Freedom in the World
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The year 2004 saw President Ilham Aliyev, who ascended to the presidency in late 2003, attempt to put his mark on Azerbaijani politics and consolidate his power base among the country's ruling elite. However, Aliyev's rule did not reflect any significant change in governance or the adoption of notable political reforms. Meanwhile, no credible investigation of the violent police crackdown against opposition protestors following the 2003 presidential election had been conducted by year's end.
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 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 Aliyev, in his place. In the October 1993 presidential elections, Aliyev 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 Aliyev's Yeni Azerbaijan Party (YAP) won the most seats. In October 1998, Aliyev was chosen president with more than 70 percent of the vote in an election marred by serious irregularities.
In November 2000, the ruling YAP captured the majority of seats in the 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 become president if the head of state resigns or is incapacitated. Critics charged that the aging and ailing Aliyev 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 public demonstrations demanded various political and economic changes, including Aliyev'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 earlier. 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 election, the political environment was marked by uncertainty over Aliyev's declining health and its implications for his reelection bid. The elder Aliyev, who had a history of heart trouble, collapsed during a live television broadcast in April and left Azerbaijan that summer to receive medical treatment abroad. 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. In June, Aliyev's son, Ilham, was officially nominated as a presidential candidate, and the elder Aliev withdrew his candidacy in favor of his son's on October 2.
Final figures election results released by the Central Election Commission showed Ilham Aliyev 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. Meanwhile, during 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.
Heydar Aliyev, who had long dominated the country's political life, died on December 12, 2003. Throughout 2004, Ilham attempted to put his stamp on Azerbaijani politics and consolidate his position among the country's ruling elite, but his rule did not reflect any significant change in governance. The level of official control of key institutions remained high, while the political opposition, which was weak and splintered, provided little serious challenge to the country's leadership. This political landscape thus offers scant prospect that Aliyev will face meaningful competition before the parliamentary election scheduled to be held in 2005. The absence of observable reform over the last year raises the question of whether the country will be reoriented in a more open, democratic direction under Aliyev's leadership, as was hoped for by many in advance of his taking the reigns of power.
In the fall of 2004, stiff prison sentences were handed down to a number of opposition leaders who were arrested during the aftermath of the 2003 presidential poll. As of November 30, there still had not been a credible investigation of the violence surrounding the election.
A lasting settlement for the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, over which Armenia and Azerbaijan fought in the early 1990s, did not materialize during the year. The region, which is formally part of Azerbaijan, is now predominantly ethnically Armenian and effectively under Armenian control.
Citizens of Azerbaijan are not able to 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. The repressive posture of the authorities continued throughout 2004.
Corruption is deeply entrenched throughout society, with government officials rarely held accountable for engaging in corrupt practices. Azerbaijan was ranked 140 out of 146 countries surveyed in the 2004 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.
While Azerbaijan's 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. Libel is a criminal offense.
During the run-up to and aftermath of the 2003 presidential election, journalists suffered increased intimidation. Rauf Arifoglu, editor of the opposition Yeni Musavat newspaper, was arrested for allegedly organizing public demonstrations following the October 2003 elections and was given a five-year prison sentence in November 2004. Under the pressure of $160,000 in fines applied against it in the aftermath of the 2003 elections, Yeni Musavat was forced to suspend publication in November 2004. Other restrictions on the nonstate media included editorial interference and lawsuits for criticizing government officials. In 2004, the authorities exerted considerable pressure on what remained of the independent print media, including the publications Zerkalo and Ekho. According to the U.S. Department of State 2004 human rights report, the Government required Internet Service Providers to have licenses and formal agreements with the Ministry of Communications and Information Technologies. At the end of 2004, there were 21 licensed providers.
The government restricts some religious activities of members of "nontraditional" minority religious groups through burdensome registration requirements and interference in the importation and distribution of printed religious materials. Islam, Russian Orthodoxy, and Judaism are considered traditional religions, and their members can generally worship freely. The Juma Mosque community, which was the object of an eviction by the Azerbaijani authorities in June, challenged the court-ordered eviction at the European Court of Human Rights. The Juma Mosque community has sought to function independently, rather than as part of the state-approved Caucasian Muslim Board.
The government generally does not restrict academic freedom, and several tenured professors are active in opposition parties, according to the 2003 U.S. State Department human rights report, released in 2004. However, some faculty and students have experienced political pressure; after the October 2003 election, some professors and teachers said they were dismissed because of their membership in opposition parties, the State Department report said.
The government often restricts freedom of assembly, especially for political parties critical of the government. 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, presenting an obstacle that continued into 2004. There are some 1,600 NGOs registered in Azerbaijan, but only 200 or so of them work actively. 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.
The judiciary, corrupt and inefficient, is subservient to the executive branch. 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. Prison conditions are reportedly severe, 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 Nagorno-Karabakh have been prevented by the Armenian government from returning to their homes and remain in Azerbaijan, often living in dreadful 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.
Traditional societal norms and poor economic conditions restrict women's professional roles. Domestic violence is a problem, and there are no laws regarding spousal abuse. In 2004, Azerbaijan adopted a new national program to combat human trafficking. According to the U.S. State Department's annual report on human trafficking, issued in 2004, Azerbaijan is both a country of origin and a transit point for the trafficking of women for prostitution.