Save the Last Dance for Us
30 May 2008
The eyes of Europe were on Belgrade as Serbs were determined to show the loss of Kosovo was no Waterloo.
BELGRADE | Just two weeks after a tense election that only deepened the divide over the country's course in the wake of Kosovo's declaration of independence, one event managed to bring all Europe together on the streets of the Serbian capital.
"This looks like it's not happening in Belgrade. When I'm in here, it's like I'm on board a spaceship," music journalist Jovan Ristic commented on the scene at the Belgrade Arena where the kitschy, yet still hugely popular Eurovision Song Contest reached its climax on 24 May.
It was the best organized musical event he'd ever seen in Serbia, Ristic added.
Belgrade lived and breathed Eurovision during the week leading up to the finals on Saturday night. Thousands of foreign tourists strolled around the city, the capital's central streets and buildings were decked in lights and souvenir vendors offered their products throughout Belgrade. Eurovision managed to push even the news of the difficult talks on forming a new government off the front pages of Serbian dailies. At the climax of the week as Russia's Dima Bilan celebrated his victory, spectacular fireworks burst out from several locations in the city.
"This is a chance for Belgrade to show Europe its new face," Serbian national TV general manager Aleksandar Tijanic told the media. Some 11 million euros were invested in promoting the Serbian capital for the huge television audience.
GLITZ AND MEMORIES
The many foreign guests who came in person were also greeted by reminders of a grimmer encounter nine years ago, when the Western powers rained bombs on Serbia over its treatment of the Albanian majority in Kosovo. An entire complex of buildings in Kneza Milosa Street, one of the busiest in Belgrade, is yet to be reconstructed, standing as a powerful symbol of a time when Serbia was considered a pariah state by most of the international community.
Belgrade writer and cultural critic Zorica Tomic believes the song contest's significance lies in its ability to link Serbia to the world.
"Foreigners were a bit surprised by the fact that this place is not inhabited by some kind of wild people," Tomic said. [..] "It is also very important that Belgraders have been able to see some different people on the streets these days. Because of all that, the atmosphere in the capital was slightly celebratory," she added.
Serbian and foreign media abounded with praise for Belgraders' hospitality, and no incidents against foreigners were reported. Seemingly forgotten were the convulsive events of three months earlier, when angry street gangs protested at embassies of countries that backed Kosovo's self-declared independence, sacking the Slovenian mission and burning the U.S. Embassy.
About 100 million viewers tune in to see glitzy, sometimes ridiculous acts perform live at the annual contest that began in 1956. The event attracted around 20,000 foreign tourists to Belgrade. Each year the finals are hosted by the country whose performer won the previous year. No estimates are yet available on the financial impact to the Serbian capital, but last year's host city Helsinki raked in about 30 million euros. The Belgrade contest broke two records - for the most countries taking part, 43, and the biggest audience in the hall on the final night, 18,000.
This year also marked the third time in five years that the winner has come from a predominantly Orthodox Slavic country, and the fifth time in eight years that the title has gone to one of the former Soviet or Yugoslav republics.
When Serbia's Marija Serifovic won the contest last year in Finland, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn congratulated the citizens of Serbia, saying, "This is a European vote for a European Serbia."
However, things did not run so smoothly for Belgrade and Serbia in organizing the event. Early this year Serifovic backed the presidential campaign of Tomislav Nikolic, the candidate of the far-right Serbian Radical Party. The Radicals advocate freezing the process of closer integration with the EU if it means giving up Kosovo, and party leader Vojislav Seselj is on trial before The Hague war crimes tribunal.
After Serifovic sang at a Radical Party rally, the European Commission began considering the possibility of dropping her from the ranks of ambassadors for the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue, an honor it bestowed on her last December. Serifovic reacted to the report saying she was deeply shaken by everything that was happening to her.
Marija Serifovic performs at last summer's Stockholm Pride festival. Photo by Charles Roffey / Creative Commons
"Serbia is my only homeland, I don't have a spare one. I will never give up on my opinions and beliefs. I won Europe, together with my people, who were with me wholeheartedly, but I will never sell myself to Europe to the detriment of my national being! When it comes to Serbia and any other interest, I fully choose my love for Serbia," she wrote to Serbian President Boris Tadic.
Tadic, Serbia's most outspoken statesman in favor of closer ties with Brussels, then backed Serifovic, saying she had represented Serbia well and rightly won in Helsinki. The Serbian president also said that "the fact that Marija Serifovic has a different political opinion must not and cannot in any way diminish her great success, or the possibility of her representing Serbia."
Soon after, the commission decided to take no action against the singer. Serifovic made no further appearances at Radical Party rallies, and Tadic, thanks to a small majority, beat Nikolic in the February presidential run-off. Belgrade continued to prepare for Eurovision.
The event's executive producer Sandra Susa said she was extremely satisfied with how Belgrade had played the part of host. "Over the past few days, our guests were able to see and experience Belgrade," she said, noting that apart from the large number of tourists, about 2,000 contest participants and European Broadcasting Union representatives, along with 3,000 foreign journalists, also took in the city's sights.
A representative of the official Belgrade Tourism Organization said that thanks to the success of Eurovision, the capital can now count on much better press. The organization calculated that foreign reporters sent out 30,000 brief news items and 10,000 longer pieces about the city, Serbia, and the contest itself. This exposure "will improve the traditionally one-sided and negative image of Serbs," Mihajlo Josifov said.
Croatian radio journalist Kruno Vidic agrees. He told Reuters that Eurovision would help improve Serbia's image even in the eyes of neighbors the country was at war with not very long ago.
"Popular culture is the best kind of diplomacy. Light notes are what we all understand. It is a bridge that helps people leave politics behind," Vidic said.
But the fireworks that marked the end of Eurovision also marked the end of the sweet escape from reality for Serbs that culminated in more than half of the population tuning in to watch as the final performers competed for the title. The local media dropped glittery pop acts for the serious faces of politicians who are deciding which parties will govern and which will go into opposition. The making of the next government will also bring an answer to the question that has dominated political life this year: is Serbia heading at pace toward the EU, as Tadic's Democratic Party favors, or will it take the Radicals' course and distance itself from the West over the issue of Kosovo, the province that declared independence from Belgrade?
As their country once again finds itself mired in a morass with no easy way out, many Serbs may be wondering if the title of last year's Eurovision-winning song - Marija Serifovic's "Prayer" - is what they need more than anything.