Nagorno-Karabakh*

Partly Free
34
100
PR Political Rights 13 40
CL Civil Liberties 21 60
Last Year's Score & Status
31 100 Partly Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.
* Indicates a territory as opposed to an independent country.

header1 Note

The numerical scores and status listed here do not reflect conditions in Azerbaijan, which is examined in a separate report. 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

The Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh, has enjoyed de facto independence from Azerbaijan since a 1994 cease-fire agreement ended roughly two years of open warfare, though its independence is not recognized by any UN member states. The territory’s population is mostly ethnic Armenian, and given its geographical and diplomatic isolation, it is dependent on close political, economic, and military ties with Armenia. The tense security situation, with regular cease-fire violations and an ongoing threat of war, has had a negative effect on political rights and civil liberties and provided authorities with a pretext to consolidate their own power.

header3 Key Developments in 2019

  • A number of new political parties and politicians began campaigns during the year for parliamentary and presidential elections, scheduled for March and April 2020.
  • Independent and opposition candidates performed relatively well in the September local elections, taking many of the seats in local councils. The vote was monitored by two Armenia-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
  • Elements of the territory’s leadership remained aligned with the former ruling elites of Armenia, who were ousted as a result of popular protests and subsequent elections in that country in 2018. Tensions between Armenia’s new government and Nagorno-Karabakh’s leaders prompted at least one prominent resignation in the territory during the year.

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? 1.001 4.004

Under the constitutional system in place at the beginning of 2017, the president was directly elected for up to two five-year terms and appointed the prime minister. Past elections have been marred by problems including a lack of genuine competition and alleged abuses of administrative resources.

In accordance with changes to the constitution that were approved in a February 2017 referendum, the parliament elected a transitional president who would hold office until the expiration of the incumbent parliament’s term, so that the presidential and parliamentary terms would be concurrent after 2020. Bako Sahakyan, whose second term was coming to an end, was elected as transitional president in July 2017 with 28 votes in the 33-seat chamber, far more than the two-thirds majority required to win in the first round. The move effectively extended his tenure beyond the two-term limit—and expanded his powers—without a direct mandate from voters.

Under the new constitution, the president is both head of state and head of government, with full authority to appoint and dismiss cabinet members. After Sahakyan was inaugurated in September 2017, the office of prime minister was abolished.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 2.002 4.004

Of the unicameral National Assembly’s 33 members, 11 are elected in single-mandate constituencies and 22 by party list. The most recent parliamentary elections were held in 2015. The Free Motherland (Azat Hayrenik) party maintained its dominant position in the legislature, winning 15 seats. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF)–Dashnaktsutyun and the Democratic Party of Artsakh (AZhK), both part of Free Motherland’s ruling coalition, won seven and six seats, respectively. Two opposition parties gained representation: Movement 88 took three seats, while National Revival captured one. An independent candidate won the remaining seat.

Invited foreign observers reported that the elections were an improvement over the 2010 vote, which was undermined by the absence of opposition candidates and the use of state resources to support progovernment candidates. However, some political parties still reported minor intimidation during the campaign process.

Independents and opposition groups performed comparatively well in September 2019 local council elections. While most established election monitors do not assess Nagorno-Karabakh’s elections, Armenia funded observation missions by two leading Yerevan-based NGOs for the first time in the territory’s history. The campaign environment was relatively open, and no serious irregularities were reported.

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? 1.001 4.004

Amendments passed in 2014 led to some improvements to the electoral code. Among other changes, the number of parliamentary seats under the proportional system increased, and the vote threshold for representation decreased to 5 percent for political parties and 7 percent for electoral coalitions, allowing for broader political participation. Electoral code changes adopted in July 2019 for the 2020 elections shifted the parliament to a fully proportional system, eliminating the individual constituencies.

The constitutional referendum of February 2017 was criticized by opposition groups as a means to consolidate the power of the governing parties and improperly extend the tenure of President Sahakyan. The election commission reported that 87.6 percent of referendum participants endorsed the amendments, with turnout at 76.5 percent. Opposition groups and some civil society activists complained that state resources were misused during the campaign, and observers noted suspicious results in some areas, with one of the 11 districts reporting 99 or 100 percent figures for both turnout and “yes” votes in most of its polling locations.

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? 2.002 4.004

There are few formal restrictions on the freedom to form and join political parties, but the political landscape is constrained in practice. Given the territory’s contested status, open dissent and vigorous competition are still regarded as signs of disloyalty or even as a security risk. The incumbent leadership also allegedly uses patronage to maintain a network of political supporters who can be deployed to disrupt opposition activities, including through verbal and physical harassment.

