Bilan Tipped as Eurovision Bet

ReutersBilan, center, rehearsing in Belgrade for the Eurovision Song Contest with Marton, left, and Plyushchenko.
Representing Russia for the second time, Dima Bilan is the favorite to win the Eurovision Song Contest final in Belgrade on Saturday, according to a top British bookmaker.

Ladbrokes tips Bilan as the 3-to-1 favorite to win the final, which starts 11 p.m. Moscow time and will be broadcast live on Rossia television.

If he wins, Bilan will avenge his second-place showing in 2006, when he lost to a Finnish heavy metal band that dressed up in monster costumes -- a result that dismayed many Russian pop fans.

At Tuesday's semifinal, Bilan beat off competition from a singing turkey to qualify for the final with a ballad called "Believe."

Russia has never won higher than second at the contest, an annual pop extravaganza that has been held since 1956 and has developed a strong following in Eastern Europe, even as many West Europeans regard it ironically. If Bilan wins, the 2009 event will be staged in Moscow.

"We're sure we will get an honorable place in the final, the first place," said Svetlana Bogdanova, a spokeswoman for Bilan's producer, Yana Rudkovskaya. "Everything we are doing is for the sake of first place."

Vadim Ponomaryov, editor of Newsmusic.ru web site, criticized Bilan's "red eyes" at the semifinal. "I think Bilan is a bit burnt out," he said. "Most likely he rehearsed too much. Maybe he was nervous or didn't get enough sleep."

Bilan's stage act is one of the most elaborate at the competition. The singer is joined on stage by Hungarian violinist Edvin Marton and Olympic skater Yevgeny Plyushchenko, who pirouettes on artificial ice.

But Ponomaryov questioned whether audiences appreciated the skater. "I think European viewers didn't recognize Plyushchenko at all," he said.

Masha Kats, Russia's first Eurovision contestant, said she saw Bilan and Israel's contestant as the only "serious candidates" in a semifinal dominated by "freaks."

"I think he will perform even better in the final," said Kats, who won ninth place in 1994.

This year sees an exceptionally strong East European showing at the contest. Ladbrokes tips Armenia, Serbia and Ukraine as 5-to-1 to win.

Ukraine still had to qualify on Thursday evening at a semifinal, the results of which were not known late in the day. Singer Ani Lorak was due to perform a song written by Russian pop star Filipp Kirkorov. "He is confident that Lorak will take one of the top places," said Kirkorov's spokeswoman Anna Imerlin.

Kirkorov himself represented Russia in 1995, winning 17th place. He also produced and wrote the song for Belarus' candidate in 2007, Dima Koldun, who won sixth place.

Armenia's singer, Sirusho, will present a power ballad with an Eastern melody called "Qele, Qele."

Taking part in the contest for the first time this year is Azerbaijan. The largely Muslim country presented a surprisingly risque entry, which made it through to the final.

One singer, Elnur Huseynov, performed in full-length angel wings and silver body paint, while the other, Samir Javadzade, wore black eyeliner and poured fake blood from a bottle.

"I thought the act was thought out in a very interesting way," Ponomaryov said. "It was really a duet out of a rock opera."

In a shock defeat, Ireland will sit out this year's final. The country, which has won the contest seven times, failed to wow viewers at Tuesday's semifinal. It was represented by a singing turkey puppet sitting on a throne decorated with spinning disco balls.