Post-Election Developments in Azerbaijan

Freedom House Director of Studies Christopher Walker
The Congressional Human Rights Caucus; February 6, 2006

Read the full testimony below:


My name is Christopher Walker and I am Director of Studies at Freedom House. Thank you for the opportunity to provide comment on post-election developments in Azerbaijan.

Freedom House's mission is to promote and monitor democratic development; we take a keen interest in Azerbaijan's democratic development and human rights performance and have monitored the country's progress in these areas over the course of the past three decades. Today, Freedom House evaluates Azerbaijan in four separate analytical publications: our annual survey of political rights and civil liberties, Freedom in the World; the annual survey of global media independence, Freedom of the Press; the annual survey of governance, Countries at the Crossroads; and our annual survey of democratization in Central Europe and Eurasia, Nations in Transit.

I would like to share with you some of the main threads that run through our analysis and take a look in particular at developments at the institutional level in Azerbaijan, focusing on the country's election process, media sector and civil society.

It has been three months since November's parliamentary elections and this interval offers some perspective, both for assessing the conduct of the elections and in considering whether Azerbaijan is moving in the right direction more broadly in terms of its adherence to human rights standards and improving democratic accountability.

First, I should note that Azerbaijan is a participating state of the OSCE, and is therefore obliged to fulfill its commitment to the rule of law and human rights standards established in several documents including the Copenhagen, Moscow and Budapest Documents of 1990, 1991 and 1994, respectively.  In January 2001, Azerbaijan acceded to the Council of Europe. As a member of the Council of Europe, Azerbaijan is obligated to bring its legislation into conformity with European standards.  It is also a party to the European Convention of Human Rights, violations of which can be brought to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg after all domestic remedies have been exhausted. 

It is important to recognize that in advance of last November's elections many international observers and reformers in Azerbaijan looked to the parliamentary elections of 2005 as a potential turning point in Azerbaijan's politics. There was hope that the authorities would make a genuine and determined effort to afford Azerbaijan's citizens a fair and competitive election process. These elections, however, were beset by irregularities and failed to meet international standards.

Azerbaijan's constitution provides its citizens the right to change their government peacefully. However, in practice this right is effectively denied. Indeed, all of the elections conducted under the stewardship of former President Heidar Aliyev and, more recently under his son, Ilham Aliyev, have fallen short of international standards for democratic elections. The parliamentary elections held in November 2005 were no exception to this pattern.

In the November 2005 elections, the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party received 58 seats in the 125-member parliament, while the two main opposition blocs, Azadlig (Liberty) and Yeni Siyaset (New Politics, or YES) managed only eight and two mandates, respectively. Moreover, many of the 42 "independents" with no party affiliation are believed to be beholden to the government.

Apart from technical and administrative obstacles found in the election process, the authorities also employ more brutal tactics in managing political competition. In the weeks leading up to last November's election the main opposition bloc (Azadliq) faced a heavy-handed campaign from state media, as well as arrests, beatings and intimidation by the authorities.

The poor conduct of the election process is in essence a symptom of deeper and fundamental challenges confronting the country. The source of the problem rests in an entrenched political culture that retains a number of Soviet era governance features, among them flawed institutions incapable of achieving sufficient levels of accountability.

I would note that there were, however, some modest positive steps taken by the authorities during the 2005 election cycle, including the lifting of a ban on election monitoring by local NGOs that receive more than 30 percent of their funding from outside sources, and the creation of a public television station. These measures, which were taken under considerable external pressure, were put in place late in the election cycle and therefore did not achieve the degree and quality of implementation needed to be effective.

In the broader context of Azerbaijan's development, the slow progress on implementing democratic reforms has not gone unnoticed by key western institutions and monitoring organizations.  The OSCE and the Council of Europe (COE), for instance, have repeatedly criticized the authorities for the sluggish pace of reform.

The June 2005 final resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on "Functioning of Democratic Institutions in Azerbaijan" was particularly scathing in its critique of the country's lack of progress. The report cited an extensive list of deficiencies in what are the building blocks of a democratic system, including in the areas of open and fair elections, freedom of assembly, independence of the news media and of the judicial and legislative branches of government.

The non-governmental sector likewise finds itself under great pressure and pushed to the fringes of the Azeri society. The marginalization of organizations and forces not aligned with the regime presents a dilemma that confronts many other unreformed post-Soviet regimes; namely, how to include alternative voices in the political process and move away from zero-sum politics.

Azerbaijan's media sector also confronts major obstacles. Authorities use a variety of tools to manipulate and intimidate the press. State businesses in Azerbaijan, for example, do not advertise in opposition newspapers. A private business with interests in state contracts in an economy still dominated by the state will usually decide caution is wiser than advertising in such publications. Publications not aligned with the authorities must obey the rules of state-owned printing facilities. Distribution of opposition publications outside of the capital city of Baku is often obstructed. In Baku, unregistered newspaper vendors - the type who sell opposition newspapers - are finding that law enforcers are increasingly vigilant. The court system is subordinated to the executive, and therefore journalists, editors, and publishers do not have effective legal recourse.

