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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Popular culture and kitsch will merge this week as the Russian capital opens the 54th Eurovision Song Contest, where issues such as gay rights and spats with neighbor countries have risen to the surface.
When pop star Dima Bilan won in Belgrade last year, Russia earned the right to host the annual Eurovision competition, one of Europe's most watched annual shows with a TV audience of at least 100 million viewers.
Now, 42 countries stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Caspian Sea coast are finalizing months of preparation for the lavish talent competition, being held at a stadium built for Moscow's hosting of the 1980 Olympic Games.
"It's one of the world's greatest television events," Terry Wogan, the veteran BBC television presenter who has commentated on Eurovision since 1971, recently told Reuters in an interview.
Local media have reported that the Russian capital has spent about $42 million preparing for the competition, making it one of the most expensive ever Eurovision shows.
The Russian winner of Miss World 2008 advertises Eurovision on posters around Moscow and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin toured the venue on Saturday to check on preparations.
Barry Viniker, who runs the Eurovision fan website www.esctoday.com, said Moscow had dramatically improved the quality of the event.
"Moscow is simply putting on the best Eurovision ever."
As in other years, politics are never far away.
Gay rights campaigners have vowed to ignore a potential ban and will march through Moscow on Saturday a few hours before the Eurovision final.
Russian activists have asked competitors to back gay rights on stage in a city whose mayor Yuri Luzhkov once described gay pride marches as "satanic."
The competition's governing body banned ex-Soviet Georgia, with which Russia fought a brief war last August, from the competition because its entry song -- a veiled jibe at Putin -- was considered too political.
The voting system this year has also changed. Unlike last year's final, half the votes on May 16 will come from professional judges from individual countries, as well as the regular voting awarded by the public.
Pure public voting has triggered accusations that people vote for neighboring countries or historical allies rather than the best song.
Over the last decade Nordic and Slavic countries have dominated Eurovision victories, which started in 1956 when Switzerland hosted and won the first contest.
Victor Ginsburgh, an academic at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles (Free University of Brussels), has analyzed data from Eurovision voting.
"This is a better system," Ginsburgh said by telephone of the new voting system, adding that the public had been slightly biased toward countries with which they shared cultural or linguistic similarities.
"Specially qualified judges should be more inclined to vote for the best songs."
The first semi-final will be held on Tuesday with the second on Thursday to decide the line-up for the 25-participant final.
This year Alexander Rybak, an ethnic Belarussian singing in English for Norway, is the favorite to win the tournament.
"I try to think about being the favorite as a good thing as it means people like my song," Rybak said. "The prize for me is to be in Eurovision, that is the prize in itself."
(For a color-coded map of Europe showing the spread of the Eurovision contest since the 1950s, with illustrations of past winners of the singing contest please double click on or paste the following link into your internet browser: here )
Additional reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman, editing by Paul Casciato