Azerbaijan | Page 23 | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2004

2004 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Azerbaijan's status declined from Partly Free to Not Free due to the holding of seriously flawed presidential elections in October and a subsequent government crackdown on opposition supporters.


The October 15, 2003 presidential election marked the end of an era in Azerbaijan, as the ailing President Heydar Aliev, who had long dominated the country's political life, withdrew from the race less than two weeks before the vote. His son, Ilham, who was widely regarded as his father's preferred successor, was voted head of state in an election marred by systematic and widespread fraud. The results of the poll sparked public protests and a violent police crackdown, followed by the detention of hundreds of opposition supporters.

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, 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 (YAP) 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 a widely expected outcome, the ruling YAP 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 (OSCE) and the Council of Europe cited mass electoral fraud, including 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.

An 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. One particularly controversial amendment stipulates that the prime minister becomes president if the head of state resigns or is incapacitated. Critics charged that the aging and ailing Aliev would appoint his son, Ilham, prime minister in order to engineer a transfer of power. Opposition groups and the OSCE charged that the referendum was marred by fraud, including ballot-box stuffing, intimidation of election monitors and officials, and inflated voter-turnout figures of nearly 90 percent.

Throughout 2002, a number of demonstrations were held to demand various political and economic changes, including Aliev's resignation. 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 a decade ago. The government blamed the riots on radical Islamic groups, although residents insisted that the authorities used these accusations as a pretext to repress dissent. In April 2003, 15 individuals arrested in Nardaran in 2002 were found guilty of fomenting the unrest and given prison terms or suspended sentences; during the year, the four defendants who had been imprisoned were pardoned and released.

In the months preceding the October 15, 2003 presidential elections, the political atmosphere was marked by uncertainty over Aliev's declining health and its ramifications for his reelection bid. The 80-year old Aliev, who had a history of heart trouble, collapsed during a live television broadcast in April and left Azerbaijan that summer to receive medical treatment in Turkey and the United States. At the same time, government officials continued to deny that his health problems were serious, and he remained the official YAP candidate for the presidential election.

Heydar Aliev's son, Ilham, was officially nominated as a presidential candidate in June by a group of residents from the autonomous exclave of Nakhichevan, the home territory of the Aliev family. He was appointed prime minister in August, but took a leave of absence from his post just days after being appointed so that he could legally run for president (the election code prohibits a serving prime minister from running for president). On October 2, the elder Aliev withdrew his candidacy in favor of his son's.

Final figures released by the Central Election Commission showed Ilham Aliev defeating seven challengers with nearly 77 percent of the vote. His closest rival, opposition Musavat Party leader Isa Gambar, received only 14 percent of the vote, while six other candidates received less than 4 percent each. According to OSCE observers, the election was marred by widespread fraud and failed to meet international standards for democratic elections. Among the irregularities noted were partisan election commissions favoring the governing party and its supporters; the failure of authorities to adequately implement a new electoral code; the use of flawed procedures to deny registration to several potential candidates; serious flaws in the counting and tabulation of votes; limitations on election observation by domestic civic groups; and biased media coverage favoring Ilham Aliev.

Meanwhile, the authorities' obstruction of many opposition rallies and the beating and arrest of hundreds of opposition activists overshadowed much of the campaign and election period. After violent clashes between security forces and demonstrators in Baku on October 15 and 16, in which at least one person was reportedly killed and several hundred were injured, the authorities unleashed a crackdown against the opposition in which more than 600 people were detained. Among those arrested were opposition party leaders and supporters who had not been directly involved in the preceding days' violence, along with many election officials who refused to certify fraudulent election results.

In a region of the world wracked by years of instability, the ramifications of Ilham's victory are being watched closely by both domestic and international observers. A post-election challenge for Ilham, who is described as lacking his father's commanding presence, will be consolidating his power base among the ruling elite. At the same time, Aliev is expected to continue many of his father's economic policies, including supporting the lucrative Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline, a key energy project for the West.

A lasting settlement for the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, over which Armenia and Azerbaijan fought in the early 1990s, remained elusive during the year. The region, which is formally part of Azerbaijan, is now predominantly ethnic Armenian and effectively under Armenian control. Several violations of the 1994 ceasefire occurred during the summer of 2003, although they did not erupt into full-scale fighting.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of Azerbaijan cannot change their government democratically. The country's constitution provides for a strong presidency, and in practice parliament exercises little independence from the executive branch. The 1993, 1998, and 2003 presidential and 1995 and 2000 parliamentary elections were considered neither free nor fair by international observers. Amendments to the constitution, adopted in a 2002 referendum, included 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.

More than 40 political parties are registered. However, most opposition parties are weak and are based on personalities rather than political platforms, and they have been unable to unite in lasting alliances to challenge the government. Hundreds of opposition activists and leaders were detained by police in the weeks surrounding the October 2003 presidential election.

