Azerbaijan

Not Free
9
100
PR Political Rights 2 40
CL Civil Liberties 7 60
Last Year's Score & Status
10 100 Not Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.

header1 Note

The numerical scores and status listed above do not reflect conditions in Nagorno-Karabakh, which is examined in a separate report. Freedom in the World reports assess the level of political rights and civil liberties in a given geographical area, regardless of whether they are affected by the state, nonstate actors, or foreign powers. Disputed territories are sometimes assessed separately if they meet certain criteria, including boundaries that are sufficiently stable to allow year-on-year comparisons. For more information, see the report methodology and FAQ.

header2 Overview

Power in Azerbaijan’s authoritarian regime remains heavily concentrated in the hands of Ilham Aliyev, who has served as president since 2003, and his extended family. Corruption is rampant, and the formal political opposition has been weakened by years of persecution. The authorities have carried out an extensive crackdown on civil liberties in recent years, leaving little room for independent expression or activism. Azerbaijan won control of a third of the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh along with some adjacent land during a weeks-long conflict with Armenia in 2020, at the cost of over 2,700 soldiers.

header3 Key Developments in 2021

  • In January, Aliyev created a new media body, the Media Development Agency (MEDIA), via a presidential decree. In December, the parliament passed a bill authored with MEDIA’s involvement that would impose a number of restrictions on media outlets, including requiring journalists to register with the authorities. The bill awaited Aliyev’s signature at year’s end.
  • Two political parties were created during the year as a result of political dialogue between the government and the opposition. Opposition figures have criticized the process, which began in 2020, saying that no meaningful changes have been made to allow genuine opposition parties to form or operate.
  • New legislation requiring people wishing to divorce to first seek mediation came into force in January. Critics say that the law, which effectively lengthens the timeframe of many divorce proceedings, limits access to divorce for vulnerable people and for those who may lack access to official mediation services.

PR Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0.000 4.004

The president is directly elected for seven-year terms. There are no term limits. Since the early 1990s, elections have not been considered credible or competitive by international observers. A February 2018 presidential decree moved that year’s presidential election, originally planned for October, up to April. President Ilham Aliyev—who succeeded his father, Heydar, in 2003—won a fourth term with some 86 percent of the vote amid evidence of electoral fraud and a boycott by the main opposition parties. Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) observers found that the election lacked genuine competition due to a restrictive political environment in which the seven nominal opposition candidates did not openly confront or criticize the president.

In 2017, President Aliyev appointed his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, as vice president. The post had been created via constitutional changes that were pushed through in 2016 without meaningful parliamentary debate or public consultation.

The prime minister and cabinet are appointed and dismissed by the president. In October 2019, Prime Minister Novruz Mammadov—in office since April 2018—was replaced by Ali Asadov.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 0.000 4.004

The 125 seats in Azerbaijan’s unicameral Milli Mejlis, or National Assembly, are filled through elections in single-member districts, with members serving five-year terms.

Aliyev dissolved the parliament in December 2019, and snap elections were held in February 2020. The ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP) won 70 parliamentary seats, while independents won 41 and the remainder were won by smaller parties; contests for 4 seats were not immediately decided. Turnout stood at 46.8 percent. A major opposition alliance, the National Council of Democratic Forces, boycotted the elections. OSCE monitors criticized the conduct of the poll, noting procedural and tabulation concerns and ultimately questioning “whether the results were established honestly.”

A3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 0.000 4.004

The electoral laws and framework fall short of international standards and do not ensure free and fair elections. The nomination process for members of electoral commissions places the bodies under the influence of the ruling party. Commission members have been known to unlawfully interfere with the election process and obstruct the activities of observers. Complaints of electoral violations do not receive adequate or impartial treatment.

Election observers have repeatedly condemned restrictions on freedom of assembly, the inability of candidates to obtain permission to hold rallies or appear on television, political interference with courts investigating electoral violations, and noncompliance with past European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decisions on election issues. OSCE monitors present during the February 2020 parliamentary elections noted pervasive electoral misconduct, including verbal and physical abuse directed against candidates’ representatives and monitors.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 1.001 4.004

The political environment in Azerbaijan is neither pluralistic nor competitive. The ability of opposition parties to operate and engage with the public is limited by the dominance of the YAP. A number of laws restrict candidates’ efforts to organize and hold rallies, and the opposition has virtually no access to coverage on television, which remains the most popular news source. The regime has cracked down violently on any Islamic political movement that reaches national prominence.

