Nagorno-Karabakh*

Partly Free
35
100
PR Political Rights 16 40
CL Civil Liberties 19 60
Last Year's Score & Status
34 100 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

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

The Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, which also calls itself the Republic of 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, and cease-fire violations were common in the decades after the agreement. The territory’s population is mostly ethnic Armenians, and given its geographic and diplomatic isolation, it is dependent on close political, economic, and military ties with Armenia. Competitive elections in 2020 featured robust debate, an orderly vote in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the acceptance of the election’s results by stakeholders. A large-scale attack by Azerbaijani forces later in the year gave way to six weeks of war; local officials, rights groups, and journalists documented dozens of war crimes during this period, including by Azerbaijani forces against civilians.

header3 Key Developments in 2020

  • Six weeks of warfare followed a large-scale attack on the territory on September 27 by Azerbaijani forces. The fighting was ended by a November 9 cease-fire agreement that placed large portions of the conflict zone under Azerbaijan’s direct control. This included about a third of Nagorno-Karabakh itself along with seven territories adjacent to the region, which had remained under the Armenian administration since the end of the war in the early 1990s.
  • At least 52 ethnic Armenian civilians were reported killed during the period of open hostilities, more than 160 were wounded, and tens of thousands of people by some counts were displaced. Local officials, rights groups, and journalists documented dozens of war crimes, including Azerbaijani soldiers beheading Armenian civilians and military and mutilating their corpses, and torturing war prisoners.
  • A record number of new political parties and politicians took part in parliamentary and presidential elections held in March and April, making them the most competitive polls in the region’s recent history.

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? 2.002 4.004

The president is directly elected for up to two five-year terms, and is both head of state and head of government, with authority to appoint and dismiss cabinet members.

The presidential election of spring 2020 was widely acknowledged as the most competitive in the recent history of Nagorno-Karabakh. An unprecedented 14 candidates engaged in an intense electoral campaign that featured extensive campaign activities in person and on social media. Weeks of televised presentations of candidates’ programs culminated in the region’s first-ever televised debates.

Despite calls of local health workers and some political activists from Armenia to postpone the election due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the vote took place on schedule, in two rounds in accordance with the local electoral code. Seventy-two percent of eligible voters participated in the first round, though turnout declined to 45 percent in the second. The electoral commission asked voters to wear face masks, which were provided; use their own pens; and follow social-distancing rules at polling stations. After the second round concluded, the local leadership declared a state of emergency, put in place restrictions on travel between regions, and introduced a ban on mass gatherings.

Arayik Harutyunyan, a former prime minister and local businessman, won a majority of votes in the second round of the election. His main rival, acting foreign minister Masis Mayilyan, was one of only two candidates who refused to participate in the televised debates. Mayilyan received 12 percent of votes in the second round even after calling on supporters not to cast a vote, to prevent the further spread of the COVID-19 in the region. Both candidates criticized Nagorno-Karabakh’s previous leadership figures allied with Armenia’s former president, Serzh Sargsyan, who himself had resigned amid the 2018 mass street protests in that country.

Many foreign observers were not able to attend due to the COVID-19-related closure of international borders. Local observers, including those trained and supported by Armenia’s leading nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), said the vote was free and fair despite reports of a few administrative irregularities and verbal clashes at some polling stations. Past elections were marred by problems including a lack of genuine competition and alleged abuses of administrative resources.

Score Change: The score improved from 1 to 2 because the presidential election was competitive and free of major irregularities.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 3.003 4.004

Of the unicameral National Assembly’s 33 members, all are elected by party list. Elections took place in spring 2020 in parallel with the presidential race. Ten political parties—almost twice more than in the 2015 elections—participated, and organized into two blocs. Parties campaigned freely in towns and villages and participated in televised presentations and debates.

The Free Motherland (Azat Hayrenik) party, founded by Harutyunyan, maintained its dominant position in the legislature, winning 16 seats. The newly formed Miasnakan Hayrenik (United Motherland) party, led by opposition politician Samvel Babayan, came in second with nine seats. The remaining seats went to three other parties— the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF)–Dashnaktsutyun, which won three seats; Ardarutyun (Justice), which also won three; and Artsakhi Zhoghovrdarakan Kusaktsutyun (Democratic Party of Artsakh), which won two; these were generally associated with politicians from past ruling coalitions.

Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 because the 2020 parliamentary election was more competitive than previous polls.

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? 2.002 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.

In contrast to past elections and the 2017 referendum, the spring 2020 presidential and parliamentary votes were not marred by significant criticism of electoral administration.

