Nagorno-Karabakh*

Partly Free
36
100
PR Political Rights 16 40
CL Civil Liberties 20 60
Last Year's Score & Status
35 100 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 that 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 Armenians, and given its geographic and diplomatic isolation, it has been dependent on close political and economic ties with Armenia. However, a third of Nagorno-Karabakh and some adjacent land came under Azerbaijani control in 2020 under a cease-fire agreement that ended a weeks-long conflict that year.

header3 Key Developments in 2021

  • As many as 70,000 Nagorno-Karabakh residents who fled for Armenia during the 2020 conflict returned by March. Residents from areas transferred to Azerbaijani control were unable or unwilling to return to those locations, however.
  • Opposition groups organized regular rallies to address a variety of concerns during the year; protesters called for the resignation of President Arayik Harutyunyan, voiced dissatisfaction with the Armenian government, and called for more transparency in government-backed loans to affiliated businesspeople. Authorities made no attempts to disperse these events.
  • While the 2020 cease-fire largely held, insecurity and violence still affected life in Nagorno-Karabakh. In August, the Azerbaijani prosecutor general reported that 23 Azerbaijani civilians were killed and another 36 were injured by mines in areas that were previously under Armenian control. In October, Russian peacekeepers reported that a farmer was killed by gunfire originating from Azerbaijani-controlled land.

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 most recent presidential election took place in March and April 2020, several months before Azerbaijani forces launched an attack on the territory. It was widely acknowledged as the most competitive in Nagorno-Karabakh’s recent history. An unprecedented 14 candidates engaged in an intense electoral campaign that featured extensive in-person and social media campaign activities. Weeks of televised presentations of candidates’ programs culminated in the territory’s first-ever televised debates. First-round turnout stood at 72 percent and second-round turnout stood at 45 percent.

Arayik Harutyunyan, a former prime minister and local businessman, won a majority of votes in the second round. 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 former Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan, who himself had resigned amid the 2018 protests in that country.

Many foreign observers were unable 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 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.

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 2020 in parallel with the presidential race. Ten political parties—almost twice more than in the 2015 elections—participated, organizing into two blocs. Parties campaigned freely in towns and villages and participated in televised presentations and debates.

The Harutyunyan-founded Free Motherland (Azat Hayrenik) party maintained its dominant legislative position, winning 16 seats. The newly formed Miasnakan Hayrenik (United Motherland) party, led by opposition politician Samvel Babayan, won nine. The remaining seats went to three other parties—the Armenian Revolutionary Federation–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.

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 individual constituencies. No electoral-code changes have occurred since the 2020 cease-fire and shift in territorial control.

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

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 political-party formation and membership, 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. This has been especially true after the 2020 conflict, which ended with a decline in Armenian military support.

Before the 2020 conflict, Nagorno-Karabakh had seen greater political activity since the 2018 revolution in Armenia. The 2020 electoral 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 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.

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 political opening in Armenia in 2018 brought considerable change to Nagorno-Karabakh’s political environment, with a number of prominent politicians refraining from forming coalitions with the ruling elites ahead of the 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 open opposition to the region’s previous leadership. Five of the 14 presidential candidates ran as independents. Two new parties gained parliamentary representation, including Miasnakan Hayrenik, which polled second and won nine seats.

The 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.

The results of the 2020 conflict provoked widespread discontent among residents who blamed current and former leaders of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. This prompted local opposition activists and groups to mobilize supporters to hold frequent protests. Some opposition politicians have joined the territorial government’s cabinet to monitor assistance programs aimed at displaced residents.

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, which has influenced the territory’s political and financial dependence on Armenia. This dependence provided leverage for interference by Yerevan in Nagorno-Karabakh’s domestic political affairs. Local elites also have political influence, including over the selection of senior leaders.

Relations with Yerevan have been significantly affected by the 2020 conflict and subsequent developments. After the close of hostilities, a number of Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh officials complained about poor relations between Yerevan and Stepanakert, which they claimed was a key reason for the defeat in fighting with Azerbaijan. Soon after the cease-fire, President Harutyunyan returned several controversial politicians, who left due to conflicts with Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan, to senior posts.

In contrast to past years, few senior Armenian officials have traveled to Nagorno-Karabakh during 2021, allegedly to avoid open attacks from local residents or possible problems with the Azerbaijani government. Yerevan has continued to provide subsidies and has financed programs that benefit Nagorno-Karabakh residents, however.

Following the 2020 conflict, Russian peacekeepers have played a significant security role in Nagorno-Karabakh. Russian peacekeepers maintain checkpoints throughout the region and are present at the Lachin transit corridor between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia; Russian peacekeepers also maintain close contact with Armenian and Azerbaijani military counterparts, escort residents, and mediate local disputes. In March 2021, Nagorno-Karabakh’s National Assembly unanimously voted to make Russian an official language in the territory, citing a need to facilitate communication with peacekeepers and aid workers. Despite their growing influence in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russian peacekeepers have not interfered in local political life.

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 conflict, 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. Tens of thousands of those who fled Nagorno-Karabakh for Armenia have returned, though returnees who lived in areas under Azerbaijani control have been unable or unwilling to return.

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 parliamentary seats in 2015. Before the 2020 elections, the gender quota was further increased to one in every four candidates on party lists, resulting in seven women taking seats in the new National Assembly. For the first time ever, the 2020 race included two female presidential candidates. 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 2020 elections, President Harutyunyan invited his main opponents to take key government positions, suggesting this could result in more transparency for decision-making processes. Harutyunyan made a similar offer after the 2020 conflict.