Political dialogue between the government and the opposition began in 2020, resulting in the creation of new political parties for the first time since 2011. Another two parties were registered in 2021 as part of the process, which has been presented by the government as a “new political configuration.” However, critics say that the new parties are not genuine opposition groups and that the dialogue has been dominated by the government.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 0.000 4.004

The Aliyev family has held the presidency since 1993. The biased electoral framework and repressive media and political environment effectively make it impossible for opposition parties to gain power through elections. The traditional opposition parties boycotted the most recent parliamentary, presidential, and municipal elections rather than take part in an unfair process.

Opposition politicians and party officials are subject to arbitrary arrest on dubious charges, physical violence, and intimidation. In October 2021, Niyameddin Ahmedov, a member of the opposition Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (AXFP), was sentenced to 13 years in prison for financing terrorism, a charge his lawyers called politically motivated. He had been jailed since April, when he was arrested for allegedly violating pandemic restrictions. AXFP member Saleh Rustamli was arrested in 2018 and later received a seven-year sentence for money laundering, a charge he called politically motivated. In November 2021, Rustamli began a hunger strike, though he ended it in December.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 1.001 4.004

The authoritarian system in Azerbaijan excludes the public from any genuine and autonomous political participation. The regime relies on abuse of state resources, corrupt patronage networks, and control over the security forces and criminal justice system to maintain its political dominance.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 0.000 4.004

The political system does not allow women or minority groups to organize independently or advocate for their respective interests. There are no meaningful mechanisms to promote increased representation of women and ethnic or religious minorities. The government has worked to stifle public expressions of ethnic Talysh and Lezgin identity, among other targeted groups.

Internally displaced persons (IDPs) who left Nagorno-Karabakh and settled in other parts of Azerbaijan after the 1994 cease-fire have been unable to participate in municipal elections where they subsequently settled and are instead directed to vote for their former districts. IDPs have not historically pursued office in Azerbaijan since the 1994 cease-fire.

C Functioning of Government

C1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 0.000 4.004

Neither the president nor members of parliament are freely or fairly elected, and the parliament is unable to serve as a meaningful check on the powerful presidency. Lawmakers and lower-level elected officials essentially carry out the instructions of the ruling party.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 0.000 4.004

Corruption is pervasive. In the absence of a free press and independent judiciary, officials are held accountable for corrupt behavior only when it suits the needs of a more powerful or well-connected figure.

Investigative reports published by foreign media in recent years have revealed evidence that the Aliyev family used their positions to amass large private fortunes. The resources were reportedly used in part to improperly influence the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in order to minimize criticism of electoral conduct and alleged rights abuses. In October 2021, the Pandora Papers—an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) that exposed the improper financial connections of rich and powerful actors around the world—revealed that a network of offshore companies linked to Aliyev’s family had traded around £400 million ($522.1 million) in property in the United Kingdom since 2006, including the 2018 sale of a £67-million ($87.5 million) London property to a group linked to the British monarchy.

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 0.000 4.004

Government operations are opaque. Although public officials are nominally required to submit financial disclosure reports, procedures and compliance remain unclear, and the reports are not publicly accessible. There are legal guarantees for citizens’ access to information, but also broad exceptions to this right, and authorities at all levels systematically refuse to respond to information requests.

In 2017, Azerbaijan withdrew from the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), an international platform that promotes good governance and transparency in resource-rich countries. Azerbaijan, an important producer of oil and gas, had been suspended due to ongoing noncompliance with EITI human rights standards.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 0.000 4.004

Constitutional guarantees for press freedom are routinely and systematically violated, as the government works to maintain a tight grip on the information landscape. Defamation remains a criminal offense. Journalists—and their relatives—face harassment, violence, and intimidation by authorities. Legal amendments passed in 2017 extended government control over online media, allowing blocking of websites without a court order if they are deemed to contain content that poses a danger to the state or society. Independent news sites are regularly blocked or struck with cyberattacks.

Journalists face detention or imprisonment on false charges, along with travel bans. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) counted two imprisoned journalists in the country in 2021. In late 2020, Polad Aslanov, editor in chief of news sites Xeberman and Press-az, received a 16-year prison sentence for selling state secrets to Iran. Aslanov, whose wife vowed an appeal to the Supreme Court after a lower court upheld his conviction in February 2021, claimed that he was targeted for reporting on corruption.

Journalists also risk surveillance. In July 2021, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) reported that Azerbaijani journalists were among those targeted with the Pegasus spyware tool, which was likely supplied to the Azerbaijani government.

In January 2021, Aliyev issued a presidential decree that called for “media reforms” and created MEDIA. In December, the parliament passed a bill authored with MEDIA’s involvement that would, among other things, require journalists to register with the authorities and media owners to reside in Azerbaijan. Local and international media rights groups criticized the legislation, which awaited Aliyev’s assent at year’s end.

