Page last updated at 22:16 GMT, Friday, 23 May 2008 23:16 UK

Serbia in spotlight for Eurovision

By Helen Fawkes
BBC News, Belgrade

Jelena Tomasevic, Serbia's representative in the Eurovision song contest, performs during a rehearsal
Serbia is revelling in the chance to showcase itself internationally
The stage is set for the biggest ever event to be held in Serbia.

The final of the Eurovision Song Contest will have a television audience of millions, while thousands will be at the venue itself in the capital.

''People are smiling more, you see locals walking around looking much happier than normal," Belgrade artist Predrag Miladinovic says.

"Eurovision has given us a good energy."

In the main shopping street, Predrag sells comic pictures of Slavic men with big moustaches alongside Eurovision t-shirts.

With the spotlight on Serbia, he hopes that for visitors the competition will improve the country's tarnished image.

''Foreigners are able to see a different face of Serbia. They will understand that we are different to what they imagine,'' he says.

Crisis of direction

Serbia is basking in the Eurovision glow and this is being seen as a ideal opportunity for the much maligned country to showcase itself internationally.

Serbian protesters set fire to the US embassy in Belgrade, Serbia (21/02/08)
In February protesters attacked the US embassy over Kosovo's independence

''After Slobodan Milosevic came to power Serbia experienced years of isolation. It's now very important to demonstrate that we are a normal country," Bratislav Grubacic, a leading political commentator, says.

"Eurovision won't change foreign policy towards Serbia, but it should have a positive impact on the average European television viewer,'' he adds.

The Serbian capital is sparkling. Ahead of the final, street cleaners wearing bright orange t-shirts are much more visible than normal in Belgrade.

It was here that riots erupted earlier this year following Western recognition for Kosovo's declaration of independence.

Western embassies were targeted and there has been a rise in anti-European sentiment.

Serbia appears unsure about which direction to take, following a snap parliamentary election two weeks ago in which no party won a majority.

The country is now waiting for a coalition government to be formed which could decide whether the country pushes towards integration with the EU or moves closer to Russia.

Huge honour

''We have a big crisis here in Serbia but we are glad to host Eurovision and to show that we should be part of Europe,'' 23-year-old Yelena says, who is one of the army of volunteers working at the contest.

Many people in Western Europe may sneer at the cheesy glitz and dubious performances associated with Eurovision.

Latvia's "Pirates of the Sea" performs during the dress rehearsal in Belgrade
It is hoped Eurovision will highlight Belgrade's potential as a party capital

But Slavic countries like Serbia take it very seriously and so hosting the contest is seen a huge honour in this region.

Eurovision week kicked off with an open air concert in the grounds of an ancient fortress.

It featured acts mostly from the east, including Ruslana, the Ukrainian winner of Eurovision in 2004.

For many of those watching the concert, there is a sense of pride about putting on the Eurovision competition.

''We hope that people who come will see the beauty of our country and take the best of Serbia to their country,'' Dejan, a student from Belgrade, says.

''This is our biggest chance to show the world that we are not a bad country and that we are a great people,'' 19-year-old student Alexandra says.

Despite being a vibrant and lively capital, Belgrade is not exactly a popular tourist destination.

The authorities hope that Eurovision will put the country on the map for all the right reasons.

Belgrade is famous in the region for being the party capital of the Balkans. This is something which is being heavily promoted.

''We like having the people of Europe come to Serbia. In Belgrade we like to party and to sing, we would love Eurovision to come back here again this year,'' Yelena says.


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