It’s a kind of "European Idol" -- a flashy international contest to choose the best singer before the eyes of millions of television viewers. When Azerbaijan was chosen to host the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, it had hoped that the glitzy competition would put a new shine on its image abroad.
Eurovision would let them show off "a modern, secular country that is proud of its roots," former government member Mikhail Jabbarov told Spiegel Magazine. Oil wealth has pumped new money into the nation. It boasts a stunningly high literacy rate.
Instead, the former Soviet nation is taking heat for alleged human rights abuses as the upcoming event focuses attention on the small country wedged between Iran and Russia.
Government crackdowns on dissent have been lamented by Amnesty International and other groups. Journalists have been abducted and threatened. The country was recently ranked 162nd out of 179 countries in media freedom by Reporters Without Borders.
"Azerbaijan will no doubt offer an opulent stage to voices from across Europe, but outside the concert hall, few critical voices are tolerated," Amnesty International program director John Dalhuisen said.
Last week, Human Rights Watch slammed Azerbaijan, accusing it of forcing families out of their homes to make way for the singing contest, which will take place in May at the Baku Crystal Hall in the country's capital. One of the displaced people was a navy captain.
"This man gave half his life to his country, and now they’re throwing him out like the last dog," a building resident named Natalya Alibekova told Human Rights Watch.
An Azerbaijani official denied that any evictions were linked to Eurovision, saying they were part of a lawful urban renewal plan, and shot back at what it called "politicization" of the song contest.
"Not a single house has been destroyed, not a single object, and no evictions have been carried out" to accommodate Eurovision, Azerbaijani government official Ali Hasanov told the Agence France-Presse news agency.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Ukrainian singer Gaitana performs during the final national casting show for the Eurovision Song Contest last week. The contest will be held in Baku, Azerbaijan, in May. Credit: Victor Shevchenko / European Pressphoto Agency