- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 23, 2012

BAKU, Azerbaijan — On a recent evening on Baku’s seaside promenade, throbbing Euro-dance music blared from an open-air concert as families strolled by. Cafes offering fragrant skewered meat served throngs of locals and foreigners.

The capital of this former Soviet republic has shed its dour, industrial image and evolved into a vibrant metropolis combining the Old World charms of Istanbul with the architectural ostentations of Dubai. Now it has the perfect stage to show off its decade-long transformation: the Eurovision Song contest.

The extravaganza is viewed by some 125 million people worldwide. Now in its 57th year, it’s an epic battle of plastic pop pitting performers from 42 nations against one another. Musically, it’s a global laughingstock (that’s part of the charm) — but for host countries, the event can serve as a valuable PR platform. To authorities, the contest also risks exposing what critics say is rampant repression and cronyism in the country.

The finals — in which British crooner Engelbert Humperdinck is touted as a hot favorite — will be held Saturday in the new $134 million Crystal Palace concert hall on a point jutting into the Caspian Sea.

As darkness falls, Baku’s entire skyline turns into a glaring, electric testament to profligacy and confidence. The city’s renovated Art Nouveau and Islamic-era architecture increasingly competes for attention with constructions like the wavy, glass-fronted Flame Towers complex, whose three skyscrapers light up at night in a playful LED display.

Ireland's Jedward performs during the first semifinal of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest at the Baku Crystal Hall in Baku, Azerbaijan, on Tuesday. The finals of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest will be held at the stadium on Saturday. (Associated Press)
Ireland’s Jedward performs during the first semifinal of the 2012 Eurovision Song ... more >

The upscale restaurants and exclusive designer boutiques hint at a burgeoning moneyed elite riding high on the riches generated by the two-decade-long oil boom.

While the country grows ever richer, many in Azerbaijan, a nation of some 9 million Turkic-language-speaking people, are once more embracing their Islamic heritage, which was suppressed during Soviet times. Headscarves are an increasingly common sight, and a ban on their use in schools announced in 2010 drew sharp public protests.

As Islam flourishes, however, rights activists also say blatant trampling of democratic freedoms is being ignored by Western powers eager to exploit Azerbaijani oil wealth. Advocacy groups are using the global attention generated by Eurovision to publicize rights issues they say have been overlooked for years.

“Both local rights activists and international human rights groups view this as an opportunity to highlight to the world just what is going on in Azerbaijan, which doesn’t normally receive a lot of press coverage,” said Max Tucker, Azerbaijan campaigner for Amnesty International.

For the West, Azerbaijan has long been mainly about oil.

The nation has been drawing in foreign prospectors, including many Americans, since as far back as the final decades of the 19th century. The country is a geographic minnow compared with neighbors Iran, Russia and Turkey, but its location and natural resources give it an outsized role in history.

Within six decades of the construction of the first modern wells in the 1840s and subsequent investment by foreign tycoons including the Nobels and the Rothschilds, Baku accounted for more than half of oil production worldwide.

That early energy boom withered during the Soviet interlude, but resumed again in the postindependence 1990s.

While there is disagreement on exactly how much oil the country has, the general consensus is that proven reserves lie somewhere north of 7 billion barrels.

On top of that, Azerbaijan also is estimated to sit above around 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

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