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Last Updated: Sunday, 16 April 2006, 06:52 GMT 07:52 UK
Eurovision hits a serious note
By Tim Judah
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

Choosing a song for Europe may be a frivolous affair for some countries, but in the Balkans it is a sensitive matter which can have serious consequences.

Flamingosi performs the second best song in Serbia & Montenegro's contest
Serbia-Montenegro withdrew after a row over its contest to find a song
Let's face it. Most of Europe doesn't take it very seriously.

But as Aleksandar Tijanic, the powerful head of Serbian Television, reminded me: "It is difficult to understand if you don't understand the Balkans."

We are talking about the Eurovision Song Contest of course.

The first took place in Switzerland in 1956 and only seven countries took part.

Britain, Austria and Denmark were not represented because they failed to get their applications in on time.

What a difference half a century makes.

This year 37 countries will be jostling for the prize in Athens on 20 May and four of them, Macedonia, Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia, will be ex-Yugoslav states who take the contest very seriously indeed.

And next year there could be three more of them: Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo.

Balkan odyssey

I began my Balkan Eurovision odyssey in Kosovo. The reason that they in particular take the contest so seriously is because they are not going.

Technically, Kosovo is a province of Serbia.

In fact, ever since the end of the war here in 1999, it has been under UN jurisdiction with security provided by Nato-led forces.

Kosovo has a population of some two million people, more than 90% of whom are ethnic Albanians.

They have consistently demanded independence, but this has been fiercely resisted by Serbia, which regards it as the cradle of its civilisation.

Some 100,000 Serbs remain in Kosovo, mostly scattered across the province in enclaves.

Rank treachery?

In theory, Kosovo Albanian bands could compete in Eurovision under the flag of Serbia and Montenegro.

Girl band Flakareshat
Flakareshat would rather compete for an independent Kosovo

In reality, they would never be chosen and besides, no Kosovo Albanian would ever consider doing such a thing, which would be considered rank treachery by fellow Albanians.

So for the last few years, Kosovo Albanian groups such as energetic girl-band Flakareshat have gone to Tirana, the capital of Albania, to compete.

If they had ever won, they would have competed under the flag of Albania.

But no band from Kosovo has been chosen. Yet another reason, say Kosovo Albanians, why it needs independence.

In fact, talks have started on the future of Kosovo and it is quite likely that, despite resistance from Serbia, Kosovo will be independent in time for the Eurovision song contest in 2007.

Political points

Over the mountains to the West is Kosovo's neighbour, Montenegro.

Montenegrin band No Name won for the second time this year

In theory, this tiny republic of some 672,000 people is linked in a loose federation with Serbia.

In last year's Eurovision contest, a boy band called No Name represented the joint state in Kiev.

Much to the irritation of Serbs though, No Name draped themselves in the flag of Montenegro, not Serbia and Montenegro.

The Serbs thought that the band were abusing the contest to score political points.

In the Balkans it was understood that sporting the Montenegrin flag meant supporting independence from Serbia.

There was no political motivation
Milica Belevic, Montenegrin judge

This year the contest to choose a band from Serbia and Montenegro took place in Belgrade on 11 March.

A few hours earlier the former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic had been found dead in his cell at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

When No Name won for the second year, the Serbs in the audience went berserk. They began chucking bottles at No Name and screaming: "Thieves! Thieves!"

"There was no political motivation," said Milica Belevic, one of the Montenegrin judges.

It is a claim that is widely disbelieved in Serbia.

Independence vote

As far as the Serbs were concerned the Montenegrins were desperate to get their boys back on stage in Athens strutting their stuff and flying the flag for Montenegro.

A poster in Podgorica advertising the referendum on 21 May
Montenegro is gearing up for a referendum on 21 May
Why the desperation? Less than 12 hours after the Eurovision contest, the polls open in Montenegro for a very different form of competition.

On 21 May, Montenegrins are set to vote in a referendum on independence from Serbia.

The Belgrade battle of Eurovision means that this year Serbia and Montenegro has had to withdraw from the contest.

Next year, depending on what happens in the referendum, they might be competing as separate states.

"Yugoslavia was divided with guns," laughed Sabrija Vulic of Montenegrin Television, "and Serbia and Montenegro will be divided by songs!"

In neighbouring Bosnia they will not actually say they are happy that Serbia and Montenegro have been forced to drop out of the contest but they are not exactly shedding tears about it either.

It means that the pool of potential votes for Bosnia has risen by several million.

Shrewd choice

Bosnia has chosen Hari - and his band Hari Mata Hari - to sing for them in Athens this year.

Hari Mata Hari, the Bosnian choice
It's very important for morale, that at last we win here!
Hari Mata Hari, Bosnian entry

It is shrewd choice. Hari was well known before Yugoslavia descended into war in the 1990s and he is still popular across the region.

The Eurovision Song Contest website calls Hari "the nightingale of Sarajevo". He told me he was "the nightingale of the galaxy".

But behind the humour, there is a steely determination to win.

Hari says that ever since the end of the war in Bosnia more than 10 years ago, Bosnians have felt as though they were "losing".

So, he says, "it's very important for morale, that at last we win here!"

And Hari is leaving nothing to chance.

He has already started a gruelling promotional tour across the former Yugoslavia and in parts of the rest of Europe with a significant diaspora from the former Yugoslavia.

Bosnia and Serbia may be slugging it out these days at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, where Bosnia is pursuing its claim that Serbia tried to commit genocide in Bosnia, but none of that is going to stop former Yugoslavs voting for one another in Athens on 20 May.

"The state still exists, it seems," says head of Serbian TV Aleksandar Tijanic, referring to the Yugoslav ghost.

"You can't erase 70 years of a joint state despite all the wars."

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 20 April, 2006 at 1102 BST and was repeated on Monday, 24 April, at 2030 BST.

Crossing Continents


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Balkan Eurovision odyssey
13 Apr 06 |  Crossing Continents
Row prompts Eurovision withdrawal
20 Mar 06 |  Entertainment
Country profile: Serbia and Montenegro
05 Apr 06 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Bosnia-Hercegovina
05 Apr 06 |  Country profiles
Regions and territories: Kosovo
05 Apr 06 |  Country profiles

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