For most north Europeans, the Eurovision Song Contest is little more than a joke. For citizens of the former Yugoslavia, however, it is a chance to revisit all the hatreds of the Balkan conflict
Tim Judah in Sarajevo
Sunday April 16, 2006
Serevina is sexy, nearly naked and Croatian. I know that, because what little she is wearing is a Croatian flag. But that is not what has produced snorts of derision from one end of the Balkans to the other. Consider the words from her song for Europe: 'The grass has not yet sprouted... Where my high heel has trodden... hay, straw, cheese, salami, risi-bisi... Africa, paprika.'
Funny? I don't think so. It is war in the Balkans again. And this time it's the war of the Eurovision Song Contest.
Check out Severina on the Eurovision Song Contest website. The contest takes place on 20 May in Athens and for some of us snooty types in northern Europe, it is all a bit of a joke. Not so down south, where these lyrics have ruled her right out of the running.
Who would have guessed that when the founders of the venerable contest held their first, gentle little sing-song in Switzerland in 1956 - which Britain missed because it failed to get its application form in on time - that more than half a century later, the former Yugoslavs would take it all quiet so seriously?
I began my Balkan Eurovision odyssey in Kosovo. Technically it remains a part of Serbia. However, since the end of the Kosovo war in 1999 it has been under the jurisdiction of the United Nations, with security from Nato. Of its 2 million people, more than 90 per cent are ethnic Albanians, who want full independence from Serbia. When it comes to a song for Europe, though, that is a problem.
The Eurovision Song Contest might stretch from the Atlantic to the Urals, but there is one tiny hole in it: Kosovo. No state, no song.
Flakareshat are a bouncy girl band dying to make the big time. Since 1999, Kosovan groups, like Flakareshat, who wanted to try to get to Eurovision have had to trek down to Tirana, the Albanian capital, and compete with bands from there. Not surprisingly, Albania has never given a group from Kosovo the chance to represent Albania.
Maybe things will be different next year. Talks on Kosovo's future have begun and may end in independence, although some conditions might be attached. As long as not appearing at the Eurovision Song Contest is not one of them, then that would be OK, says Petrit Selimi, managing director of the newspaper Express
Next year, predicts Selimi, Kosovo would see 'mass hysteria' if Flakareshat got to go to Eurovision. 'Even if we don't get a flag in front of the United Nations,' as a result of the current talks, he says, 'as long as we get that song in the Eurovision Song Contest, I think we will be pretty happy with it.'
Over the mountains and not too far away, Montenegrins are licking their wounds. Or at least pretending to. Technically speaking, Serbia and Montenegro are linked together in a loose 'state-union'. What they have in common is an army, a few ministries, a flag and one ticket for Eurovision. Last year a Montenegrin boy band called No Name got to go to Kiev for the 'state-union'.
When they were there they draped themselves in the Montenegrin flag. Since most Europeans could not tell the difference between this flag and one from a Tintin book it was a gesture that passed 95 per cent of Europeans by. Not the Serbs, though; they saw it as a calculated insult and a nod to the tiny republic's campaign for independence.
On 11 March No Name were voted to represent Serbia and Montenegro again at a contest which took place in Belgrade. The Montenegrins were triumphant. As one senior source told me, they had spread a rumour about whom they thought would win. The Serb judges fell for it and the Montenegrins gave full marks. No Name thus tactically outvoted the Serbian judges.
Barely 12 hours earlier, Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian ruler, had died in his prison cell in The Hague where he was on trial for war crimes. What was now about to happen was later deemed by Zoran Zivkovic, a former Serbian Prime Minister, to have caused 'much more excitement'.
The Serbs were having none of it. As No Name came on stage to perform their winning number, a virtual uprising began in the Sava Centre concert hall. 'Thieves, thieves,' screamed the audience, who pelted the Montenegrins with bottles.
'I was shocked, I was terrified,' says Sandra Peric, sister of No Name's bass player. No Name retreated, under armed guard, to their dressing room, while the triumphant Flamingos, the Serbian band that came second, advanced on to the stage to perform in their stead.
In Wogan-land we just fail to see the possibilities of Eurovision. Less than 12 hours after the contest in Athens, the polls open in Montenegro in a referendum on independence - from Serbia.
The Montenegrins, says Aleksandar Tijanic, the powerful director of Serbian television, were just desperate to get their boys on stage before all Europe, puffing up national pride, in a last-ditch effort to get out the vote.
This, he says piously, would be 'against the spirit' of the competition and he was having none of it. So, refusing to sign the papers necessary, Serbia and Montenegro will not be going to Athens this year, a move unprecedented in 51 years of Eurovision and one which pro-independence politicians in Montenegro say proves why the republic needs independence.
Milica Belevic, one of Montenegro's judges at the Eurovision Battle of Belgrade, says categorically that politics was the furthest thing from her mind when she voted for No Name. 'There was no political motivation,' she says. Her colleague Sabrija Vulic from Montenegrin television, though, says that, while 'Yugoslavia was divided with guns, Serbia and Montenegro will be divided by songs.'
Quite possibly, but this is the curious thing about the Eurovision Song Contest in the Balkans. As Terry Wogan will doubtless point out, just because these people spent years trying to kill one another, it does not mean they will not be voting for each other on 20 May.
You don't think they chose Hari, lead singer of the band Hari Mata Hari just because he has a nice voice, do you?
Oh no. Hari, 45, does have a nice voice. But he also has something else which babes like Severina do not. It's called Yu-appeal. Hari was famous before Yugoslavia disintegrated in blood and he is still popular across the region. Now, with Serbia and Montenegro out of the contest, the pool of potential telephone votes for Bosnia has gone up by several million.
Hari, known as 'the nightingale of Sarajevo', told me that Bosnians were fed up with losing. 'It is very important for morale that at last we win here.' And of course for getting the competition to Sarajevo in 2007.
Bosnia may be pursuing Serbia through the International Court of Justice in The Hague with its claim of genocide, but Hari is a Bosnian Muslim and his music has been written by a famous pop star from Serbia. Hari is talking about votes from a country of 25 million people - but there are only four million in Bosnia. It is the ghost of Yugoslavia.
'You can't erase 70 years of a joint state,' sighs Aleksandar Tijanic. 'Despite all the wars.'
· Tim Judah's programme about Eurovision's Balkan Wars can be heard on Crossing Continents, Radio 4, Thursday, 11am.