Score Change: The score improved from 1 to 2 due to improvements in election management.

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? 3.003 4.004

There are few formal restrictions on the freedom to form and join political parties, but the political landscape in past years has been constrained in practice. Given the territory’s contested status, open dissent and vigorous competition have been regarded as signs of disloyalty or even as a security risk.

Nagorno-Karabakh, however, has seen greater political activity since the 2018 revolution in Armenia. The spring 2020 campaign featured open and vigorous competition between existing and newly formed political parties. Politicians freely discussed domestic issues, and some presented detailed plans to improve transparency, implement anticorruption reforms, and improve diversity in government. There were no reports of serious, undue pressure or attacks against candidates during the 2020 campaign. Local politicians remained vocal and united in their criticism of any attempt to propose unilateral concessions in peace talks with Azerbaijan, and called for international recognition of the region’s independence.

Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 because political parties were generally able to organize events and compete freely during the spring election 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

During the past decade, the leading political parties have tended to form broad coalitions and co-opt potential rivals, precluding 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 elites ahead of the spring 2020 elections and instead campaigning independently.

The elections saw a record number of presidential candidates and political parties competing for power. Two leading presidential candidates stood in an open opposition to the region’s previous leadership. Five out of 14 candidates for the presidency did not represent any political party, and ran independently. Two newly formed political parties gained seats, including Miasnakan Hayrenik (United Motherland), which came second in the race and took nine out of 33 seats in the local parliament.

The September 2019 local elections also featured strong performances by independent and opposition candidates. Many seats went to candidates with no party affiliation, who made up more than half of the registered contenders for local leadership posts.

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 and the 2020 war with Azerbaijan, which increased 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, although local elites also have political influence, including over the selection of senior leadership positions.

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. Since then, Pashinyan and key representatives of his government refrained from meetings with Nagorno-Karabakh’s presidential candidates and their affiliated political parties.

Since February 2020, Armenia provided financial support to two NGOs that trained region’s specialists in support to the independent observance of the spring 2020 elections. Despite strong calls from Armenian civil society, Armenia’s leadership refused to interfere in Nagorno-Karabakh’s dispute over whether to postpone the 2020 elections in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and expressed a need for local electoral processes to be implemented independently.

After the close of the 2020 war, a number of Armenia’s and Nagorno-Karabakh’s officials complained about poor relations between Yerevan and Stepanakert, which, they said, had emerged as among the key reasons for the defeat in fighting with Azerbaijan. Soon after the war, President Arayik Harutyunyan returned to senior positions some controversial politicians, who had previously left due to conflicts with Pashinyan.

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? 1.001 4.004

Before the 2020 war, the population was almost entirely ethnic Armenian as a result of displacement during the war in the 1990s. In accordance with the November 9, 2020, cease-fire agreement, thousands of Armenians fled from territories assigned to Azerbaijan, not including residents from about one-third of Nagorno-Karabakh itself.

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 one in five of the places on their parliamentary lists, only five women won seats in the parliament in 2015. Before the spring 2020 elections, the gender quota was further increased to one in every four candidates on party lists, resulting in seven women taking seats at the newly formed parliament. For the first time ever, the 2020 race included two female candidates for presidency. Both received hundreds of votes. One of them, Bella Lalayan, campaigned for women’s and social rights. 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.

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. After the spring 2020 elections, new president Arayik Harutyunyan invited his main opponents to join leading positions in the government, suggesting this could result in more transparency for decision-making processes.

 

Add Q
Is the government or occupying power deliberately changing the ethnic composition of a country or territory so as to destroy a culture or tip the political balance in favor of another group? -1.00-1

The Azerbaijani military’s operation in 2020 aimed at gaining control of Nagorno-Karabakh ruptured a cease-fire that, while frequently violated, had mostly prevented large-scale violence since 1994. That Russian-brokered agreement had been reached after Armenian forces captured the territory and seven adjacent Azerbaijani districts, and ethnic Azerbaijani residents fled or were expelled from the affected region. During the six weeks of fighting between September 27 and November 9, 2020, human rights groups as well local and international journalists documented attacks or evidence of attacks against the ethnic Armenian civilian population, as well as atrocities against ethnic Armenian soldiers. Tens of thousands of ethnic Armenian civilians consequently fled the territory, with many saying they felt that their lives would be at risk if they stayed. Only a fraction of those who left chose to return after the fighting ended.

Score Change: The score declined from 0 to –1 because attacks on civilian targets and atrocities by Azerbaijani troops against ethnic Armenian soldiers compelled tens of thousands of people to flee the territory.

