MOSCOW — In May of last year, Russia was on top of the world.
The country was high on nationalism, having ushered in a new president. Oil prices were nearing $140 a barrel, pumping the country with the sort of money it had never seen before.
Everything was going its way. Its hockey team won the Ice Hockey World Championship, and its football team qualified for the Euro Cup.
And then, to top it all off, Russian pop singer Dima Bilan won the annual Eurovision Song Contest, sending the country into a frenzy of unparalleled proportions.
Fast forward to one year later, and Eurovision is in as twisted a state as the global economy, torn asunder by post-Soviet squabbles that show just how politicized everything in this corner of the globe is.
Almost unknown in the United States, Eurovision is the epitome of all that is cheesy and kitsch in pop music. The annual contest brings potential stars from around 50 countries to perform live in a search to find Europe’s ultimate pop star. The voters (people in participating countries call in their votes "American Idol"-style) prefer heart-wrenching performances buoyed by synth pop and glitter. The most famous winner ever? ABBA (the band rumored to be Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s favorite).
This year, Eurovision comes to Moscow, an honor that accompanies Bilan’s victory. Here is his winning performance:
And with Russia's turn as host comes a slew of scandals that have riveted Eurovision fans across the continent while further working to raise tensions between Russia and its ex-Soviet neighbors.
First, Georgia, still smarting from its five-day war with Russia in August, raised eyebrows by choosing as its entry a song mocking the Russian prime minister.
The lyrics of “We Don’t Wanna Put In,” by Georgian disco band Stephane & 3G, go: “We don’t wanna put in/ The negative move, it’s killing the groove.”
Russians may be known for their love of cheesy pop music, but definitely not for a sense of humor when it comes to geopolitics, instantly criticized the song and it's selective use of the letters "p-u-t-i-n."
This week, the contest organizer, the European Broadcasting Union, told Georgia the lyrics to the song would have to be changed since the rules bar “lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature.”
Georgia refused to budge, denied the song was about Putin, and pulled out of the contest altogether.
And a new reason for Russian-Georgian tension was born.
“I am sure Eurovision officials were subject to unprecedented pressure from Russia,” Georgian Culture Minister Nikoloz Rurua told Georgian television channel Imedi.
As if that wasn’t enough, the scandals kept on coming.
Russia’s pick for its entry isn’t even an ethnic Russian, but a Ukrainian woman working with a Georgian producer singing a song partially written by an Estonian.
It’s enough to make any Sovietologist’s head spin.
Anastasia Prikhodko won with her song "Mamo," with a chorus sung in Ukrainian and the rest in Russian:
Russian commentators and bloggers lashed out at the choice, with some even urging a letter writing campaign asking President Dmitry Medvedev to overturn the decision and select a pure Russian instead.
Both Medvedev and Putin are known to share their countrymen’s obsession with the contest. After Bilan won last year, Russian men around the country ran to their hairdresser to imitate his popular mullet. Medvedev sent him a congratulatory note praising him for contributing to Russia’s greatness.
Late last year, Putin discussed the contest during a meeting with Andrew Lloyd Webber, of all people.
“The Eurovision song contest is taken way too seriously in Russia, eastern Europe and other ex-Soviet countries,” said Artyom Troitsky, Russia’s leading music critic. “In the West, no one gives a shit about it. In Russia, Eurovision is like an annual Stalingrad battle happening over and over again.”
The first Eurovision was held in 1956, a post-war project to build solidarity among the crumbled countries of Europe. Now more than 100 million people watch it. Russia first participated in 1994.
As the show's prestige has faded in Western Europe (last year Ireland sent a singing puppet turkey to represent it), it has grown to new heights in the east. It has also grown ever more politicized.
Though this year’s scandals may have appeared earlier than usual, they are certainly not the first. Observers watch keenly to see who voted for whom — will Turkey vote for Armenia? Serbia for Bosnia?
“This whole song test is purely political,” Troitsky said. “It has nothing to do with music or performance quality. All it does it pit nations against nations.”
“It’s a bit like NATO: outdated, but very proud of itself, not serving any purpose at all and existing only to parade all its scandals.”
The Eurovision Song Contest 2009 final will take place on May 16.
More GlobalPost Dispatches from Miriam Elder: