Serbia's Eurovision: whose victory?

30 May 2007

"And the twelve points go to Serbia". The announcement of the representative of Bosnian television at the Eurovision song contest in Helsinki on 12 May 2007 may have echoed the voting choices of the citizens of many other European states, but the moment was still astounding for those who recalled the bitter enmity between the two countries in the wars of Yugoslav succession in the 1990s.

Equally striking was what followed. As the Finnish television cameras focused on the beaming young Serbian singer Marija Serifovic, bringing her closer to eventual victory in the competition, she delightedly responded by proffering a three-fingered salute. It was the very same salute that had been the trademark of the Serbian nationalist upsurge of the Slobodan Milosevic era, and thus a prominent symbol (for many Serbs as well as non-Serbs) of xenophobia and intolerance.

Neven Andjelic is a Fulbright visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. Among his publications is Bosnia-Herzegovina: The End of a Legacy (2003) and he has just completed a book on human rights and international relations. His blog is here

The symbolism didn't end there, as Marija Serifovic is very different in musical and personal style from the more ostensibly glamorous "turbo-folk" singers who performed the soundtrack of the Serbian nationalist wave of the 1990s. Her Roma roots and alleged sexual orientation - far more discussed by others than by the singer herself, who always asked to be judged by the quality of her music alone - makes her an unlikely standard-bearer for the nationalist political cause. Perhaps then the salute had as little significance as the clenched fist the singer punched repeatedly to the cameras, an instinctive expression of joy and nothing more? And even if so, who beyond Marija Serifovic herself does her victory belong to?

A nation in thrall

The salute rather than the song was the subject of many discussions in the media, not least on internet discussion sites. While many Eurovision song contest viewers in "old" Europe registered the moment, it's not surprising that most of the buzz came from the virtual community of ex-Yugoslavs. While some who regretted the Serbian victory took refuge in dismissing the whole competition as a circus, many Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) interpreted the gesture as an insult to the memories of those who had died and suffered at Serbian hands during the war of 1992-95. Senada Softic Telalovic, leader of an organisation of the Bosnian diaspora (whose membership is predominantly Bosniak) denounced the behaviour of the young Serbian singer as "(taking) us back to the bloody 'three-fingered' past".

Also in openDemocracy on Serbia after Yugoslavia: Dejan Djokic, "Serbia: one year after the October revolution" (18 October 2001) Katerina Bezgachina, "Serbia: the election that wasn’t"
(23 October 2002) Dejan Djokic, "The assassination of Zoran Djindjic" (13 March 2003) Dusan Velickovic, "Belgrade: war crimes in daily life" (28 June 2005) Julie A Mertus, "Slobodan Milosevic: myth and responsibility" (16 March 2006) Eric Gordy, "The Milosevic account" (17 March 2006) Vesna Goldsworthy, "Au revoir, Montenegro?" (23 May 2006) Eric Gordy, "Serbia’s elections: less of the same" (23 January 2007) TK Vogel, "Kosovo: a break in the ice" (2 February 2007) Marko Attila Hoare, "Kosovo: the Balkans’ last independent state" (12 February 2007) Vicken Cheterian, "Serbia after Kosovo" (18 April 2007)

In Serbia itself, there was animated discussion on the blog of the liberal media outlet B92. Srdjan Kusovac, a Belgrade journalist and political analyst, offered a history lesson: the three-fingered salute had been used by Croat fascists when taking an oath during the second world war, and was therefore less exclusively Serbian than Serb nationalists would like to think.

But the discussion expanded to include the merits - and the provenance of the winning entry itself, a melancholic and passionately-delivered romantic ballad (Molitva [Prayer]) about love and loss. The regional media eagerly reported claims that the Serbian composition might actually be a plagiarised version of an Albanian song.

