Azerbaijan | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan

Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores

Status

Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

5.5

Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

5

Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

6
Trend Arrow: 


Azerbaijan received a downward trend arrow due to greater government harassment of the country's independent journalists and media outlets.

Overview: 


A government campaign against Azerbaijan's independent broadcasters and press outlets, including the forced closures of several leading private newspapers and the arrests or intimidation of prominent journalists, intensified during much of 2001. At the same time, Washington approved a waiver of its nearly decade-long sanctions against Azerbaijan in response to Baku's support of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. The restrictions had been imposed following Azerbaijan's war with Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, a conflict for which a final peace agreement remained elusive at year's end.

Controlled by the Ottoman Empire since the seventeenth century, Azerbaijan entered the Soviet Union in 1922 as part of the Transcaucasian Soviet Federal Republic, becoming a separate Soviet republic in 1936. Following a referendum in 1991, Azerbaijan declared independence from the disintegrating Soviet Union.

In June 1992, Abulfaz Elchibey, leader of the nationalist opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front (APF), was elected president in a generally free and fair vote. A military coup one year later ousted him from power and installed the former first secretary of the Azerbaijan Communist Party, Heydar Aliev, in his place. In the October 1993 presidential elections, Aliev reportedly received almost 99 percent of the vote. Azerbaijan's first post-Soviet parliamentary elections, held in November 1995, saw five leading opposition parties and some 600 independent candidates barred from the vote in which President Aliev's Yeni Azerbaijan Party won the most seats. In October 1998, Aliev was chosen president with more than 70 percent of the vote in an election characterized by serious irregularities. In August 2000, Elchibey died of cancer in Turkey, with tens of thousands of mourners attending his funeral service in Baku.

In a widely expected outcome, the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party captured the majority of seats in the November 5, 2000, parliamentary election. The APF and the Communist Party came in a distant second and third, respectively. International monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe cited mass electoral fraud, including the intimidation of those gathering signatures for candidates' registration before the poll, the stuffing of ballot boxes, and a strong progovernment bias in state-run media. Despite widespread criticism of the elections, the Council of Europe approved Azerbaijan's application for membership just days after the vote, a decision widely criticized by international human rights groups.

On November 14, political opposition parties announced their refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the new legislature and convened mass rallies to protest the results. Although election results were overturned in 11 voting districts, in which new voting was scheduled for January 2001, those in the remaining districts were officially declared valid. In the January 7 runoff, pro-government parties captured the most seats.

In August, President Aliev announced that he would seek a third term in office in the 2003 presidential election. However, many observers continue to believe that he is grooming his son, Ilham, to be the country's next head of state. This theory received greater credence after Ilham was promoted to senior deputy chairman of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, the number two spot in the party's hierarchy.

Following the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Azerbaijan announced its support for the U.S.-led war against the Taliban, giving the United States permission to land on and fly over its territory and allowing the use of its country as a site for U.S. army hospitals. During the last several years, intelligence agencies from Washington and Baku participated in joint antiterrorist operations. The U.S. Congress had identified Azerbaijan as one of 34 countries around the world with groups linked to Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network.

Plans for the proposed U.S.-backed Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline took a step forward in 2001 with the completion of a preliminary engineering study, followed by the start of a more detailed examination of specific engineering issues. Construction of the project is scheduled to begin in mid-2002. The pipeline, which would run from Azerbaijan through Georgia to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, is regarded as a means of reducing Moscow's influence in the region since it would bypass Russian territory.

The most recent internationally-led peace negotiations over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh failed to achieve a lasting settlement at year's end. While Baku insists that the republic remain a constituent part of Azerbaijan, even while being granted greater autonomy, Yerevan maintains that it should be left outside of Azeri jurisdiction. At the same time, Azerbaijan continued to lobby the United States to repeal Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, which blocks certain U.S. assistance to Azerbaijan until the country lifts its economic blockade against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Following Baku's support of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, the U.S. Congress authorized President George Bush to waive the nine-year-old sanctions on an annual basis.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 


Citizens of Azerbaijan cannot change their government democratically. In 1999, President Heydar Aliev celebrated 30 years of almost uninterrupted rule since becoming Azerbaijan's Communist Party leader in 1969. The 1995 constitution gives the president control over the government, legislature, and judiciary. The 1993 and 1998 presidential and 1995 and 2000 parliamentary elections were considered neither free nor fair by international observers. Opposition political party members face frequent harassment and arrest by the authorities.