Political activity increased during 2019 as Nagorno-Karabakh prepared for the 2020 parliamentary and presidential elections. The number of registered political parties rose from 13 to 18. Former defense minister Samvel Babayan opened an office and in February began collecting signatures in support of removing a rule that required presidential candidates to have lived in Nagorno-Karabakh for 10 years. Babayan collected some 20,000 signatures, but the National Assembly in October rejected making the change. Separately, in March a local branch of the radical Armenian opposition group Sasna Tsrer started collecting signatures for an initiative on unification of the territory with Armenia, which was widely seen as the launch of the group’s preelection campaign.

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? 2.002 4.004

The leading political parties have tended to form broad coalitions and co-opt potential rivals, leaving little room for genuine opposition. However, the so-called Velvet Revolution in Armenia in 2018 has brought considerable change to the political environment in Nagorno-Karabakh, with a number of prominent politicians refraining from forming coalitions with the ruling elite ahead of the 2020 elections and instead campaigning independently.

The September 2019 local elections featured strong performances by independent and opposition candidates, raising the prospects for more open competition in the upcoming national elections. Many seats went to candidates with no party affiliation, who made up more than half of the registered contenders for local leadership posts. Independent businessman David Sargsyan was elected as mayor of Stepanakert, the territory’s capital. However, Sargsyan enjoyed the support of the Free Motherland party, led by former prime minister Arayik Harutyunyan. Free Motherland still showed the best results among the established parties, with its representatives taking the leadership posts in some 130 out of nearly 230 localities.

Score Change: The score improved from 1 to 2 because a number of opposition and independent candidates won seats in the September local elections.

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

Politics in Nagorno-Karabakh are heavily influenced by the threat of military aggression from Azerbaijan, which also increases the territory’s political, military, and financial dependence on Armenia. This dependence provides leverage for interference by the Armenian leadership in Nagorno-Karabakh’s domestic political affairs. In December 2019, Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan met with some of the top candidates in the 2020 presidential race; the move was widely interpreted as Pashinyan’s personal endorsement of those he believed were prepared to cooperate with his government rather than criticizing it or siding with Armenia’s former leadership.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 1.001 4.004

The population is almost entirely ethnic Armenian as a result of wartime displacement, and the constitution mandates a policy of preserving the Armenian character of the territory, partly by granting citizenship to ethnic Armenians who choose to reside there.

Formally, women have equal political rights, but social constraints and a prevailing sense of militarization in local life limit their participation in practice, and they are poorly represented in leadership positions. While the 2014 electoral code required parties to ensure that women hold about one in five of the places on their parliamentary lists, only five women won seats in the parliament in 2015. The electoral code adopted for 2020 increased the gender quota to one in every four candidates on party lists. In the 2019 local elections, women won about 11 percent of council seats and 2 percent of local leadership posts.

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? 1.001 4.004

The ability of locally elected officials to set and implement government policies is limited in practice by security threats along the line of contact between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijani forces, warnings from Baku, and the dominant role played by the Armenian government. The constitution calls for close cooperation with Armenia on political, economic, and military policy. The head of the territory’s National Security Council, Vitaly Balasanyan, was forced to resign in June 2019, reportedly due to his criticism of the Armenian prime minister.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 1.001 4.004

Nagorno-Karabakh continues to suffer from significant corruption, particularly in the construction and infrastructure-development sectors. Officials practice favoritism in filling civil service positions.

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 1.001 4.004

A freedom of information law was adopted in 2004, but the government operates with little transparency in practice. Key decisions are negotiated by political actors, with few meaningful opportunities for public input.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 2.002 4.004

Although the government maintained formal control over the most popular local television station, Artsakh TV, the station’s editorial policy showed a significant change in 2019, apparently influenced by the political opening in Armenia in 2018. Political critics of the territory’s leadership, previously banned even for short appearances, became regular guests on current-affairs programs. In addition, regular debates were organized to address prominent topics in local public life.

Social media platforms are increasingly used by the public and government officials for the dissemination and discussion of news. Young opposition leaders are also well connected with independent media outlets in Armenia, which are able to convey their views to news consumers in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Nevertheless, most domestic journalists continue to practice self-censorship, particularly on subjects related to security and the peace process. The internet penetration rate is low and has been slow to expand. Mobile internet service remains unaffordable for most residents.