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

The most popular local television station is the government-run Artsakh TV. The station’s editorial policy has changed significantly since the political opening in Armenia in 2018, and it has in recent years hosted a greater plurality of opinion, notably during the intense campaign period before the spring 2020 elections. Critics of the territory’s leadership who were previously prevented from making even short appearances became regular guests on current-affairs programs. In addition, regular debates were organized to address prominent topics in local public life, including the first-ever debate of presidential candidates in March.

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. Additionally, one popular Armenian media outlet, CivilNet, opened a permanent office in Stepanakert and hired local reporters for regular coverage of developments in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Nevertheless, many domestic journalists continue to practice self-censorship, primarily 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. One of the most prominent presidential candidates, Masis Mayilyan, campaigned on a promise to make affordable mobile internet services accessible to all residents of the region.

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 the town known as Shushi to Armenians and Shusha to Azerbaijanis was completed, and the mosque was formally reopened that October. Services resumed when Azerbaijani military took over the town during the 2020 war. During the war, the Azerbaijani army fully or partially destroyed a number of Armenian religious objects, notably Sourp Ghazanchetsots Cathedral and Kanach Zham, in the same town. Russian peacekeepers took control of at least two important Armenian cathedrals, which are in the vicinity of or located inside the Azerbaijani-controlled territory as a result of the November cease-fire agreement. It remains unclear whether residents of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh will be allowed to attend services at these cathedrals.

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

Freedom of assembly has been respected unevenly. In March and April 2020, Stepanakert saw its largest street rallies related to the parliamentary and presidential elections, including those calling for the vote to be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and events decrying alleged electoral irregularities. In contrast to past decade, there were no attempts to disrupt the rallies.

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.

Armenia funded the monitoring of Nagorno-Karabakh’s parliamentary and presidential elections in March and April 2020 by Transparency International’s affiliate in Armenia, and the Stepanakert office of the Yerevan-based Union of Informed Citizens. Shortly before the vote, the Transparency International affiliate refused to send observers, citing the spread of COVID-19 in the region. Nevertheless, some of their local activists still participated in observation missions and in some cases continued cooperating with the NGOs after the elections.

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. Many labor disputes are resolved through personal connections and family links before they reach local courts.

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? 0.000 4.004

The civilian population of Nagorno-Karabakh was subjected to indiscriminate violence and targeted atrocities by Azerbaijani forces during the six-week conflict. Abuses included the use of cluster munitions, white phosphorous bombs, and other heavy weapons in attacks that failed to distinguish between military and civilian targets, including against residential areas in the main towns and villages. Rights groups and journalists reported instances of civilians being beaten, detained, subject to degrading treatment, and tortured by Azerbaijani forces; Britain’s Guardian newspaper conducted an investigation confirming the identities of two elderly noncombatant men beheaded by Azerbaijani forces, videos of which had been shared on social media. Attacks on dual-use infrastructure, such as facilities providing telecommunications and electricity services, damaged civilian sites such as churches, schools, and private businesses. Nagorno-Karabakh’s human rights ombudsman reported that 52 ethnic Armenian civilians were killed by Azerbaijani attacks on the territory. In accordance with the November 9, 2020, cease-fire statement, Azerbaijan gained control over seven adjacent territories and parts of Nagorno-Karabakh itself, with the new line of contact running close to or inside civilian-populated areas.

Local officials and international human rights groups documented beheadings of Armenian soldiers, mutilation of their corpses, and torture of war prisoners by Azerbaijani soldiers, with footage of many such instances shared widely on social media. Footage also circulated of Azerbaijani soldiers desecrating graveyards.

Amnesty International reported instances where ethnic Armenian forces committed abuses against their counterparts during the conflict, including several instances of corpse mutilation and one of violence against a prisoner of war resulting in death.

Score Change: The score declined from 1 to 0 due to reports of wartime atrocities and indiscriminate, lethal military attacks on civilian areas.

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 have encouraged 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? 0.000 4.004

Freedom of movement within Nagorno-Karabakh is 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, and in 2020, open warfare.

During the 2020 war, half to over 70 percent of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh fled the conflict zone. Around 50,000 returned as part of a process organized by the Russian peacekeepers. Only some were able to return to homes located in the areas transferred to Azerbaijani control as a result of the November 9, 2020, cease-fire agreement.

Score Change: The score declined from 1 to 0 because the military conflict caused mass displacement and severely impaired civilians’ ability to safely leave or travel within the territory.

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. 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.

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  • Global Freedom Score

    35 100 partly free