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Azerbaijan hopes Eurovision Song Contest will distract from poor human rights record

BAKU, Azerbaijan – Usually a jamboree of youthful exuberance – and questionable taste – this year’s Eurovision Song Contest features a pair of elderly acts among its top contenders.

They’ll be going up against 24 other finalists in the 57-year-old competition viewed by some 125 million people worldwide and hailed by its legion of devoted fans as harmless, kitschy fun that allows Europeans to forget their differences – and economic troubles – for at least one night.

As last year’s winner, oil-rich Azerbaijan is hosting the annual competition. Few think it stands any chance of a repeat victory, but the country hopes the hundreds of millions of dollars it has invested in preparing for the event will serve as a public relations coup and mitigate misgivings about its poor democracy and human rights record.

The winner is picked by juries and television viewers across the continent, so a broad appeal is deemed key to success.

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The host country, a comparatively little-known former Soviet republic, has dug deep to make sure it’s also a star.

The new Crystal Hall concert venue, a light-bathed arena on a point jutting out into the Caspian Sea, cost $134 million to build and was put up in a speedy eight months. Countless more millions have been deployed embellishing the capital, Baku, and buying a huge fleet of brand new London-style taxis.

Such profligacy has aroused concerns about the spiraling costs involved in holding the contest in times of austerity.

“At the moment, if the costs are growing more and more every year and it needs to be more splendid, there are countries that would have huge difficulties, especially with financial situation in Europe at the moment, in organizing it,” said Annika Nyberg Frankenhauser, media department for the European Broadcasting Union, under whose auspices Eurovision is held.

Amid the glitz, antigovernment activists have held a number of small protests in the week running up to the final, seizing on the opportunity of the increased international media presence to draw attention to what they describe as the government’s authoritarian style of rule.

On Friday, police quickly shut down a small flash mob near the competition venue, roughly dragging away dozens of demonstrators and stuffing them into waiting buses, at least of one which bore a Eurovision logo.

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