Azerbaijan Vote Underscores Democratic Deficit
Freedom House is disturbed by preliminary assessments of the Azerbaijan election from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the U.S. State Department, which chose to emphasize moderate improvement in technical aspects of the vote rather than the authoritarian context in which it occurred.
Azerbaijan's flawed elections—which saw President Ilham Aliyev win with more than 88 percent of the vote amid an opposition boycott—vividly illustrate the country's five-year decline in respect for a number of basic freedoms. Freedom House's annual Nations in Transit survey indicates that Azerbaijan has experienced a steady erosion of freedoms related to media independence, the electoral process, civil society, governance and the judicial framework. Its corruption score remains less than a point shy of the worst possible ranking.
"Even the best electoral procedures, which were not what we saw in Azerbaijan, would be meaningless in a country where the playing field is so badly slanted," said Jeff Goldstein, Freedom House senior program manager for Central Asia. "The game is rigged because of harsh government restrictions on independent media as well as the ruling party's enormous resources and influence on the voting decisions of civil servants and soldiers."
Azerbaijan's huge oil and gas revenues have allowed Aliyev to maintain a firm grip in power. His country is among a number of "petro-authoritarian states" in the former Soviet Union that have seen sharp democratic declines in conjunction with ballooning oil and gas wealth.
Over the last five years, the media in Azerbaijan have become more tightly controlled, as evidenced by recent arrests of journalists and editors and election coverage that heavily favored the ruling party. The regime regularly employs libel suits, unfair trials, physical attacks and financial pressure to limit media freedom. In addition, the country holds the dubious distinction of having the highest number of imprisoned journalists among all members of the OSCE.
"Given the muzzling of independent voices, it is a stretch to imagine that these elections represent 'considerable progress' as the OSCE suggested," said Christopher Walker, Freedom House director of studies.
These elections follow a disturbing trend of troubled elections in the South Caucasus. Azerbaijan's neighbors, Armenia and Georgia, also witnessed elections this year that fell short of international standards.
Azerbaijan is ranked Not Free in the 2008 edition of Freedom in the World, Freedom House's survey of political rights and civil liberties, and Not Free in the 2008 version of Freedom of the Press.
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Freedom House, an independent nongovernmental organization that supports the expansion of freedom in the world, has been monitoring political rights and civil liberties in Azerbaijan since 1990.
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