Nagorno-Karabakh * | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Nagorno-Karabakh *

Nagorno-Karabakh *

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)

Ratings Change: 

Nagorno-Karabakh's civil liberties rating improved from 6 to 5, and its status from Not Free to Partly Free, due to changes in the survey methodology.


Long-standing internationally mediated efforts to find a peaceful settlement to the protracted Nagorno-Karabakh conflict showed few signs of substantive progress in 2002. With the presidents of both Armenia and Azerbaijan facing reelection in 2003, most analysts maintained that neither leader would risk a likely public backlash by agreeing to compromises over the disputed territory's status. In July, the territory's president, Arkady Ghukasian, was overwhelmingly chosen to a second term in office.

The region of Nagorno-Karabakh, whose population is overwhelmingly ethnic Armenian, was transferred from Armenian to Azerbaijani jurisdiction in 1923, and the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region was subsequently created. In 1930, Moscow permitted Azerbaijan to establish and resettle the border areas between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia.

In 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh's Supreme Soviet adopted a resolution calling for union with Armenia. The announcement, as well as February demonstrations in the Armenian capital of Yerevan in support of Nagorno-Karabakh, triggered violent attacks against Armenians in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait shortly thereafter and in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, in January 1990.

Following multiparty elections for a new legislature, Nagorno-Karabakh's parliament adopted a declaration of independence at its inaugural session in January 1992. From 1991 to 1992, Azerbaijan besieged Stepanakert, the territory's capital, and occupied most of Nagorno-Karabakh. A series of counteroffensives in 1993 and 1994 by Karabakh Armenians, assisted by Armenia, resulted in the capture of essentially the entire territory, as well as six Azerbaijani districts surrounding the enclave. By the time a Russian-brokered ceasefire was finally signed in May 1994, the war had resulted in thousands of casualties and nearly one million refugees.

In December 1994, the head of the territory's state defense committee, Robert Kocharian, was selected by parliament for the newly established post of president. Elections to the 33-member parliament were held in April and May 1995, and Kocharian defeated two other candidates in a popular vote for president in November of the following year. In September 1997, Foreign Minister Arkady Ghukasian was elected president with 89 percent of the vote to replace Kocharian, who had been named prime minister of Armenia in March of that year.

In the territory's June 2000 parliamentary vote, 123 candidates representing five parties competed for the national assembly's 33 seats. The ruling Democratic Union Artsakh (ZhAM), which supports Ghukasian, enjoyed a slim victory, winning 13 seats. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun won 9 seats, the Armenakan Party captured 1 seat, and formally independent candidates, most of whom support Ghukasian, won 10. International observers described the electoral campaign and voting process as calm and largely transparent, although problems were noted with the accuracy of some voter lists.

In February 2001, former Defense Minister Samvel Babayan was found guilty of organizing a March 2000 assassination attempt against Ghukasian and sentenced to 14 years in prison. His supporters insisted that the arrest was politically motivated, as Babayan had been involved in a power struggle with Ghukasian. However, others welcomed the arrest and conviction of Babayan, who had been accused of corruption and reportedly wielded considerable political and economic power in the territory.

Ghukasian was reelected to a second term as president on August 11, 2002, with 89 percent of the vote. His closest challenger, former parliament Speaker Artur Tovmasian, received just 8 percent. Voter turnout was close to 75 percent. Observers from countries including the United States, United Kingdom, and France reported no serious violations. While a number of domestic and international nongovernmental organizations concluded that the elections marked a further step in Nagorno-Karabakh's democratization, they did voice some criticisms, including the limited access for the opposition to state-controlled media. By contrast, Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry described the election as a violation of international norms, insisting that a legitimate vote could be held only after a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Despite continued high-level discussions in the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group--which was established 10 years ago to facilitate dialogue on a political settlement on Nagorno-Karabakh's status--a resolution of the long-standing dispute remained elusive at year's end. While Yerevan has insisted that Nagorno-Karabakh should be left outside Azeri jurisdiction, Baku has maintained that the territory may be granted broad autonomy while remaining a constituent part of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan also has refused to negotiate with Ghukasian, who has demanded direct representation in the peace process. Few observers expected any major results in 2002 just ahead of presidential elections in Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2003. Both Armenian president Robert Kocharian and Azerbaijani president Heydar Aliyev are seeking reelection and therefore would be unlikely to risk the domestic political consequences of making significant public concessions over the territory before their respective polls.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

A self-declared republic, Nagorno-Karabakh has enjoyed de facto independence from Azerbaijan since 1994 while retaining close political, economic, and military ties with Armenia. Parliamentary elections in 1995 and 2000 were regarded as generally free and fair, as were the 1996 and 1997 presidential votes. However, the elections were considered invalid by most of the international community, which does not recognize Nagorno-Karabakh's independence. Nagorno-Karabakh's electoral law calls for a single-mandate system to be used in parliamentary elections; lawmakers have rejected the opposition's demands for the inclusion of party-based lists.

The government controls much of the broadcast media, and most journalists practice self-censorship, particularly on subjects dealing with policies related to Azerbaijan and the peace process. Some observers maintain that the government used the attempted murder of President Arkady Ghukasian in 2000 as a pretext to intensify attacks against its critics.

With Christian Armenians constituting more than 95 percent of the territory's population, the Armenian Apostolic Church is the predominant religion. Years of conflict have constrained the religious rights of the few Muslims remaining in the region. Freedom of assembly and association is limited, although political parties and unions are allowed to organize.

The judiciary, which is not independent in practice, is influenced by the executive branch and powerful political and clan forces. Former Defense Minister Samvel Babayan alleged that he had been physically assaulted during his interrogation and detention as a suspect in the failed assassination attempt against President Ghukasian in March 2000. The presiding judge in the case announced that the subsequent guilty verdict against Babayan was based on pretrial testimony in which Babayan confessed to the charges, although he later retracted his admission of guilt, claiming that it had been obtained under duress. With Nagorno-Karabakh still technically at war, the territory remains officially under military law.

The majority of those who fled the war continue to live in squalid conditions in refugee camps in Azerbaijan, while international aid organizations are reducing direct assistance to the refugees. One-fifth of Azerbaijan's territory captured during the war remains occupied by Armenia. Sniper attacks and land mine explosions continue to result in casualties each year.

Nagorno-Karabakh's fragile seven-year peace has failed to bring significant improvement to the economy. Large parts of the territory remain devastated by war. Industrial capacity continues to be limited, with high unemployment forcing many residents to leave for neighboring countries in search of work. Widespread corruption, a lack of substantive economic reforms, and the control of most economic activity by powerful elites limit equality of opportunity for most residents.