Serbia's 'Prayer' wins Eurovision Song Contest

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HELSINKI - Serbia's Marija Serifovic won the Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday, beating competitors from 23 other countries in a three-hour televised mishmash of power ballads, ethnic rhythms, and bubble-gum pop.

Serifovic, 22, scored 268 points from telephone voters in 42 countries with her potent but simply staged ballad "Molitva", or "Prayer".

"I honestly think that a new chapter has opened for Serbia and not only in music. I'm proud", Serifovic told a news conference after the contest, broadcast live across Europe to an estimated 100 million viewers.

Serbia spent the 1990s embroiled in Balkan wars and largely isolated internationally under Slobodan Milosevic, and its transition to democracy has been marked by failed elections and political assassinations.

It was Serbia's first solo appearance in the contest, held this year in the Finnish capital Helsinki after monster-masked rockers Lordi secured Finland's first win last year.

The contest is a live showcase for pop music talent selected by each nation in preliminary rounds.

An elegant black-tie event throughout the 1950s, the flagship of the European Broadcasting Union's light entertainment programming is now widely derided in Western Europe for often trite and lightweight performances.

But it has drawn increasing interest from viewers in Eastern Europe and thousands of fans and journalists travel to the host country.

Serbian fans were delighted at Serifovic's victory.

"She has a great voice, and it was a great performance. Finally a great song won the ... contest," said Aleksandar Miscevic, a 22-year-old airline steward.

"Serbia had a great song, we really showed Europe what we can do. It was the best song, and she is one of the best singers anywhere," he said.

While most Eurovision winners quickly, and perhaps deservedly, fade back into obscurity, the contest helped launch the careers of ABBA and Celine Dion.

Serifovic's somber performance was in stark contrast to Ukrainian drag queen Verka Serduchka and his bombastic techno-dance tune "Dancing Lasha Tumbai", which finished second with 235 points.

Russian pop trio Serebro finished third with 207 points.

In 2004, Ukraine won and Serbia and Montenegro came second.

Lordi reprised last year's winning song "Hard Rock Hallelujah" pyrotechnic-filled opening number in front of an audience of 10,000 in Helsinki's Hartwall arena.

Nearly 25,000 fans watched the show on giant screens in the city's central square.

All countries in this year's contest avoided the dreaded "nul points". Ireland, which has won seven times, was last with five points.

Britain and France jointly finished in the next spot up from Ireland with 19 points. Eighteen countries were eliminated in semi-finals on Thursday.

The victory of Marija Serifovic at the 2007 Eurovision song contest caused an outpouring of national pride in Serbia, a country more used to rebuffs from Europe over its wartime past than to accolades.

Serbs took to the streets with flags, tooting horns and chanting winning entry "Molitva" (Prayer) until the early hours. Newspapers were dominated by the win: "Marija takes over Europe" and "European Prayer for Serbia" among their headlines.

"A rare time when I was proud to be Serb," wrote user Zarko on the Web site of the popular B92 broadcasting network.

"I'm so glad it wasn't some war song," said Aleksandar Tijanic, director of RTS state television. "Hosting this event in Belgrade next year will mean we have finally crossed into normality."

The victory could go some way towards assuaging Serbia's persecution syndrome: the country's role in the Yugoslav wars made it an international pariah for a decade. Many Serbs feel they were unfairly blamed by Western politicians and media.

"To those who say 'the world is against us', this shows Europe doesn't hate us, it gives ample reward when it's due," another user wrote on the B92 blog site.

The competition showcased the usual tactical voting, where states vote for neighbors or allies: Serbia's passionate ballad got the maximum 12 points from all fellow ex-Yugoslavs, even those that were its enemies in the wars of the 1990s, Croatia and Bosnia.

The contest was political for Serbia even after the voting.

Congratulations came from the European Union, which had criticized Belgrade last week for electing an ultranationalist to a top post while the pro-Western parties bickered over a coalition more than three months since an inconclusive election.

An 11th hour deal on Friday that spared the country new polls was met with relief in the West, keen to keep the Balkans' biggest country from the warmongering nationalism of the 1990s.

"Congratulations," EU Commissioner Olli Rehn told state news agency Tanjug. "This is a European vote for a European Serbia."

Serifovic, representing the country in Helsinki on Saturday night in its Eurovision debut as an independent state, said "a new chapter opened for Serbia, and not only in music".

Serbians were briefly the darlings of European after ousting the late nationalist strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, but failed elections, political assassinations and a persistently strong nationalist vote soon soured the mood.

The EU froze talks on closer ties last May, accusing Serbia of still harbouring war crime suspects, and Montenegro voted to leave their common sate. Serbs must still go through lengthy and invasive visa procedures to travel almost anywhere in Europe.

The West also backs the independence of the breakaway Kosovo province, which has been run by the United Nations since 1999, when 78 days of NATO bombing ousted Serb troops who had killed 10,000 ethnic Albanians in a counter-insurgency war.

The victory also gave hope to Serbia's tiny and harassed gay community, who celebrated the lesbian chic-tinged performance as a rare sight in the conservative Christian Orthodox country.

"A big win for Serbia, a small step for gay rights!" said one partygoer, leaving Belgrade's only gay-friendly club.
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