The political dimensions of such an accusation are unmistakable, but this was far from the only attempt to "read" the result as more than a musical triumph. Olli Rehn, the European Union's enlargement commissioner and thus responsible for policy towards the aspirants to EU membership in southeast Europe, congratulated the winner by saying "this is a European vote for a European Serbia". Serbia's nationalist prime minister In Belgrade, Vojislav Kostunica followed a more inclusive line, congratulating the singer by saying "the whole of Serbia is proud tonight and celebrates thanks to you".

Kostunica, like almost all Serbian politicians a firm opponent of Kosovo's breakaway from Serbia, presumably "included" the overwhelmingly Albanian-populated territory in his assertion. The probability that Kosovo will achieve its independence in 2007 and thus be eligible to participate in its own right in the 2008 contest - hosted, as always, by the previous year's winner, and thus, "next year in Belgrade" - may not be exactly to Kostunica's liking.

In any case. the attempt to claim Marija for a progressive Serbian and pro-European cause seemed to win partial confirmation as - only a few hours after the end of the tumultuous celebrations in Belgrade, when more than 50,000 people gathered to welcome the returning signer - the leader of the hardline nationalist Serbian Radical Party, Tomislav Nikolic, was forced to resign the post of Serbia's parliamentary speaker to which he had been elected only days before.

Yet intransigent Serbian nationalists, some of whom had insulted Marija Serifovic on racist or homophobic grounds before the contest, had something to celebrate: a Serbian conquest of Europe, and a three-fingered salute to affirm it. They can wrap the victory in the flag and seek to present it to the voters in the forthcoming general election, appropriating the surge of national pride as their own political vehicle. If they succeed, the liberal face of Serbia will remain in the shadows.

A continent in movement

The Serbian victory has a further significance, beyond the country and the region. It is one that can be grasped by noting the frequency of comments in western European media of a notably stereotyped kind, which focused on the Eurovision contest's voting patterns; the key point was (in the words of the Guardian) that "of the top five placed countries only one, Turkey, was neither Orthodox Christian nor former communist".

It is true that all the countries of the former Yugoslavia (Montenegro, Macedonia, Slovenia and Croatia as well as Bosnia) granted Serbia the maximum twelve points - but so did Austria, Switzerland, Finland and Hungary, of which only Hungary is a former communist and none has a significant Orthodox Christian population.

The tendency to conspiratorial views on this issue - widely represented on (for example) the BBC's internet forums as well as other media - misses the more important point that the voting process at the Eurovision contest can be seen as democracy at work. Citizens across Europe chose to dial premium-rate telephone lines and cast their votes in the interest not of market forces but of their musical preferences and national solidarities. The voice of the people may have been preferential, nationalist in orientation, and (arguably) of questionable taste - but it was their voice and their choice.

This Eurovision democracy has two more notable aspects that reveal the transformations sweeping Europe itself since the end of the cold war. First, the continent is gradually - and against resistance - moving away from the days of external power-centres making decisions on behalf of the people. In cultural life, the Eurovision song contest used to be dominated by special national juries whose votes would regularly be distributed among a core list of favoured countries. Now the EU's enlargement process has meant that competitors from east-central Europe can participate - and win - on their own terms; even though the rules have been changed to limit qualification for the finals while guaranteeing the four biggest markets in Europe (Germany, France, Britain and Spain) a place.

The west's efforts to impose non-democratic rules, however, overlooked the second huge change: that easterners do not live (only) in the east anymore. There are former teachers from Belgrade painting walls in Amsterdam's apartments, opera singers from Kyiv plumbing London's Victorian pipes and Sarajevan journalists washing cars in Copenhagen. Eurovision is one opportunity for a certain pride in origin, and even for the development of regional solidarity (Duncan J Watts of Columbia University notes that "the Balkans, of all places, was effectively handing the western countries a lesson in cooperation"). The "new" Europeans - who are actually from the heart of Europe, though that's another story - are living among the "old". Many of them will be staying, and voting, for a long time to come. Welcome to democracy, Europe!

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