After the cease-fire agreement was reached, local leaders asked Armenia-based and diaspora organizations to limit discussion on projects within the territory to avoid criticism from Baku.

In April 2021, protesters called on the government to disclose the fate of state-backed loans given to affiliated businesspeople. In September, a court in Stepanakert instructed the government to disclose information on the loans, though the government apparently did not comply by year’s end.

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 2020 operation, which was 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 17 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 Nagorno-Karabakh, with many saying they felt that their lives would be at risk if they stayed. Some 70,000 people who fled to Armenia had returned to Nagorno-Karabakh as of March 2021, though many returnees who previously lived in areas that came under Azerbaijani control during the conflict have been unable or unwilling to return to those locations.

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 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 that March. Following the 2020 conflict, local media outlets continued to produce vibrant output, covering opposition rallies and government critics.

Social media platforms are increasingly used by the public and government officials for the dissemination and discussion of news. Young opposition leaders are well connected with independent media outlets in Armenia, which are able to convey their views to news consumers in Nagorno-Karabakh. In 2020, the Armenian media outlet CivilNet opened a permanent office in Stepanakert and hired local reporters to cover 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 increase. Mobile internet service remains unaffordable for most residents.

Foreign journalists saw their access to Nagorno-Karabakh restricted during 2021. In March, correspondents from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and US-based Vice News reported that they were denied permission to visit the territory. In April, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) noted that Russian peacekeepers prevented at least 10 foreign journalists from traveling into Nagorno-Karabakh via the Lachin corridor, calling on Moscow to ensure access.

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.

The main mosque in the town known as Shushi to Armenians and Shusha to Azerbaijanis was restored and reopened in 2019. Services resumed when the Azerbaijani military took over the town during the 2020 conflict. During the conflict, 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 the Armenian monasteries of Amaras and Dadivank, which are near or within Azerbaijani-controlled territory as a result of the cease-fire agreement, and escorted groups of pilgrims to attend services at these cathedrals after the cease-fire. Azerbaijani authorities ordered Armenian Apostolic clergy to provide lists of pilgrims to Dadivank in February 2021. Azerbaijani forces prevented visits to Dadivank beginning in May.

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? 3.003 4.004

While Nagorno-Karabakh authorities have disrupted rallies in the past, freedom of assembly has been recently respected. In 2020, Stepanakert saw major election-related rallies, including those calling for the vote to be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and decrying alleged electoral irregularities. Those rallies were held without interruption from the authorities.

Since the 2020 conflict, Nagorno-Karabakh has seen regular protest activity. Since February 2021, a variety of groups organized marches; among other things, participants called for the resignation of President Harutyunyan, voiced dissatisfaction with the government in Yerevan, and called for more transparency in government-backed loans. Authorities made no attempts to disperse these protests.

Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 because public assemblies were generally able to proceed without disruption from authorities during the year.

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 Nagorno-Karabakh, 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.

The Armenian government funded the monitoring of Nagorno-Karabakh’s 2020 elections by Transparency International’s (TI) affiliate in Armenia and the Stepanakert office of the Yerevan-based Union of Informed Citizens. Shortly before the vote, the TI 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 2020 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 facing physical attack, detention, torture, and degrading treatment by Azerbaijani forces; the British Guardian newspaper reported on the beheading of two noncombatants by Azerbaijani forces, videos of which had been shared on social media. Attacks on dual-use infrastructure, such as telecommunications and electricity facilities, 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 near or within civilian-populated areas.

Local officials and international human rights groups documented beheadings of Armenian soldiers, mutilation of their corpses, and torture of prisoners of war (POWs) by Azerbaijani soldiers, with footage of many such instances shared widely on social media. Footage also circulated of Azerbaijani soldiers desecrating graveyards. Over 100 Armenian POWs and detained civilians were released by Azerbaijani authorities during 2021, though the Armenian ombudsman reported that at least 41 POWs and 4 civilians remained in custody in September.

Amnesty International reported instances where ethnic Armenian forces committed abuses against their counterparts during the conflict, including several instances of corpse mutilation and the death of a POW. In June 2021, the International Partnership for Human Rights reported on the existence of videos that apparently depict the extrajudicial killings of Azerbaijani soldiers by Armenian or Nagorno-Karabakh fighters.

Violence and insecurity continued to affect life in Nagorno-Karabakh since the cease-fire took effect. In August, the Azerbaijani prosecutor general reported that 23 Azerbaijani civilians were killed and another 36 were injured by mines in areas that were previously under Armenian control. In October, Russian peacekeepers reported that a farmer was killed by gunfire originating from Azerbaijani-controlled land.

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. Before the 2020 conflict, to preserve the Armenian character of the territory, state policies promoted Armenian language and culture and had encouraged ethnic Armenians to migrate to Nagorno-Karabakh, partly through housing and other subsidies. However, this practice has been halted due to the increased demand for housing, prompted by the displacement of residents from Azerbaijani-controlled areas.

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.

During the 2020 conflict, half to over 70 percent of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh fled the conflict zone. Some 70,000 of those who fled for Armenia in 2020 returned by March 2021, though many returnees remain internally displaced within Nagorno-Karabakh.

Individuals who do not hold Armenian citizenship require a visa from the Nagorno-Karabakh government as of February 2021. Russian peacekeepers are able to review visa applications.

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 Azerbaijanis displaced in the 1990s and Armenians after the 2020 conflict 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

    36 100 partly free