Nagorno-Karabakh * | Freedom House

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Nagorno-Karabakh *

Nagorno-Karabakh *

Freedom in the World 2007

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A referendum held in December 2006 on a draft constitution for Nagorno-Karabakh elicited criticism from the international community, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which said it would not recognize the vote. Meanwhile, mediators acting under the aegis of the OSCE’s Minsk Group renewed efforts to resolve the long-standing dispute over the territory. Armenian President Robert Kocharian met with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on several occasions during the year, but no meaningful progress was made by year’s end.

Nagorno-Karabakh, populated largely by ethnic Armenians, was established as an autonomous region inside Soviet Azerbaijan in 1923. In February 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh’s regional legislature adopted a resolution calling for union with Armenia. The announcement triggered a violent chain of events that led to warfare over the next several years between Armenian, Azerbaijani, and local Nagorno-Karabakh forces.

At its inaugural session in January 1992, Nagorno-Karabakh’s new legislature adopted a declaration of independence, which was not recognized by the international community. By the time a Russian-brokered ceasefire was signed in May 1994, Karabakh Armenians, assisted by Armenia, had captured essentially the entire territory, as well as seven adjacent Azerbaijani districts. Virtually all ethnic Azeris had fled or been forced out of the enclave and its surrounding areas, and the fighting had resulted in thousands of deaths and an estimated one million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).

In December 1994, the head of Nagorno-Karabakh’s state defense committee, Robert Kocharian, was selected by the territory’s Parliament for the newly established post of president. Parliamentary elections 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 to replace Kocharian, who had been named prime minister of Armenia in March of that year. Kocharian was elected Armenia’s president in 1998. 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 supported Ghukasian, won a slim victory, taking 13 seats. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation–Dashnaktsutiun won 9 seats, the Armenakan Party captured one seat, and formally independent candidates, most of whom supported 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. Others, however, 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 in August 2002 with 89 percent of the vote. His closest challenger, former National Assembly Speaker Artur Tovmasian, received just 8 percent. Voter turnout was close to 75 percent. Observers from countries including the United States, Britain, and France reported no serious violations. While a number of domestic and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) concluded that the elections marked a further step in Nagorno-Karabakh’s democratization, they did note some flaws, including the limited access for the opposition to state-controlled media. 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.

With both Armenia’s president, Kocharian, and Azerbaijan’s president, Heydar Aliyev, poised to seek reelection in 2003, few observers expected either leader to make the politically risky concessions needed for any breakthroughs in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute that year. An upsurge in shooting incidents along the ceasefire line during the summer, which both Armenian and Azerbaijani officials accused the other side of instigating, fueled concerns of a further and more widespread escalation of violence. In the fall of 2003, Aliyev was succeeded by his son, Ilham Aliyev.

Nagorno-Karabakh held local elections in August 2004, ignoring calls from the Council of Europe to cancel the balloting. The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry again issued a protest. Parliamentary elections were held in June 2005, and the opposition criticized the vote, claiming that the authorities used state administrative resources to influence the outcome. Azerbaijani officials likewise criticized the election, insisting that any vote in the region would be illegal until the many Azerbaijanis who had fled Nagorno-Karabakh were allowed to return. According to results issued by the Central Election Commission in Stepanakert, Ghukasian’s ZhAM received 12 seats. The Free Motherland Party, allied with the Democratic Party of Artsakh, received 10 seats. Another eight seats went to unaffiliated candidates who were believed to be loyal to Ghukasian. Only three seats were won by candidates opposed to the president. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) does not recognize the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and therefore did not monitor the election.

The OSCE’s Minsk Group—which had been established a decade earlier to facilitate negotiations on a political settlement of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status—hosted a number of confidence-building meetings in 2005 in order to continue a dialogue between the principal parties. Kocharian and Aliyev met on two separate occasions in 2005, and a number of meetings took place over the course of 2006 at both the ministerial and presidential levels. However, considerable distance remained between the two parties’ positions, and at year’s end a compromise on the dispute was not within view.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Nagorno-Karabakh has enjoyed de facto independence from Azerbaijan since 1994 and retains 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. Parliamentary elections, which the opposition claimed were marred by fraud and other irregularities, were held in June 2005. All of the elections, however, were considered invalid by the international community, which does not recognize Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence. Nagorno-Karabakh’s president, who is directly elected for up to two five-year terms, appoints the prime minister. The unicameral National Assembly’s 33 members are elected from single-mandate districts for five-year terms.

The main political parties in Nagorno-Karabakh are the Democratic Artsakh Party, the Free Homeland, Party, Movement 88, and the ARF-D.

On December 10, 2006, a referendum on a draft constitution in Nagorno-Karabakh elicited criticism from the international community, including the OSCE, which said it would not recognize the vote. The OSCE chairman-in-office, Karel De Gucht, said on December 11 that “such a referendum is counter-productive to the ongoing conflict settlement process.” Official reports indicated that 98 percent of those voting supported the referendum, which sought to declare the disputed territory an independent and sovereign state.

The territory is believed to suffer from extensive corruption. Nagorno-Karabakh was not listed separately in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The territory of Nagorno-Karabakh officially remains under martial law, which imposes restrictions on civil liberties, including media censorship and the banning of public demonstrations. However, the authorities maintain that these provisions have not been enforced since 1995, a year after the ceasefire was signed.

The government controls many of the territory’s broadcast media outlets, and most journalists practice self-censorship, particularly on subjects related to Azerbaijan and the peace process. Underfunded public television broadcasts only several hours a day. Internet access in the territory is limited.

The registration of religious groups is required under Nagorno-Karabakh’s 1997 law on religion. The Armenian Apostolic Church, to which most residents belong, is the only religious organization registered with the territory. According to Forum 18, a religious-freedom watchdog group based in Norway, members of various minority faiths, including Pentecostals, Adventists, Baptists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, have faced restrictions on their activities.

Freedom of assembly and association are limited, although trade 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.

The majority of Azeris who fled the fighting continue to live in poor conditions in IDP camps in Azerbaijan. International aid organizations, meanwhile, are reducing direct assistance to the IDPs. Land-mine explosions continue to cause deaths and injuries each year, with children and teenagers among the most vulnerable groups. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, at least 50,000 antipersonnel mines were laid during the war, but in many cases, records of minefield locations were never created or were lost.

Nagorno-Karabakh’s fragile peace has failed to bring significant improvement to the economy, particularly in the countryside, and pensioners are particularly severely affected. Widespread corruption, a lack of substantive economic reforms, and the control of major economic activity by powerful elites limit equality of opportunity for most residents.

Explanatory Note: 

The designation of two countries is intended to reflect the international consensus on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as the de facto authority over the territory.