Azerbaijan basked in the promotional spotlight that shone on its oil-boom capital during the Eurovision Song Contest but the attention also brought unwelcome scrutiny of its record on human rights.
With more than 100 million people watching worldwide as Swedish pop diva Loreen outscored a troupe of Russian grannies to lift the glass microphone trophy, the ex-Soviet state staged its biggest cultural extravaganza since independence.
Loreen, 28, wowed voters with a catchy dance number called “Euphoria” featuring an upbeat chorus accompanied by a high-kicking dance duet and a storm of artificial snow.
She brandished the glass microphone trophy in a shower of gold ticker-tape at a post-contest news conference.
“It’s just a question of taste. This year it happened to me,” she modestly explained her victory.
“It was ‘mission accomplished’ - Azerbaijan succeeded in putting on the largest non-sporting event in the world,” Ewan Spence, author of “Eurovision: Beyond the Sequins”, told AFP after watching the contest in Baku.
The authorities treated Eurovision more like an event of major political significance than a kitschy pop competition, using it to promote an image of the mainly Muslim country as a glamorous Caspian Sea economic tiger.
“Azerbaijan organized Eurovision at the highest level and this is a great success for the country,” Deputy Speaker of Parliament Bahar Muradova told AFP.
Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on beautifying the capital and building the glittering Crystal Hall venue that was topped with swirling lasers and drenched in lights that changed color to match each competing nation’s flag.
“It was like a fairy tale. I am very proud that we staged such a brilliant production,” Baku student Zaur Aliyev said.
“Not only the show but the concert hall itself was the best in the history of Eurovision,” said engineer Ali Guluzade.
The authorities hope that from now on Azerbaijan will not only be known in Europe as an energy exporter that went through a bloody war with neighbor Armenia over the territory of Nagorny Karabakh after the Soviet collapse.
“In terms of advertising and exposure, there isn’t much to rival Eurovision. People will recognize the country now and maybe see it as a possible place for tourism or investment,” said Spence.
But until the first chord was struck, the show risked being overshadowed by accusations that strongman President Ilham Aliyev runs an authoritarian regime that jails opponents, persecutes journalists and cracks down on public dissent.
The party mood was soured when police in Baku detained dozens of opposition activists attempting to hold pre-Eurovision protests for democratic freedoms.
But activists claimed a moral victory after resentments simmering behind the capital’s grand facades attracted unprecedented worldwide media coverage.
“Europeans have learned that we are part of the European family and we want to live by European principles,” Rasul Jafarov of campaign group Sing For Democracy told AFP.
Jafarov said that Swedish winner Loreen, who infuriated officials by meeting rights activists before the contest, had demonstrated “how Europe appreciates the principles of human rights”.
However at a post-Eurovision news conference, Loreen avoided making any political statement, saying simply: “I will support the Azerbaijan people from my heart.”
Campaigners say Eurovision also highlighted the dominance exerted by Aliyev, who has run Azerbaijan since 2003 after succeeding his late father Heydar, a former Communist boss whose face still gazes down from billboard posters all over the country.
His wife Mehriban Aliyeva led the Eurovision organizing committee and his son-in-law Emin Agalarov, a Moscow-based businessman with a budding pop career, sang in a musical interlude after the voting.
Radio Liberty also reported allegations this month that a construction company involved in building the Crystal Hall venue had links to the Aliyev family.
Politics intervened again at the show with promotional videos that showed landscapes from Nagorny Karabakh, highlighting Azerbaijan’s insistence that it has been occupied by Armenians since the 1990s war.
Armenia boycotted the event, saying it feared hostile treatment.
Loreen met the opposition
The Azeri-Press Agency (APA) reported that “Eurovision 2012” representative of Sweden, Loreen met earlier last week with the head of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) Emin Huseynov, Rasul Jafarov, head of the Human Rights Club and Coordinator of Norwegian house of Human Rights Shahla Ismayilova.
The meeting, arranged at the press center of IRFS, was conducted with the support of “Human Rights Defenders” organization of Sweden and House of Human Rights, IRFS told APA.
Loreen was informed about human rights and freedoms, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, property rights conditions in Azerbaijan and her questions were answered, according to the press agency.
Local human rights activists described the meeting with the Swedish singer as a support to “Sing for Democracy” movement.
Loreen also noted that she was satisfied with the meeting and that she will always try to defend and protect human rights, APA reported.