Corruption is endemic throughout Azerbaijani society, with government officials rarely held accountable for engaging in corrupt practices. Transparency International's 2003 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Azerbaijan 124 out of 133 countries surveyed.

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 harassed and prosecuted, and self-censorship is common. State-owned newspapers and broadcast media reflect the position of the government. Independent and opposition papers struggle financially in the face of low circulation, limited advertising revenues, and heavy fines or imprisonment of their staff. In March, 400 delegates from some 170 print media outlets gathered to establish a press council to address ongoing pressures faced by the country's media. However, an alliance of six other publications boycotted the meeting over concerns that the selection of members to the council had not been conducted transparently. Libel is a criminal offense. In early 2003, Elmar Huseynov, editor-in-chief of the independent Monitor magazine, was convicted of libel in connection with an article he wrote about the prevalence of corruption in Azerbaijan, including comparisons of the government with the Sicilian mafia. Huseynov has been targeted with legal harassment for several years over his criticisms of government policies.

During the run-up and aftermath of the 2003 presidential election, journalists suffered increased intimidation and attacks, including physical assaults while reporting on political opposition rallies. Other restrictions on the nonstate media included editorial interference and lawsuits for criticizing government officials. Rauf Arifoglu, editor of the opposition Yeni Musavat newspaper, was arrested for allegedly organizing public demonstrations on October 16 and sentenced to three months in prison; he remained in detention as of November 30.

The government restricts some religious activities of members of "nontraditional" minority religious groups through burdensome registration requirements and interference in the import and distribution of printed religious materials. Islam, Russian Orthodoxy, and Judaism are considered traditional religions, and their members can generally worship freely.

Some faculty members and students reportedly were pressured to support governing-party candidates in the 2003 presidential election and were instructed to attend pro-government events, according to an OSCE report. A number of teachers were allegedly targeted for reduced work hours or dismissal in connection with their membership in opposition political parties, according to the 2003 U.S. State Department human rights report. Security services are believed to monitor some telephone conversations and Internet traffic, particularly of prominent political and business figures, according to the U.S. State Department report.

The government frequently restricts freedom of assembly, particularly for political parties critical of the government. Although a number of political demonstrations took place without incident during the weeks surrounding the 2003 presidential election, local authorities frequently obstructed opposition rallies and beat and arbitrarily arrested many participants of unauthorized protests. Police assaulted dozens of party leaders, journalists, and others at a peaceful campaign event on September 21 in Baku. On the eve of the election, security forces attacked peaceful protestors who had gathered in front of the headquarters of the opposition Musavat Party. The following day, several thousand people gathered at an unsanctioned rally at Azadliq Square in Baku to protest preliminary election figures. After some of the participants began beating security officers and damaging government buildings, police and military troops used excessive force to disperse the demonstrators, killing at least one person and injuring several hundred others. As of November 30, the government had not arrested any law enforcement officials or announced the findings of an investigation in connection with the violent disturbances.

Registration with the Ministry of Justice is required for a nongovernmental organization (NGO) to function as a legal entity, and the registration process has been described as cumbersome and nontransparent. Amendments adopted in 2003 to NGO laws further complicated requirements for registering grants. In 2003, several leading human rights defenders, including Eldar Zeynalov, the chair of the Human Rights Center of Azerbaijan, were subjected to harassment and intimidation believed to be state-sanctioned. Although the law permits the formation of trade unions and the right to strike, the majority of trade unions remain closely affiliated with the government, and most major industries are state-owned. There is no effective collective bargaining system between unions and management representatives.

The judiciary is subservient to the executive branch and is corrupt and inefficient. Arbitrary arrest and detention are common, particularly for members of the political opposition. Detainees are often held for long periods before trial, and their access to lawyers is restricted. Police abuse of suspects during arrest and interrogation reportedly remains commonplace, with torture sometimes used to extract confessions. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, law enforcement officials tortured many of those detained in the post-October 2003 election crackdowns against the political opposition. The group also documented many more cases of police beatings during the 2003 presidential campaign than during the 2000 parliamentary election campaign. Local human rights groups maintain that more than 100 political prisoners are held in detention throughout the country. Prison conditions are reportedly harsh and even life-threatening, with many inmates suffering from overcrowding and inadequate medical care.

Some members of ethnic minority groups, including the small Armenian population, have complained of discrimination in areas including education, employment, and housing. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azeris who fled the war in NagornoKarabakh have been prevented by the Armenian government from returning to their homes and remain in Azerbaijan, often living in appalling conditions.

Significant parts of the economy are in the hands of a corrupt elite, which severely limits equality of opportunity. Supporters of the political opposition face job discrimination, demotion, or dismissal. In 2003, Human Rights Watch documented more than 100 cases in which opposition supporters or their relatives were fired from their jobs because of their opposition activities. Traditional societal norms and poor economic conditions restrict women's professional roles; there are 12 women in the country