By Kristin Deasy, RFE/RL
This year's Eurovision Song Contest, the finale of which will be held in Moscow on May 16, sees a number of nations turning away from native artists in favor of foreign-born stars with broader appeal.
Finalists at the 54th edition include a Ukrainian competing for Russia, a Dane for Iceland, a Palestinian for Israel, a Belarusian for Norway, two Americans for Germany, and an Iranian superstar headlining for Azerbaijan.
Critics say the "Euro" in Eurovision is already a stretch, given participants like Turkey and Israel, who fall outside what is traditionally considered European boundaries.
But others say countries keen on joining the European Union or NATO tend to see Eurovision as one small way to boost their legitimacy as a "European" country. With 42 countries having entered this year, it could be only a matter of years before the contest reaches the maximum Eurovision cutoff of 45 nations.
Some welcome a larger Eurovision. Still others want to bag the "Euro" aspect altogether and take the competition global.
One Eurovision performer who would favor such a change is Arash Labaf.
The Iranian-Swedish performer, who is singing with Azeri artist AySel for the Azerbaijani entry, told RFE/RL that his "biggest dream" is to sing for Iran -- which is currently not eligible for the Eurovision contest.
Arash's Persian-inspired pop songs -- performed in a number of different languages -- are top hits the world over. But the May 16 final will mark his first performance in English, as he sings "Always" with AySel.
Azerbaijani sponsors have reportedly paid
handsomely to have Arash bring his star power to the Azerbaijani ticket. But
Arash told RFE/RL that his performance is as much for Iran as it is for
"In this competition, you don't have to be from your original country. So I'm Iranian and everyone knows I'm Iranian, but Iran is very close to [Azerbaijan]," Arash said.
"But to be honest, my greatest wish is to be the representative of Iran. Pity that I'm not able to do it for the time being. I am just trying for myself to represent my own country, as I love Iran," he continued. "I am actually no one, but I hope I can continue to keep Iran on the top."
Belarusian-born Alexander Rybak is another Eurovision favorite this year. His song "Fairytale," which he's singing as Norway's entry, is leading many of the Eurovision spot polls.
Rybak was born in Minsk and spent some of his
early years in Belarus. In an interview released by Norway's NRK media group,
Rybak described how he got his start from his parents, both professional
"They gave me a pencil, which I had to practice with. I didn't know what it meant and suddenly, the pencil was exchanged by a bow," Rybak said. "So I started playing violin without even noticing."
For other artists, such as Anastasia Prikhodko, things have been less of a fairy tale.
Prikhodko was unsuccessful in her bid to represent her native Ukraine at Eurovision. She even sent Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko a letter of protest after she lost, complaining about the decision.
But then Prikhodko moved on to become Russia's Eurovision entry, traveling to Moscow and wowing audiences with her song "Mama."
As with Georgia,
Eurovision politics can reflect real geopolitical tensions. But they can also be
distant from realities on the ground.
Countries from the famously divided former Yugoslavia, for example, always manage to unite behind fellow contestants from the region.
In fact, some nations have learned to cooperate a little too well.
In what is known as "bloc voting," neighboring nations team up to vote for one another. As blocs solidified in recent years, results have become predictable in the extreme.
The predicament prompted BBC's Eurovision correspondent of 35 years, Terry Wogan, to step down last year, saying, "Those who care will have had it up to here with the blatant political voting."
Russia's 2008 win was widely attributed to bloc voting on the part of Eastern Europe.
So this year, the winner will be decided by a newly established jury of music industry specialists and, of course, millions of fans voting by phone or by SMS.
RFE/RL's Radio Farda and Belarusian Service contributed to this report.
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