COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - Singers from 26 nations will compete on Saturday in the kitschy cocktail of pop and politics that is the Eurovision song contest, with a bearded Austrian drag queen battling twin sisters from Russia and a 21-year-old crowd darling from Ukraine.
Swedish Sanna Nielsen’s new-age pop song “Undo” is the bookmakers’ favorite. A win by her would be the second in three years for Sweden. Overall, Sweden has won the contest five times, mostly notably with ABBA’s Waterloo in 1974.
But the geopolitical echoes of Russia’s conflict with Crimea may dominate the song contest, which launched the careers of ABBA and Celine Dion. Many in the Copenhagen audience booed on Tuesday when Russia‘s, the 17-year-old Tolmachevy twin sisters, qualified for the final.
Adding to controversy, the contest’s organizers said votes from Crimea - annexed by Russia - would count as Ukrainian votes, because tallies are based on existing national telephone codes.
It has been widely speculated that Russia’s entry could suffer for its annexation of Crimea and intransigence on gay rights. The event is hugely popular in the gay community.
The Tolmachevy sisters, Anastasia and Maria, who won the Junior Eurovision in 2006, have not commented on the politics.
Ukrainian singer Mariya Yaremchuk, who got huge cheers when she was also voted through on Tuesday, said her preparation for the contest has been affected by the crisis in her country.
“Actually, when I was preparing in Ukraine I even couldn’t focus on working because we all were influenced by that,” she told Reuters television.
In a Nordic region that prides itself on social liberties, the Danish organizers have declared tolerance a main theme for the event and the rainbow-colored flag symbolizing gay pride has been waved many places in Copenhagen.
Austria’s contestant, drag queen Conchita Wurst - sporting high-heels, butterfly eyelashes and a full beard - was voted through at the second semi-final on Thursday. The audience in Copenhagen cheered loudly, and the bookmakers see her grandiose ballad “Rise Like a Phoenix” as a runner-up.
“The beard is a statement to say that you can achieve anything, no matter who you are or how you look,” Wurst told Reuters.
Online petitions were started in Belarus, Armenia and Russia - whose government passed a law last year banning “gay propaganda” among minors - to have Wurst removed or edited out of broadcasts in their countries.
The contest was started in the 1950s to help foster unity after World War Two, but geopolitics have played a role in the voting before. Points are now awarded half by professional judges and half by the public via phone and SMS.
When Russia made a military intrusion in neighboring Georgia in 2009, Georgia wanted to compete with a satire over Russia’s President Vladimir Putin called ‘We don’t wanna Put In’.
The organisers said Georgia’s song was too political and asked the country to either to change the lyrics or participate with another song. Georgia withdrew from the contest.
Additional reporting by Annabella Nielsen; Editing by Alistair Scrutton, Larry King