updated 5/16/2009 7:24:05 PM ET 2009-05-16T23:24:05

Finalists from 25 countries performed an array of songs on a Moscow stage Saturday night and held their breath as Europeans voted by telephone to decide the winner of the Eurovision Song Contest — a musical bonanza that is one of the most watched annual television events on the continent.

Flames licked the stage's periphery and vast electronic screens blazed stunning backdrops in a spectacular show, which featured cheesy, high-energy pop and tear-jerking ballads.

In a Eurovision first, crew members of the International Space Station gave the command to start telephone voting in a video message from the orbiting science laboratory.

Russia is trying to capitalize on the prestigious event to showcase the nation's hospitality and growing role in modern society, but those efforts were undermined several hours earlier when riot police attacked gay pride rallies in the capital .

Gay rights activists sought to use the international competition to draw attention to what they call widespread discrimination against homosexuals in Russia.

Forty-two nations participate
Dima Bilan, who won the 2008 Eurovision competition held in Serbia, performed his victorious "Believe" R&B-style song before the competition proper kicked off with the Lithuanian entry — a piano ballad featuring various pyrotechnics.

The winner of the competition is picked by a combination of telephone voting and official juries from national broadcasters in the 42 nations that originally took part.

Norway's entry, an upbeat emotional ditty penned and performed by Belarusian-born Alexander Rybak, was strongly tipped to snatch the Eurovision crown from Russia.

Britain, which has traditionally fared well in the contest, has struggled in recent years. But a campaign of musical diplomacy by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, who composed the country's offering, may have boosted British chances and has won the country unlikely support from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Bookmakers also were giving highly favorable odds to Greece, which was pinning its hopes on an elaborately choreographed stage performance involving a giant flashing treadmill.

Israel made an appeal for peace and harmony with "There Must Be Another Way," sung in Arabic, Hebrew and English by Arab-Jewish duo Noa and Mira.

Russia, which earned the right to host this year's event with Bilan's victory, was pinning its hopes on "Mamo," an overwrought ballad composed by a Georgian songwriter and partially performed in Ukrainian by a Ukrainian-born artist Anastasia Prikhodko.

Making a big splash
Some contestants had tried to use the competition as a venue for settling international scores.

Two months ago, the pop group Stephane and 3G from Georgia vowed to perform "We Don't Wanna Put In," a frenzied disco song that took a rhythmic rapier thrust at Putin. The group pulled out when organizers warned that politically charged songs would not be permitted, including one referring to last year's Russia-Georgia war.

Georgia responded by organizing its own state-supported songfest this weekend, Alter/Vision, drawing groups from 10 countries, including Russia. Stephane and 3G were to perform at the festival in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, and young Georgians sang the "Put In" lyrics on the streets as it got under way Friday evening.

Moscow authorities have worked hard to turn the Eurovision contest to display Russia's hospitality and prestige, splashing out $32.5 million on the show and a weeklong series of decadent parties.

Gay pride rally turns violent
But the climate of goodwill was shattered in the hours ahead of the competition, when riot police broke up several gay rights demonstrations in Moscow.

Eurovision enjoys considerable support from the gay community, and Russian activists hoped to take advantage of the event to draw international attention to what they describe as rampant homophobia in the country.

Police hauled away around 40 demonstrators, including Britain-based activist Peter Tatchell and American activist Andy Thayer of Chicago, co-founder of the Gay Liberation Network.

"Today's arrests go against the principles of Eurovision, which are about peace, harmony, cooperation and unity between all the peoples in Europe," Tatchell told The Associated Press after being released by police.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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