last dress rehearsal before last night's first Semi-Final to determine who goes on to the final on Saturday night. This is the largest Eurosong contest to date, with 43 contestants and for the first time, two semi-final events prior to the final. Alongside cheering for my favorite songs (I fell most for the moving clear-sung ballad of Israel, with Bosnia and Herzegovina's danceable rock song, and Russia's Timbaland-produced song with its unique stage production coming in close seconds), I was really impressed with the organization of the event.
The stage design is beautiful; following the theme of this year's contest, Confluence of Sound, the set resembles the merging of the Danube and Sava rivers, the site of Belgrade. The press center is supposedly the biggest and best ever. And organizers and Belgraders alike are eager to show outsiders that their city is a loving one, with a lot to be proud of, professionalism that can match or exceed anyone else's, a people that the outside may have forgotten, but that hasn't forgotten them, and a heart big enough to welcome them all.
And who knows, with Serbia's entry, another soaring heart-wrencher composed by co-host and Eurovision veteran Å½eljko JoksimoviÄ‡, tipped to be one of the top contenders to take home the win again this year, Belgrade may make Eurovision history and have the chance to do it all again. In the meantime, across the continent, whether part of political Europe or not, we'll just root for our favorite song with eager anticipation. That's the great thing about Eurovision, for one night of the year, everyone from Azerbaijan to the United Kingdom gets caught up in the same thing; and in the end, its all about the music.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.