Although the constitution guarantees freedom of speech and the press, journalists who publish articles critical of the president or other prominent state officials are routinely prosecuted, and self-censorship is common. Many newspapers struggle financially in the face of heavy fines or imprisonment of their editors and staff. In August 2001, regulations went into effect that require newspapers to use a modified Latin, rather than the Cyrillic, alphabet. These requirements place an additional burden on the press, as many Azeris are familiar only with Cyrillic letters. President Aliev signed a decree in July creating a national media council, whose members will be appointed or approved by the president, and which will enjoy wide-ranging powers, including the authority to issue licenses to broadcasters.

The government campaign against the country's independent media intensified during 2001, particularly during the last few months of the year. Numerous journalists, including Zamin Haji of the opposition daily paper Azadliq, were attacked by police or unknown assailants. In July, the independent ABA TV station announced its immediate closure because of continued pressure by the state authorities. In August and September, the independent papers Milletin Sesi, Etimad, Bakinksi Bulvard, and Avropa were ordered to cease publication by court order or forced to close because of heavy court-imposed fines for alleged defamation of senior state officials. Shahbaz Huduoglu, the editor of Milletin Sesi, and Elmar Huseinov, the founder of Bakinski Bulvard, were sentenced to six months in prison in mid-September in separate cases for insulting the honor and dignity of the president's chief of staff and the mayor of Baku, respectively. Pressure by domestic and international groups led to their release from prison a month later, although both of their papers remained banned. At a November meeting of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, participants accused the independent publications Yeni Musavat, Azadlig, and Hurriet of anti-state activities; the state publishing house subsequently refused to print them. Police broke up demonstrations held on November 15 and December 12 by representatives from several independent newspapers who were protesting the government's restrictions on press freedom. Several journalists were beaten or arrested, including Yeni Musavat editor Rauf Arifoglu. A December 20 rally estimated to have been attended by from 700 to 2,000 journalists appeared to have been conducted without significant interference by the authorities. In a positive year-end development, parliament adopted amendments to the laws on the mass media on December 26 limiting the government's power to shut down newspapers or strip journalists of their accreditation. The legislation also abolished a requirement for media outlets to register with the ministry of justice before beginning publication. Most of Azerbaijan's print media praised the passage of the amendments, which some attributed to pressure from the Council of Europe.

The government restricts some religious activities of foreigners and Azerbaijanis who are members of nontraditional religious groups through burdensome registration requirements and interference in the dissemination of printed materials. Islam, Russian Orthodoxy, and Judaism are considered "traditional" religions and their members can worship freely. In June 2001, President Aliev issued a decree creating the State Council for Relations with Religious Organizations, which is charged with monitoring all organizations involved in religious activities and supervising the renewal of their licenses.

The government frequently restricts freedom of assembly and association, particularly for political parties critical of the government. Several hundred Nagorno-Karabakh war veterans conducted hunger strikes and public demonstrations in January and February 2001 to demand pension and disability benefit increases. Police forcibly dispersed the protestors, arresting several dozen and subsequently sentencing nine of them to between one and six years in prison. In April, police broke up a demonstration by supporters of the opposition Democratic Party of Azerbaijan who were calling for an end to the criminal investigation of party leader Rasul Guliev. In July, 27 people accused of having participated in antigovernment demonstrations following the November parliamentary elections were sentenced to prison or probation. Most trade unions belong to the state-run Azerbaijani Labor Federation, and there is no effective collective bargaining system.

The judiciary, which does not function independently of the executive branch, is inefficient and corrupt. Detainees are often held for long periods before trials, and their access to evidence and lawyers is restricted. Police abuse of suspects during arrest and interrogation reportedly remains commonplace, with torture often used to extract confessions. According to opposition and human rights groups, several hundred political prisoners are in detention throughout the country. The more than 750,000 refugees who fled the war in Nagorno-Karabakh remain in Azerbaijan, often living in appalling conditions. Most are unable or unwilling to return to their homes because of fears for their safety and concerns over dismal economic prospects in the breakaway territory.

Significant parts of the economy are in the hands of a corrupt nomenklatura, which severely limits equality of opportunity. Most women work in the low-paying public sector, and traditional norms perpetuate discrimination and violence against women.