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Commentary: Through Eurovision Goggles

(AFP) The turnout puts European Parliament elections to shame -- the type of participation a "Eurocrat" can only dream of. On May 24, tens of millions of Europeans voted for their favorite songs in the finals of the 53rd Eurovision Song Contest, selecting the Russian entry "Believe" by Dima Bilan as the winner.

It's easy to scoff at Eurovision. It's gimmicky, kitsch, with substandard singers performing mindless pop. It's a refuge for the never-have-beens and never-will-be's.

But the contest actually says a lot about Europe and Europeans, warts and all. For, despite the flag swapping and the bonhomie, and the three-language choruses calling for armies to lay down their guns, the contest has always been petty, provincial, and even mean-spirited. And what could be more European than that?

Take the phenomenon of "neighborly voting." Countries have the chance -- either by jury or televote -- to vote for each other's songs. The results are unsurprising. Countries tend to vote for countries like themselves: they might share a language, a religion, or a disdain for the Germans or the British.

Greece and Cyprus regularly give each other the highest marks, and Balkan and Scandinavian audiences do the same among themselves. The voting also gives smaller countries, still perhaps smarting from CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) inequalities or restrictive immigration policies, a chance to bloody the noses of Europe's big boys.

Then there's the sniping and the provincialism. Set up in 1956 to unite a war-ravaged Europe, the competition sometimes has the opposite effect.

After the United Kingdom's entry bombed out with zero points in 2003, the duo's dressing room was vandalized. There were plenty of suggestions in Britain ("remember, we gave the world The Beatles") that the snub might have been due less to a wobbly performance than to the United Kingdom's role in the Iraq war.

This year, Armenia and first-timers Azerbaijan, who fought a war over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s, are already at each other's throats. A group of Azerbaijanis has launched a campaign on youTube claiming that Armenia's entry is based on three well-known Azerbaijani folk songs.

A French academic, Philippe Le Guern, has studied the song contest and has likened it to a kind of "war substitute." Just like corporate paintball, it's supposed to be teambuilding, but really it's an excuse to splat your most annoying colleagues with dire Europop.

And then there's the more recent phenomenon: enlargement fatigue. In recent years, the contest has expanded to include countries from Central and Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. Since 2001, "New Europe" had triumphed with victories from Estonia, Latvia, Turkey, Ukraine, Serbia, and now Russia. That has prompted grumblings from some Old Europeans. Veteran broadcaster Terry Wogan, who hosts the Eurovision show every year in Britain, said recently that a new "Iron Curtain" has descended on the contest.

"Eurovision was intended to bring us all together but instead it makes it manifestly clear how far apart we all are, " Wogan told Britain's "Daily Telegraph" newspaper this week. He fears that the "eastern stranglehold" might mean Britain (gasp!) will never win the contest again.

Conspiracy theories aside, that might have more to do with the caliber of entrants. For Old Europe, Eurovision is not supposed to be taken seriously. It's a running joke, something to be enjoyed with tongue firmly in cheek.

But for many of the smaller countries, Eurovision is important -- not just in showcasing their national cultures, but also in attracting potential tourists. New entrants often send their top acts. Compare that with Euro-weary Ireland, which this year sent a purple-beaked glove puppet called Dustin the Turkey.

Ultimately, Eurovision is a success because it reveals how different we Europeans think we are, when in reality the opposite is true. The delusion of diversity and the reality of commonality. After all, we're all sitting down watching it together on a Saturday night.

Freud called it the narcissism of minor differences: the idea that, as human beings, our most virulent hatred is reserved for those who are only slightly different. Those Azerbaijanis outraged by the "theft" of their folk songs should take note.

The author is editor in chief of RFE/RL's English-language website

Dustin The Turkey

Dustin The Turkey
Ireland's entry, "Irelande Douze Pointe," performed by Dustin the Turkey, did not make it to the final.

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