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Duel between Russia and Ukraine marks 60 years of Eurovision
[STOCKHOLM] Will it be a fierce musical duel between geopolitical foes Russia and Ukraine? Or is it at last France's turn to melt hearts - albeit singing in English - at the Eurovision Song Contest in Stockholm on Saturday?
The familiar "Good evening Europe!" will once again bring former rivals and allies together in the annual celebration of weirdness, glamour and music, as Eurovision marks its 60th birthday.
After bearded Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst won the 2014 edition, Swede Mans Zelmerlow brought the competition to Stockholm for the sixth time by winning last year, closing in on Ireland's record of seven wins.
A cast of hopeful artists from 42 countries will be reduced to 26 by Thursday evening, after semifinals in which the only ones exempt are hosts Sweden and the contest's biggest sponsors Germany, Spain, France, Italy and the UK.
Eurovision officially aims to be a song contest free of politics - but few believe that, and this year looks to be no exception.
Betting shops anticipate an arm-wrestling match between Russia and Ukraine, currently torn apart by the conflict that began with Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The duel could turn fierce as Ukraine's contestant Susana Jamaladinova is set to perform her contentious song "1944", which recounts Stalin's deportation of Crimean Tatars.
The 32-year-old jazz singer-songwriter known as Jamala was said to have been inspired by the memories of her great grandmother, who was deported from the peninsula with her five children in 1944 along with 240,000 other Tatars.
"When strangers are coming/They come to your house/They kill you all/And say/We're not guilty/Not guilty," the lyrics begin.
Russian officials and some politicians in Crimea have complained that the song was intended to denigrate Russia. But the Geneva-based organisers decided the song was not in breach of the competition's rules against political speech.
"Musicians should express their feelings, their real feelings, not sing meaningless words like we hear all the time," said the artist, defending the song in Stockholm.
But the Moscow-Kiev duel could yet have its spotlight stolen by another gamblers' favourite, French-Israeli Amir Haddad, who will represent France with upbeat tune "J'ai cherché".
The handsome 31-year-old dental surgeon is trying to charm other nations with an unusual trick in a French performance - singing partly in English.
Should he succeed, he would be the first French performer to win the contest in nearly 40 years.
Since its inception in Switzerland deep in the Cold War in 1956, Eurovision has tried to bring unity to quarrelling European nations.
At the same time, it has always been a reflection of nationalistic rivalries.
"Eurovision is the celebration of all (of) Europe", intoned Hanna Stjarne, the chief executive of Sweden's public broadcasting company SVT.
"Europe is going through a bad moment, it is divided, but thanks to Eurovision people can come together with a sparkle in their eye," she told AFP.
For the first time in its history, the competition will be transmitted live in the US by Logo, a channel aimed at the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Eurovision has for decades been a hugely popular event in gay circles, to the extent that the only flags authorised in the venue during the broadcast are those of the UN member states, the European Union and the rainbow flag.
The flag rule became a source of controversy this year when Palestinians, Welsh, Basques and even the Nordic-Russian Sami realised their flags were on Eurovision's black list, together with the flag of the Islamic State.
Eventually the European Broadcasting Union relaxed its rule by allowing "national, regional and local flags of participants, for example the Welsh and Sami ones." Native people of the Nordic countries and Russia, the Sami will be represented at the contest by Norwegian Agnete who wants to bring her ethnicity's flag to the stage.
Up until now the competition's winner has usually been clear long before the lengthy tally of points from different countries was over.
This year, to save some of the spice till the end, organisers decided to change the tally so that results from the national juries will be announced first, and the less predictable television viewers' votes will be revealed last.