Score Change: The score improved from 1 to 2 because the media environment has become more open to dissenting views since Armenia’s 2018 change in government.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 1.001 4.004

The constitution guarantees religious freedom but allows for restrictions in the name of security, public order, and other state interests. The charter also recognizes the Armenian Apostolic Church as the “national church” of the Armenian people. The religious freedom of other groups is limited in practice. A 2009 law banned religious activity by unregistered groups and proselytism by minority faiths, and made it more difficult for minority groups to register.

In 2019, restoration of the main mosque in Shusha was completed, and the mosque was formally reopened in October. However, it was unclear whether services would resume given that the current population is overwhelmingly Christian.

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

Schools and universities are subject to political influence and pressure to avoid dissenting views on sensitive topics, particularly those related to the territory’s status and security. Educators engage in a degree of self-censorship on such issues.

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? 3.003 4.004

Private discussion is generally open and free, though expression of dissent may be inhibited somewhat by the prevailing nationalist sentiment in politics and society.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 2.002 4.004

A law adopted in June 2018 guarantees the right to assembly, but the authorities have continued to block gatherings and demonstrations that they deem to be threats to public order. Protests are relatively rare in practice. In May 2019, four activists were briefly detained after demonstrating in the main square of Stepanakert to demand the resignation of President Sahakyan. In July, a man launched a hunger strike in the center of a Stepanakert park to protest favoritism in employment and access to public services. He said he was assaulted by police who tried to remove him from the park, but eventually ended the strike after two days, having met with Nagorno-Karabakh’s ombudsman.

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? 2.002 4.004

More than 250 NGOs are registered in the territory, but most are inactive. Many groups struggle to secure sustainable funding, in part because partnerships with foreign or international NGOs are complicated by Nagorno-Karabakh’s disputed status. Civil society groups also face competition from government-organized entities.

In September 2019, Armenia funded the monitoring of Nagorno-Karabakh’s local elections by Transparency International’s affiliate in Armenia and the Stepanakert office of the Yerevan-based Union of Informed Citizens. Local activists participated in the observation missions and in some cases continued their cooperation with the NGOs after the elections.

Score Change: The score improved from 1 to 2 because the 2019 local elections triggered increased poll-monitoring and other activity by NGOs, which operated with fewer restrictions than in previous years.

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

Trade unions are allowed to organize, but in practice they are weak and relatively inactive, with little practical ability to assert workers’ interests. There is political and social pressure to avoid major labor disputes that might harm national solidarity.

F Rule of Law

F1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 1.001 4.004

The judiciary is not independent in practice. The courts are influenced by the executive branch as well as by powerful political, economic, and criminal groups.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1.001 4.004

The constitution guarantees basic due process rights, but police and the courts do not always uphold them in practice. Outspoken political dissidents have been subject to harassment by the authorities.

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 1.001 4.004

The security of the population is affected by regular incidents of violence along the line of contact. Soldiers as well as civilians on both sides are killed or injured each year.

In 2019, a relative calm along the line of contact and regular communication between Armenian and Azerbaijani security personnel contributed to the exposure of wrongdoing among the defense forces, including soldiers being shot and killed by fellow servicemen or committing suicide after being harassed. Such incidents have often been blamed on Azerbaijani sniper fire. In August, after a soldier allegedly fled to the Azerbaijani side and claimed physical abuse by his unit, Armenian authorities conducted a rare investigation, concluding that he had not been injured prior to crossing the de facto border.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1.001 4.004

The constitution bans discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, religion, and other categories. However, women are underrepresented in the public and private sectors and remain exposed to discrimination in practice. To preserve the Armenian character of the territory, state policies promote Armenian language and culture and encourage ethnic Armenians to migrate to Nagorno-Karabakh, partly through housing and other subsidies.

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

Freedom of movement within Nagorno-Karabakh and travel around the territory are hindered by its ambiguous legal and diplomatic status, the instability of the cease-fire, and the presence of land mines, which continue to cause deaths and injuries.

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

Most major economic activity is tightly controlled by the government or a small group of powerful elites with political connections. The property rights of displaced Azerbaijanis have yet to be adequately addressed.

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? 2.002 4.004

Men and women have equal legal rights with respect to marriage and divorce, though the constitution defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, precluding same-sex marriage. The government offers material incentives to encourage couples to have children, with the goal of repopulating the territory. Domestic violence is common and not effectively prosecuted.

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

Employment opportunities remain scarce and are mostly confined to the state sector or state-subsidized businesses.

On Nagorno-Karabakh

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  • Global Freedom Score

    34 100 partly free