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Something to declare

“There are two ways to understand countries, their politics and culture. One is to follow their elections and economies. The other is to tune in, every May, to the Eurovision Song Contest. In a few hours, you can see what every country in the continent – and a few outside it – think of each other. Scores are settled, hatchets buried, insults hurled and alliances made. Yes, it’s about the music – but about so much more. Each country puts on a face it wants the rest of the world to see. For the last few years, we have seen that Britain doesn’t care much what the rest of Europe thinks of it: the UK entries are dire, lacking in musicality or choreography. And the ex-Soviet states, thrilled to be part of the comity of European nations, sing their heart out. This is their chance to be noticed, for something other than corruption. When Dana International won for Israel in 1998, it showed an avant-garde side to a country known for military turmoil.

PHOTOGRAPHS: JOHN W BANAGAN/GETTY, BOBBY BANK/FILM MAGIC/GETTY, COURTESY OF CEAUSESCU SPRING PALACE, THE DORCHESTER/JAMES BEDFORD, NEIL FARRIN/GETTY IMAGES, FIELD OF LIGHT ULURU BRUCE MUNRO 2016 PHOTO BY MARK PICKTHALL, HENGLEIN AND STREETS/GETTY, LIFE ON WHITE/GETTY, SARA LINCOLN PHOTOGRAPHY, RED PHOTOGRAPHY, ANDERSEN ROSS/GETTY IMAGES. ILLUSTRATION: JIŘÍ SLÍVA

And then, the voting. Each vote tells you about international enmities. For years, Cyprus and Turkey gave each other nul points; it’s their chance to release tension. When Turkey stopped the US using its territory to invade Iraq in 2003, its reward was a Eurovision victory. Britain, the lead European ally, won no votes from anyone. And while countries vote for their friends, this makes the contest all the more interesting. In 2009, Norway had the genius idea of felding a Minskborn immigrant (Alexander Rybak) playing a Slavic tune (Fairytale) and he mopped up the Scandinavian votes and the ex-Soviet block. In 2012, Sweden felded Loreen, born to Moroccan parents, which again extended its demographic appeal. Winning at Eurovisision does mean coming up with a great tune, but also gaming the geopolitical forces at play. When the voting’s over, you can see what everyone thinks of everyone. Which countries have bothered to play a clever hand, and which (usually Britain) should have just stayed at home. Several million will vote, from Reykjavík to Tel Aviv, and some of them will even be sober. It’s this clash of music and politics that, for its devotees, makes it the greatest event of the year.”

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June 2016
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