Eurovision Song Contest Continues Amid Controversial Protests

Demonstrators have been arrested in the capital of Azerbaijan as it gets ready to host the world’s most popular non-sporting event.

BAKU, Azerbaijan – The world’s most popular music competition, the Eurovision Song Contest, will take place amid controversial protests and arrests that threaten to overshadow the event that the host country had hoped would serve as a coming out party for its modern and ambitious capital.

By some measures, Eurovision -- known in Europe both as a launching pad for music sensations like ABBA, which won for Sweden in 1974, and Celine Dion, who won in 1988 competing for Switzerland, and for its often kitschy atmosphere and camp performances -- is the most popular non-sporting event in the world. Each year it attracts a television audience estimated to reach as many as 160 million people.

Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic, earned the right to host the event when Azeri pop group Eldar & Nigar won last year’s competition in Dusseldorf with the song “Running Scared.”

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The oil- and natural gas-rich country spared no expense, spending more than $60 million to give Baku a facelift, and constructing a new 23,000-seat arena specifically for the finals. Government officials said they hoped the media attention on the finals would help increase the country’s visibility and show it in a progressive light.

But the protests and resulting arrests threaten to have the opposite effect, with a police led crackdown taking place under intense media attention. News reports said that some 200 protestors gathered on Friday, the eve of the finals, and about 30 of them were detained.

On Friday, Loreen, the Swedish singer tabbed by many as a favorite to win Eurovision this year, weighed in on the protests and the alleged human rights abuses in the country of 9 million. “One should not be silent about such things,” she said.