Journalists are also subject to physical abuse and risk death. In March 2005, Elmar Huseinov, editor at the opposition magazine Monitor, was gunned down in the stairwell of his apartment building in Baku. Why he was killed and by whom is unclear. The whole story behind the murder of this opposition journalist may never be known, but the case and the investigation surrounding it is emblematic of the terribly difficult environment for the press in Azerbaijan.

The scope of the authorities' intimidation and restrictions on the media are laid out in detail in a report issued in July 2005 by the OSCE's rapporteur on freedom of the press, Miklos Haraszti. While there is still some degree of pluralism in Azerbaijan's print media, in television there is virtually none. There are 16 television channels in Azerbaijan, four of which broadcast to a national audience. Key channels with national reach have clear or believed links to the regime. For example, Lider TV is run by a cousin of President Aliyev. Space TV is owned by the president's sister. ATV is widely believed to be controlled by the president's powerful chief of staff. 

During the 2005 election campaign, in its prime time news and current affairs programs, AzTV - the state broadcaster - demonstrated a clear bias. Media monitoring of election campaign content revealed that in the two months leading up to election day AzTV provided 97 percent of its political and election prime time coverage to the activities of President Aliyev, the presidential administration, the government and the YAP. Private stations Lider, Space and ATV reflected a pattern of political favoritism similar to that of state-funded broadcasters during the 2005 campaign.

As I noted earlier, international observers criticized the November vote, but given the control of content on the airwaves and the authorities' downplaying of the western monitors' findings, it was unclear in the immediate aftermath of the election whether the Azeri public was aware of the independent observers' critical assessment.

One noteworthy development on the Azeri press and broadcast industry scene was the unveiling of the country's first public-service broadcasting channel, which hit the airwaves in August 2005. Following the flawed 2003 presidential election, the Council of Europe adopted a resolution (Council of Europe Resolution 1358 [2004]) demanding that the government of Azerbaijan immediately implement a series of steps that included the creation of public service television to allow all political parties to better communicate with the country's citizens. 

While the Council of Europe for months exhorted the authorities in Baku to establish a genuinely independent and professional public broadcasting channel, the regime dragged its feet. Given the short interval between the launch on the channel and election day, the public-service broadcasting initiative was in many respects a case of too little, too late. Nevertheless, candidates were provided more free airtime than in past election cycles, a welcome step that should be institutionalized going forward.

Given the heavy hand of the state in so much of Azeri life, one of the spheres that could help in the larger democratic reform effort is civil society. Here, too, however, the authorities have taken an adversarial posture.  Azerbaijani law prohibits non-governmental groups for taking part in political activity and, more generally, the civic sector is not able to influence public affairs or policy choices in a substantial and consistent manner. 

NGOs continue to face serious problems in registering with the ministry of justice. A comprehensive report issued in 2005 by the OSCE was highly critical of the obstacles NGOs confront in the registration process. The OSCE monitors concluded that no serious improvements were made in the registration process for NGOs since the adoption of the new Law on State Registration and State Register of Legal Entities in late 2003.

While the November 2005 elections revealed the ruling powers remain determined to prevent political opposition from reaching a competitive threshold, the ballot also offered evidence to suggest the opposition is ill equipped to mount a serious challenge.  The suffocating grip on Azerbaijan's politics by the ruling YAP party presents a singular challenge for the country's political development. At the same time, the opposition has not distinguished itself, leaving an enormous reform vacuum in the country's political life. This absence of meaningful political competition creates a system where the ruling elite can and does operate with impunity.

This is a critical point in a country where high levels of corruption pervade society. The prevailing notion among many Azerbaijani officials is that state institutions are designed to confer privileges on individuals or special groups rather than meet broader societal needs. 

The lack of governmental transparency also creates an enabling environment for graft and corruption at all levels of the bureaucracy, hindering social and economic development. Of course, a lack of transparency also results from state control of media and the absence of a significant opposition group in the parliament, which does not possess the capacity for oversight of the executive branch.

In the short to mid term oil revenues and energy sector driven economic growth should provide a social cushion, at least to a degree. 2005 saw the official inauguration of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which has the potential to help bring about a degree of prosperity for the citizens of Azerbaijan not previously known. 

Nevertheless, weak rule of law and the absence of independent institutions capable of holding powerful actors to account suggest that the system may fall prey to the "resource curse," a phenomenon that impacts many states with substantial natural energy wealth and substandard institutions.

So long as Azerbaijan's political system retains the current uneven distribution of power, abuses of it will continue unchecked, as will the pervasive corruption and other serious symptoms that afflict Azeri society.