Eurovision song contest hopefuls pranced and posed their way through rehearsals at Baku\'s Crystal Hall this week, while on nearby streets Azerbaijani police were seizing protesters. Raw video images of the break-up of illegal opposition rallies vied for viewers online with slick official footage of competitors like Russian grannies Buranovskiye Babushki and Irish twins Jedward, perfecting their onstage moves ahead of the glitzy pop event. The Azerbaijani authorities had hoped that hosting Eurovision would boost the energy-rich ex-Soviet state\'s image, but it has attracted publicity over allegations of human rights abuses which threaten a potential PR disaster. \"This is part of a broader diplomatic charm offensive to put Azerbaijan on the map, but if you get a lot of attention, you are also much more open to criticism,\" said Lawrence Sheets, Caucasus project director at the International Crisis Group think-tank. International media have given unprecedented coverage in recent weeks to Azerbaijani campaigners who allege that President Ilham Aliyev heads an authoritarian regime which is trying to crush dissent and silence free speech. \"The Azerbaijani authorities\' fake positive PR campaign has not worked,\" said Rasul Jafarov of Sing For Democracy, a local group founded to use Eurovision to highlight alleged abuses. But furious officials have increasingly been striking back, accusing foreign journalists and organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch of conducting a \"slanderous campaign\" against the country. \"The provocative anti-Azerbaijani reports have been deliberately invented,\" Ali Hasanov, a senior official of the presidential administration, said last week. \"Political pluralism and human rights are fully ensured in Azerbaijan,\" he insisted. An editorial published by Baku news agency Trend suggested the country should actually be praised as a secular Muslim state and a strategic Western ally in the \"fight against terrorism\", whose huge Caspian Sea oil and gas reserves can help ensure energy security for Europe. \"Azerbaijan is a country about which unfortunately very few people speak truthfully in the West,\" the editorial complained. After political turmoil and war with neighbour Armenia in the 1990s, Azerbaijan\'s energy-fuelled economy has boomed since Aliyev came to power in 2003, succeeding his father Heydar, an ex-KGB officer and communist-era boss. Aliyev was re-elected by a landslide in 2008 and a referendum victory the following year abolished a two-term presidential limit, offering him the possibility of ruling the Caucasus state of 9.2 million people far into the future. Pipelines pumping oil and gas to Europe are likely to maintain the strategic importance of the mainly Muslim country whose government has also allowed it to become a key transit route for supplying the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan. Eurovision is the most prestigious cultural event in the country since independence from the Soviet Union. \"Azerbaijan is now coming out into the world as a developed country that wants to live on the basis of European values,\" said Aydin Mirzazadze, a lawmaker from Aliyev\'s governing New Azerbaijan party. But as excitement has grown, reports about alleged rights violations have also increased. Stories of a top Azerbaijani reporter being blackmailed with a covertly filmed sex tape to stop her investigations into the Aliyev family\'s businesses, and another campaigning journalist being beaten unconscious by state oil company security guards have received widespread coverage. Human Rights Watch alleges that five journalists, one blogger, two human rights advocates and at least 10 opposition protesters are currently in jail in Azerbaijan for political reasons. Two small opposition rallies have been thwarted by police in the week leading up to Eurovision, with yet more activists temporarily detained. But it is unclear if the current upsurge of campaigning activity will have any longer-term impact, with analysts expressing doubts that there is enough pressure for reform. \"The government does care about its image but there is relatively little international leverage because it is awash with money and can to an extent ignore foreign criticism,\" said Sheets. \"It\'s hard to see that this will result in major policy changes,\" he said.