In August 2021, three journalists covering a women’s rights protest in front of a police building in Baku were forcibly detained and reportedly subjected to physical and psychological abuse by police.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 0.000 4.004

The regime exercises control over religion through state-affiliated entities such as the Caucasus Muslim Board. Religious communities that attempt to operate independently face burdensome registration requirements, interference with the importation and distribution of printed religious materials, and arrest and harassment of religious leaders with international ties or a significant following. For example, Haji Taleh Bagirzade and members of his Muslim Unity Movement, a nonviolent conservative Shiite group, have been subjected to mass arrests, torture, and imprisonment as part of a crackdown that began in 2015.

A number of mosques have been closed in recent years, ostensibly for registration or safety violations. Jehovah’s Witnesses face harassment as well as prosecution for evading military service.

D3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 1.001 4.004

The authorities have long curtailed academic freedom. Some educators have reported being dismissed for links to opposition groups, and students have faced expulsion and other punishments for similar reasons. The Azerbaijani history curriculum is known to include negative and discriminatory references to Armenians.

D4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 1.001 4.004

Law enforcement bodies monitor private telephone and online communications—particularly of activists, political figures, and foreign nationals—without judicial oversight. The escalation of government persecution of critics and their families has undermined the assumption of privacy among ordinary residents and eroded the openness of private discussion. Even state officials have been punished for their and their family members’ social media activity, and activists have been imprisoned—on unrelated fabricated charges—for critical Facebook posts. In recent years, activists have been targeted by spear-phishing campaigns designed to install malicious software on their computers or steal personal information. Activists report that harassment on social media, often highly sexualized for female activists, is commonplace.

Social media users and antiwar activists who signed a statement calling for a peaceful resolution to the 2020 conflict over control of Nagorno-Karabakh were harassed and threatened online, prompting at least one activist to remove their signature.

In July 2021, the OCCRP reported that people who had casual or familial connections to activists and journalists were targeted with Pegasus.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 0.000 4.004

The law imposes tight restrictions on freedom of assembly, which is contingent on the protection of “public order and morals.” Activists have complained that in practice, the obstacles to public gatherings include additional, extralegal measures. Unsanctioned assemblies can draw a harsh police response and fines for participants, and the government largely stopped issuing permits for rallies in Baku in 2019. Even when permits are issued, the government typically confines demonstrations to relatively isolated locations, where it can track attendees through facial-recognition technology and mobile-phone data.

Numerous small protests were held in 2021, including some by soldiers calling for access to welfare benefits. Supporters of AXFP member Saleh Rustamli, meanwhile, were forcibly detained by authorities when they called for his release at a December rally in Baku.

E2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 0.000 4.004

Repressive laws on NGOs have been used to pressure both local and foreign organizations, many of which have suspended operations when their bank accounts were frozen or their offices raided. Nearly all organizations or networks that work on human rights are forced by the state to operate in a legal gray zone. The government has refused to permit the European Union to provide grant support for local civil society groups. Civic activists are routinely subjected to harassment, intimidation, detention, and abuse by police.

Activists also risk surveillance; the OCCRP’s July 2021 report noted that over 40 Azerbaijani activists were likely targeted with Pegasus, along with family members.

E3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 1.001 4.004

Although the law permits the formation of trade unions and the right to strike, the majority of unions remain closely affiliated with the government, and many categories of workers are prohibited from striking. Most major industries are dominated by state-owned enterprises, in which the government controls wages and working conditions.

F Rule of Law

F1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 0.000 4.004

The judiciary is corrupt and subservient to the executive. Judges are appointed by the parliament on the proposal of the president. The courts’ lack of political independence is especially evident in the many trumped-up or otherwise flawed cases brought against opposition figures, activists, and critical journalists.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 0.000 4.004

Constitutional guarantees of due process are not upheld. Arbitrary arrest and detention are common, and detainees are often held for long periods before trial. Political detainees have reported restricted access to legal counsel, fabrication and withholding of evidence, and physical abuse to extract confessions.

Although nominally independent, the Azerbaijani Bar Association (AVK) acts on the orders of the Ministry of Justice and is complicit in the harassment of human rights lawyers. Legal amendments that took effect in 2018 stipulated that only AVK members could represent clients in court. Since then, the association has disbarred, suspended, or threatened most of the country’s active human rights lawyers for speaking to the media about violations of their clients’ rights. In nearly all disciplinary cases, the courts have upheld AVK decisions without a thorough assessment or public justification.

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 0.000 4.004

International observers have consistently concluded that both torture and impunity for the perpetrators of such abuse are endemic in the Azerbaijani criminal justice system. Police regularly administer beatings during arrest or while breaking up protests. Prison conditions are substandard. Medical care is generally inadequate, and overcrowding is common.

