Azerbaijan | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


A controversial August 2002 national referendum led to the adoption of a series of constitutional amendments, some of which critics charged would further strengthen the ruling party's grip on power. Throughout the year, a number of demonstrations were held to demand various political and economic changes, including the resignation of the country's authoritarian president, Heydar Aliev. In June, an unarmed protestor was shot and killed by police in the town of Nardaran, the first time that such a tragedy had occurred since Azerbaijan's independence more than ten years ago.

After having been 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, 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, President 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 Aliev's Yeni Azerbaijan Party won the most seats. In October Trade unions retain an important independent voice in Austria's political, social, and economic life. The 14 national unions are reorganizing into three main groups, all of which will continue to belong to the Austrian Trade Union Federation and which are managed by supporters of the country's traditional political parties. The right to strike is protected. 1998, Aliev was chosen president with more than 70 percent of the vote in an election characterized by serious irregularities.

In a widely expected outcome, the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party captured the majority of seats in the November 2000 parliamentary election. The Azerbaijan Popular Front 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 pro-government 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.

Vocal opposition to Aliev's heavy-handed rule was evidenced throughout 2002. In the capital city of Baku and elsewhere in the country, thousands of protestors organized by opposition political groups participated in a number of rallies to demand the president's resignation. Police forcibly dispersed unsanctioned demonstrations, injuring and detaining dozens of participants. In the town of Nardaran, public protests during the first half of the year over various political, economic, and social issues culminated in one person being shot to death during a rally on June 3. The incident represented the first time that police had killed an unarmed civilian at a demonstration since the country's independence in 1991. A series of meetings between government representatives and Nardaran village elders failed to defuse the situation, and protests continued in Nardaran and other parts of the country throughout the year.

Despite international criticism and opposition calls for a postponement or boycott, a controversial national referendum on 39 amendments to Azerbaijan's constitution was held on August 24. Certain provisions--such as the creation of a civilian service as an alternative to conscription and a guarantee that citizens could appeal to the constitutional court--were praised as enhancing the protection of civil liberties in keeping with Council of Europe standards. However, other key amendments were seen as moves toward the greater concentration of power in the hands of the president and his ruling party. In particular, critics cited a provision replacing the proportional-representation system, under which one-fifth of the members of parliament were elected, with single-mandate constituency races, under which the remaining four-fifths of parliament were already chosen. Opposition parties argued that the proportional system was the only way for them to participate in elections, since most lack nationwide organizations. Another contentious amendment would alter the presidential succession process so that the prime minister would become president if the head of state resigns or becomes incapacitated. Critics charged that President Aliev would appoint his son, Ilham, prime minister and then engineer a transfer of power.

According to official results, each of the amendments was approved by more than 96 percent of voters. However, opposition groups and the OSCE charged that the referendum was marred by fraud, including ballot-box stuffing, the pressuring of voters, intimidation of election monitors and officials, and inflated voter-turnout figures of nearly 90 percent. The vote was followed by further public protests demanding an annulment of the referendum and President Aliev's resignation.

In return for Azerbaijan's cooperation in the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign, President George W. Bush lifted Amendment 907 to the Freedom Support Act banning certain U.S. assistance to Azerbaijan. In December 2001, the U.S. Congress had authorized President Bush to waive, on an annual basis, the controversial nine-year-old sanctions, which were enacted during the war with Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The long-awaited start of construction on the first major Caspian oil export route bypassing Russian territory was marked by a ceremony near Baku on September 18. The U.S.-backed Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which will run from Azerbaijan through Georgia to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, is scheduled to be completed in 2004, with the first oil due to flow in 2005.

The most recent internationally led peace talks over Nagorno-Karabakh failed to achieve a lasting settlement at year's end. Although Aliev remains publicly committed to negotiations, many Azerbaijanis support the idea of military action to re-capture the territory from Armenia. Neither Armenia's president, Robert Kocharian, nor Aliev is likely to risk the domestic political consequences of making major public concessions over the disputed enclave ahead of presidential elections scheduled in both countries for 2003.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of Azerbaijan cannot change their government democratically. 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. On October 1, 2002, two secretaries of the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (DPA) and six members of the Musavat Party were arrested in two separate incidents. Spokesmen for the parties said they believed that the arrests were linked to plans to convene an opposition demonstration in Baku on October 5.

Although the constitution guarantees freedoms 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 low circulation, low advertising revenues, and heavy fines or imprisonment of their staff. According to the Azerbaijan Council of Editors, 31 court cases were brought against media outlets between January and November 2002. Mubariz Djafarli of the opposition Yeni Musavat newspaper was attacked and beaten in June by two men who made reference to his having insulted President Heydar Aliev's son, Ilham, in a recent article. In December, the paper was found guilty of insulting the honor and dignity of a local government official in an article published in October, fined $615,000, and ordered to publish a retraction of the article. On July 29, publisher and editor in chief Elmar Huseynov and reporter Eynulla Fetullayev of the independent magazine Monitor were found guilty of defamation, fined $10,200, and ordered to print a retraction of an article critical of the military. A 2002 presidential decree on state secrets requires journalists to ask a government commission whether sensitive material is a state secret before publishing it; journalists could also be required to reveal their sources. Following widespread criticism of the new rules, the length of the commission's review period was shortened from 7 days to 48 hours, and the protection of journalists' sources was guaranteed.

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.

The government frequently restricts freedom of assembly and association, particularly for political parties critical of the government. Following international and domestic protests, President Aliev refused to sign controversial amendments to the law on grants that had been adopted by parliament in March. The amendments would have required that only officially registered groups could receive grants from foreign governments and nongovernmental organizations, sources of funding on which most unregistered groups depend. 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 the Council of Europe and opposition and human rights groups, several hundred political prisoners are held 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 they fear for their safety and have 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. Muslim women wearing head scarves have been prevented by some universities from attending classes.