Bilan Win Lifts Town and Country

APDima Bilan singing "Believe" as Evgeni Plushenko skates on fake ice during the Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday.
With his Eurovision victory Saturday night, Dima Bilan provided the country with its first win in the song contest and his hometown in the republic of Karachayevo-Cherkessia with a street and a school bearing his name.

Bilan defeated contestants from 24 other countries at the continent's premier pop extravaganza with the ballad "Believe," backed up by Hungarian violinist Edvin Marton and, in a nonmusical role, Olympic champion figure skater Evgeni Plushenko, who pirouetted around him on a small patch of synthetic ice.

Political leaders were quick to praise the victory as important for the country — something that has become a bit of a habit in recent weeks. Zenit St. Petersburg won the UEFA Cup football final on May 14, and Russia won the World Ice Hockey Championship four days later, with both victories being treated as signs of the country's resurgence.

President Dmitry Medvedev called Bilan to congratulate him from China, where he was on an official state visit, while Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sent a telegram, saying the victory was "not only a personal success for Dima Bilan, but yet another triumph for all of Russia," Interfax reported.

Bilan received 272 points in a telephone voting system tabulating calls from voters in 43 countries, ahead of Ukraine's Ani Lorak with 230, and Greece's Kalomira with 218.

Yulia Tymoshenko — a veteran at fighting crooked votes — again came out claiming that her side had been robbed.

"I congratulate you with the Eurovision victory with all my heart," Tymoshenko told Lorak, Interfax reported. "I mean exactly that — victory. I know that you came first, but chaste and delicate Europe could not stand Ukraine hosting the Eurovision contest twice in four years."

Ukraine won the competition in 2004 and, as a result, was the host in 2005.

Russia will host the contest next year, and Putin immediately instructed Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov to start organizing a committee to prepare for the 2009 event in Moscow.

Pop music fans will likely not have visa problems coming to the contest, as the State Duma passed a bill earlier this month allowing the president to wave visa requirements temporarily for foreigners coming to major events in Russia. The legislation, originally designed for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, was pushed ahead for the Champions League final in Moscow last week.

The show, which started at 11 p.m. Moscow time, was broadcast live on Rossia television.

Russia had never placed higher than second in the contest, which has been held since 1956 and has developed a strong following in Eastern Europe and Scandinavian countries, despite often being dismissed as mere kitsch in much of Western Europe.

Although he sang in English in the contest, Bilan thanked the people at home and performed a shortened version of the song in Russian at a news conference after the show, to "express in the best way the intense feelings," he said.


Marko Drobnjakovic / AP
Young people watching the contest on a giant screen in central Belgrade.


"Dreams can come true," he said. "I'm so happy."

Bilan's song was written by American producer Jim Beanz with the help of major producer and rapper Timbaland, also from the United States.

"Dima is happy to come back a winner and that all of Europe supported him," the singer's agent, Alexandra Tityanko, said by telephone Sunday from Belgrade.

Tityanko said Bilan, 26, was confident he would win the competition, as the numbers had fallen in place.

"He was born on the 24th [of December], and the contest was held on May 24, and he was contestant number 24," she said. "These were good omens."

Boris Barabanov, a music critic for Kommersant, said that despite the fact the competition's content was "something that you wouldn't call musical," the victory was likely to please many in the country.

"It is the third Russian triumph this month, and it is important for the country," Barabanov said. "It helps to change the attitude Russians have toward themselves."

"It is good that people voted for us, even it is clear that they voted according a geographic principle," he added.

Barabanov said most of the votes Bilan received came from countries like Ukraine, Serbia and other East European countries that have a good attitude toward Russia.

The most positive reaction to Bilan has come from the region where he was born.

The president of the republic of Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Mustafa Batdyev, said one of the streets in the town of Ust-Dzhegut, where Bilan was born, would be given the singer's name.

The head of the town's administration, Anzor Laipanov, said the town would soon also have a music school named after Bilan.

"Everyone in the republic was cheering for Dmitry, and when we won, we congratulated each other," Batdyev said, Interfax reported.

"We will [name the school after Bilan] because we want our students to know that even if you were born in a small corner of Russia, you always have the chance to reach the peak of your profession and become a star," Laipanov said, the news agency reported.

Laipanov said the town's Duma would hold an extraordinary meeting Monday to discuss inviting Bilan back to the republic for a big party in his honor.

"Dima is proud that he was born and grew up there," said his agent, Tityanko.

Named best artist at the country's MTV Awards for the past three years in a row, Bilan finished second in Eurovision in 2006. He lost to a Finnish heavy-metal band that dressed up in monster costumes — a result that prompted outraged headlines and accusations of biased voting in Russia.

There were also strong protests in 2003 when the country's most commercially successful export act, the faux lesbian duo t.A.T.u., came third.

The group, which had hit singles around the world, received "suspiciously low points" from countries like Britain and Ireland, national broadcaster Channel One said at the time. Channel One declared at the time that Eurovision "was all about politics."

The contest, held in Belgrade after Marija Serifovic's ballad clinched victory for Serbia in its debut as a solo nation in 2007, was broadcast live across Europe to an estimated audience of 100 million people.

Other artists previously representing Russia have included the country's top pop icon, Alla Pugachyova, who took 15th place in 1997, and Bulgarian-born pop star Filipp Kirkorov, Pugachyova's ex-husband, who ranked 17th in 1995.

Kirkorov wrote the song performed by Ukraine's Lorak in this year's contest.