Azerbaijanis were affected by armed conflict with Armenia during 2020. The two countries engaged in a full-scale conflict over control of Nagorno-Karabakh that September, with civilian and military casualties reported on both sides. The conflict ended in early November after a Russian-brokered cease-fire was agreed; under its terms, Azerbaijan would retain control of parts of Nagorno-Karabakh gained during the fighting, along with adjacent land held by Armenia. Baku reported that 2,783 soldiers died in the fighting, while at least 143 civilians on both sides were killed.

The conflict was marked by reported acts of mistreatment, desecration, and vandalism. In early 2020, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Azerbaijani forces of physically abusing Armenian prisoners of war (POWs). In its World Report 2022, HRW noted that 100 Armenian POWs and detained civilians were released by Azerbaijani authorities during 2021.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 0.000 4.004

Members of ethnic minority groups have complained of discrimination in areas including education, employment, and housing. Women are subject to discrimination in employment, including both de facto bias and formal exclusion from certain types of work under the labor code.

While IDPs from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that ended in 1994 are entitled to special assistance, they face severe infringements on their economic and social rights and freedom of movement. Many are housed in dormitories or substandard housing and are unable to change their place of residence, which is often located out of range of sources of employment or adequate medical care.

Although same-sex sexual activity is legal, LGBT+ people experience societal discrimination and risk harassment by the police. In 2017, police fined or detained dozens of people for weeks in a coordinated crackdown that led many LGBT+ residents to flee the country. LGBT+ people also faced a series of attacks in May and June 2021; local and international NGOs called on the authorities to investigate and take measures to protect LGBT+ individuals.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 1.001 4.004

The government restricts freedom of movement, particularly foreign travel, for opposition politicians, journalists, and civil society activists. While travel bans were lifted for some dissidents during 2019, many others remained in place, including for some of the political prisoners released that year; others fled the country to avoid further persecution. Some travel bans remained in effect in 2021.

IDPs from the previous Nagorno-Karabakh conflict enjoy freedom of movement in law, but not in practice. IDPs are legally registered at their place of initial resettlement, which are sometimes in rural areas and far from any source of employment. The process of changing registration is difficult, and IDPs who change their place of registration risk losing their status and accompanying state assistance. As a result, many families are separated, with usually male wage-earners relocating to urban centers for work while their families remain at their place of registration. In January 2021, President Aliyev established the Karabakh Revival Fund, which is meant to finance infrastructure development in Nagorno-Karabakh to allow IDPs to return there.

People with disabilities and psychiatric patients are routinely institutionalized; there is no clear procedure to review their confinement.

G2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 1.001 4.004

Property rights are affected by government-backed development projects that often entail forced evictions, unlawful expropriations, and demolitions with little or no notice. Corruption and the economic dominance of state-owned companies and politically connected elites pose obstacles to ordinary private business activity.

G3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 1.001 4.004

The law generally grants women and men the same rights on personal status matters such as marriage, divorce, and child custody. Domestic violence is a notable problem, and related legal protections are inadequate. Conservative social norms contribute to the widespread view that domestic violence is a private matter, which discourages victims from reporting perpetrators to the police. However, the growth of social media and the movement of rural populations to Baku in recent years have spurred public discussion of the issue. Though authorities claim that the rate of domestic violence fell during their 2019–20 reporting period, activists believe official figures are undercounting the actual number of incidents.

Throughout 2021, LGBT+ people reported being both physically and verbally assaulted and experiencing substantial societal discrimination based on their appearance.

In January 2021, new legislation came into force, imposing mandatory mediation on those seeking to divorce. The law introduces a number of obstacles for those wishing to divorce, especially for people outside of large cities who may not have access to official mediation services, and often lengthens the timeframe of the proceedings. Critics say that the law will disproportionately disadvantage people who cannot secure legal representation or those who are otherwise vulnerable, such as survivors of domestic abuse attempting to divorce their abuser.

Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 due to high rates of domestic violence and impunity for perpetrators, the introduction of new mediation rules that could create a barrier to divorce, and reported attacks against LGBT+ people based on their appearance.

G4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 1.001 4.004

Legal safeguards against exploitative working conditions are poorly enforced, and many employers reportedly ignore them without penalty. Children are vulnerable to sexual exploitation and forced labor.

The government has taken some steps to combat forced labor and sex trafficking, including by prosecuting traffickers and providing services to victims, but the problem persists, notably among Romany children and foreign household workers. The authorities have extended a preexisting moratorium on labor inspections through the end of 2021.

As a result of corruption and a lack of public accountability for the allocation of resources, the state’s oil and gas revenues tend to benefit privileged elites rather than the general population, narrowing access to economic opportunity.

On Azerbaijan

See all data, scores & information on this country or territory.

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  • Global Freedom Score

    9 100 not free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    35 100 not free