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Undertones of debt crisis at European song contest

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IAN MacDOUGALL | May 28, 2010 12:20 PM EST | AP

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OSLO, Norway — As debt-ridden Europe struggles with a financial crisis, the hosts of the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest are sparing no expense as contestants gear up to vie for pop music dominance at Saturday's final.

With elaborate light shows and glitzy outfits, 34 contestants, representing countries from Ireland to Turkey, competed in semifinals this week to whittle that number down to 20.

Among them are bookmakers' favorites, Azerbaijan and Armenia. Also competing in the final are the five pre-qualified countries – last year's winner, Norway, and the contest's four perennials: Britain, Germany, France and Spain.

Oil-rich Norway's preparations for 2010 have a price tag of 200 million kroner ($31 million), but despite the fanfare and extravagance, tension over Europe's worsening economic situation has crept into this year's show.

Four countries – the Czech Republic, Montenegro, Andorra and Hungary – are not sending representatives to Oslo, citing "financial worries," said Peter Svaar, a spokesman for Norwegian national broadcaster NRK, which is organizing Eurovision.

And VRT, Belgium's Dutch-language public broadcaster, has decided to record commentary during the song contest in its Brussels studio, rather than send commentators to the 23,000-seat Telenor Arena just outside Oslo.

Now in its 55th year, the annual songfest, watched by 125 million viewers, celebrates European fraternity at a time when that very notion is being called into question.

The Greek debt crisis – and concerns it might spread to Spain and Portugal – has strained relations in the European Union. In relatively prosperous Germany, Greece has been portrayed as a fiscally irresponsible freeloader as the crisis forced a multibillion-dollar EU and International Monetary Fund bailout of the Mediterranean country.

Some Eurovision followers fear the tensions could impact voting Saturday.

"It may be the Germans won't vote for the Greeks this year because they are not so popular in Germany right now," said Inge Solmo, a Norwegian Eurovision expert.

The competition is decided by a panel of judges and telephone voting by the participating countries. Fans cannot vote for their own nation's entry. Politically motivated voting, as well as bloc voting, is fairly common in Eurovision. Former Soviet bloc countries have tended to support one another, helping the region win five of the last nine contests. The victorious nation wins the right to host the next year's event.

The crisis also crops up among this year's Eurovision entries.

Greece's "OPA!" by Giorgos Alkaios and Friends, reflects the country's response to austerity measures – riots and civil unrest – while remaining optimistic about a common road ahead.

Though not directly addressing the crisis, the song is about burning down "the past" and starting afresh. Alkaios sings in Greek, "I paid all my dues," concluding: "Let bygones be bygones, let's start over again."

On Friday, several European bookmakers favored Azerbaijan, represented by 17-year-old chanteuse Safura singing the guitar ballad "Drip Drop," though it's unclear if the small Eurasian country could host such an expensive contest.

"If Azerbaijan wins, I don't know how they could finance the show next year," Solmo said.

In the few cases where the winning country can't or won't host the show the following year, Eurovision officials have turned to Britain's BBC or the national broadcaster of another wealthy country and hosted the show there, he said.

Norway's entry this year, the low-key Didrik Solli-Tangen, is not expected to succeed Rybak, whose Belarusian parentage helped him earn the maximum number of points from several former Soviet satellite countries.

That may be just as well for NRK, which is unsure whether it can shoulder the cost of two Eurovision contests in a row.

"Should Norway win again, we'll need to enter into a dialogue with (Eurovision officials) about the distribution of cost. Should we win again it's clear that NRK cannot bear the majority of the costs for another year," Svaar said.

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Associated Press writers Robert Wielaard in Brussels and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.