The winner of the Junior Eurovision Song Contest 2009, 14-year-old Ralf Mackenbach of the Netherlands, performed a song he wrote called “Click Clack,” about a kid who loves to dance. The song began with four exuberant synthesized chords. Ralf wore a pink tie, smiled constantly, and, of course, danced. His performance perfectly expressed the one leitmotif that permeates most every Junior Eurovision contest: uncontainable happiness.
Which is why few countries would seem a less likely host for this year’s Junior Eurovision contest than Belarus, the impoverished, post-Soviet backwater famous for collective farms; Marc Chagall; the occasional outbursts of its dictator, Aleksandr Lukashenko; and devastating rates of thyroid cancer stemming from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in neighboring Ukraine. And yet the contest has become a major national event in Belarus, which is the only country to win the title twice (in 2005 for “We Are Together” and 2007 for “With Friends”). Come November, when Junior Eurovision 2010 kicks off in Minsk, 3 to 4 million Belarusians—more than a third of the population, from the president to KGB colonels to toothless babushkas—are expected to tune in.
Eurovision has been part of Europe’s collective consciousness since its inception in 1956. Each year, countries nominate acts to represent them in the contest, and the viewing audience (in conjunction with a panel of judges) chooses a winner. Junior Eurovision, launched in 2003, is a parallel contest for teens and preteens. Because big western-European countries dominate Eurovision, countries on the Continent’s geographic and political periphery have started to see the junior circuit as a vehicle for mainstream acceptance—cultural, economic, and even strategic. Seven of the 14 countries that will compete at Minsk are ex-Soviet republics. Malta, Cyprus, Serbia, Croatia, and Macedonia are also regular contenders. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who desperately wants his country admitted to NATO and the European Union, dispatched his wife to Rotterdam in 2007 to attend Georgia’s debut performance. Ukraine’s president and prime minister both attended last year’s festivities in Kiev.