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East: Countries Pick Their Finalists For Thriving Eurovision

Lordi were the surprise winner in 2006 (AFP) March 18, 2007 -- The finals aren't until May, but the Eurovision Song Contest is in full swing as countries are picking their performers to take part.

In recent years, the contest -- known for trashy pop songs and flamboyant acts -- has expanded to include countries from Central and Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.

Ukraine won in 2004 and hosted the contest a year later. Armenia took part for the first time last year. This year, it's Georgia's turn to make its debut.

Cross Dresser

Drag star Verka Serdyuchka, real name Andrej Danilko, is Ukraine's entry for this year's Eurovision Song Contest.

The song is going to do little to placate those critics of Eurovision, who say the event appeals to the lowest common denominator: trashy, formulaic pop, cliched lyrics, and gimmicky costumes.

Ruslana, who won the competition for Ukraine in 2004, appeared on stage in tight leather shorts while brandishing a horse whip. The 2006 winners, Finnish heavy metal band Lordi, donned historical costumes and monster masks.

Eurovision is going through something of a resurgence, due partly to the popularity of Saturday-night talent contests.

Ukrainian music analyst Yurko Zelenyy says the contest isn't really about singing or dancing any more.

"Many participants simply go there for a laugh. Some people go to the pub for a beer, while others say: Come on, let's go there [to the Eurovision Song Contest]. Chances are that we will be selected [for the final]. Lordi was selected in this way even though Finnish society was against them," Zelenyy said.

Keith Mills, from Limerick on the west coast of Ireland, is a lifelong Eurovision fan and runs a tribute website. He says the contest is just a bit of fun and thinks that its expansion to include more countries from Eastern Europe and the Caucasus has led to more diversity.

"A lot of the artists that Eastern Europe is sending are particularly top-notch artists with interesting styles, very modern styles, and quite challenging styles," Mills says. "Some countries from Western Europe I think could be accused of sending trashy, lowest-common-denominator stuff, but that doesn't hold true in all countries."

Big Money

Whether you think the contest is a smorgasbord of musical styles or just generic Euro pop, it's big money -- with a central budget of around $20 million, not to mention the individual budgets of the national participants. It's important for small countries, not just in showcasing their national cultures -- but also in attracting potential tourists.

Eurovision is going through something of a resurgence, due partly to the popularity of Saturday-night talent contests around Europe, where the public votes by phone or text message for their favorite act.

The executive supervisor of the song contest, Svante Stockselius, says that the popularity of the competition has grown as it has involved more countries.

"[In] 2003, we had about 60 million viewers and last year in Athens we had well over 100 million viewers, so for sure the interest among the viewers is just getting bigger and bigger," Stockselius says.

Post-War Europe

Eurovision rose from the ashes of World War II -- an attempt to sow unity in a divided continent still putting itself back together.

The first contest was held in Switzerland in 1956, with seven countries taking part.

The name Eurovision, however, is slightly confusing, as non-European countries, such as Israel, can take part.

Ukraine hosted the tournament in 2005

The criterion is that a country has a national broadcaster that is a member of the European Broadcasting Union. The European Broadcasting Area includes the Caucasus, North Africa, and parts of the Middle East.

That means countries like Lebanon, Algeria, and Libya are eligible, although they have never taken part.

But Stockselius says he has doubts about whether the contest can expand much further.

"We only have 10 more countries as members of the European Broadcasting Union, which is a criteria to take part," Stockselius says. "And I think also when it comes to the preparation of the production -- when it comes to rehearsals, logistics, to shuttle buses, hotels, all these things -- we might have hit the roof now."

'Neighborly Voting'

And then, of course, there's the dreaded politics.

At the finals in Kyiv in 2005, a Montenegrin boy band called No Name intended to fly the colors for the union state of Serbia and Montenegro.

Unfortunately, they weren't quite the right colors. No Name wrapped themselves in the Montenegrin flag -- something many Serbs found offensive. At a later show in Belgrade, No Name was forced off the stage by a bottle-throwing crowd.

This year, Israel's entry has already caused a storm. The song, "Push The Button," includes allusions to Iran, nuclear war, and demonic war-mongering presidents.

And Eurovision just wouldn't be Eurovision without the accusations of "neighborly voting."

That's the phenomenan where Greece and Cyprus regularly exchange the maximum 12 points. Or the Balkan or Scandinavian countries regularly give each other the highest marks.

Caucasus Bloc

With Armenia appearing in the contest for the second time, Georgia making its debut, and Azerbaijan a possible contender for next year, there is perhaps a likelihood of a Caucasus bloc emerging.

However, Eurovision watcher Mills thinks it's unlikely.

"I know Armenia and Azerbaijan have a history of not particularly getting on with one another and Armenia and Turkey obviously don't have the most friendly of relations either, so I think the danger of a bloc coming out of that section isn't particularly strong," Mills says.

With a floundering European constitution, Eurovision might be more relevant than ever.

There is perhaps nothing more European than sitting in front of the television on a Saturday night, watching trashy pop of dubious quality, and then voting for the act of your choice.

And, in many ways, Eurovision is a microcosm of the continent: diverse, troubled, unsure where it's borders are, unsure whether to expand, and unsure where it should go next.