Tyranny’s Got Talent

At the next Junior Eurovision contest, Europe’s most repressive regime will go pop.

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.

In Belarus, Junior Eurovision has the full backing of the state. The national broadcasting company has assigned 30 producers, cinematographers, and technical directors to manage the contest; hundreds of grips and runners will handle logistics at the new 15,000-seat Minsk Arena; and the lucky boy or girl who represents Belarus at the contest can expect a state-sponsored team of choreographers, costume designers, makeup artists, beauticians, and voice coaches. (Eleven Belarusian finalists will vie in September to represent their country at the main event.) Ludmilla Borodina, the executive producer of the TV channel airing the contest, told me she had consulted with Lukashenko himself. “The president will be watching,” she said. “The state is involved from start to finish.”

Until recently, Belarus, under Lukashenko, had defined itself largely in opposition to the West. While neighboring Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia privatized and democratized, Belarus shut down independent newspapers and squashed reform parties. In 2005, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice labeled Belarus an “outpost of tyranny.”

But the Junior Eurovision obsession may hint at changes in the offing. For one thing, Belarus’s markets are opening up. Last year, the European Union included the country in its Eastern Partnership program, which seeks to expand free trade among former Soviet states. The World Bank’s “Doing Business” report, which ranks economies according to measures of corruption and business regulation, showed Belarus improving from 82nd place last year to 58th this year. In June, Lukashenko engaged in a high-profile energy showdown with Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir Putin, which led Russia to temporarily restrict gas flows. Many Belarusians speculate that Russia provoked the crisis to punish Lukashenko for not joining a Moscow-backed customs union, and thus potentially limiting Russia’s influence in the region.

The cynic’s view of Junior Eurovision 2010 is that, like parades and pyrotechnics, it is being used by the vlast, or state power, to distract viewers from the grayness of everyday life in the surreal netherworld that is Belarus, where opposition leaders and reform-minded journalists still sometimes disappear. “With this, the power can say it has real, flesh-and-blood evidence that it supports young talent, to show that it cares about the future of the country,” says Dmitri Podberezski, a music critic at the Web site experty.by, which focuses on the independent music scene in Minsk.

Hosting Junior Eurovision doesn’t quite amount to Westernization, but it does point to an openness inconceivable a few years ago. It’s hard to imagine Burma, say, or North Korea hosting a weeklong fiesta that includes hundreds of Western journalists and millions of international viewers. “I just want to sing,” said Kristina Svetlichnaya, 12, a Belarusian finalist. She also wants to win: over the summer, Kristina practiced her song, “Sing!,” five hours every day. But what she was really looking forward to, she said, was simply meeting kids from other countries.