1998 Scores

Status: Partly Free
Freedom Rating: 5.5
Civil Liberties: 5
Political Rights: 6

Trend Arrow ↓

Azerbaijan receives a downward trend arrow due to unfair presidential elections, a renewed crackdown on the opposition, and corruption.


Haydar Aliev, a former KGB general and Soviet-era politburo member, was re-elected president of Azerbaijan on October 11, 1998. The election was boycotted by leading opposition parties and characterized by international monitors as fraught with irregularities. During the year, leading issues included securing new oil deals with foreign companies, completing a pipeline route, resolving the conflict over the secessionist Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, and narrowing the gulf between a wealthy, corrupt elite and an impoverished citizenry that has not seen the benefits of the country's highly profitable oil and gas exploration.

Persia and the Ottoman Empire competed for Azeri territory in the sixteenth century, with the former gaining control in 1603. The northern sector, ceded to Russia in the early 1800s, briefly joined Armenia and Georgia in the Transcaucasia Federation after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. It proclaimed its independence the following year, but was subdued by the Red Army in 1920. In 1922, it entered the Soviet Union as part of the Transcaucasian Soviet Federal Republic. It became a separate Soviet Socialist republic in 1936. Azerbaijan declared independence from the Soviet Union after a referendum in 1991.

The key political issue in 1998 was the presidential election and indications that some segments of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan were dissatisfied with official corruption and the grooming of President Aliyev's son as a successor. In February, Foreign Minister Hasan Hasanov was forced to resign after an investigation by a special corruption commission found that he had diverted a Turkish loan to finance a luxury hotel and casino complex in Baku. In June, Nizami Suleymanov, the chairman of Yeni Azerbaijan, announced that he would run for president and pledged to introduce reforms and combat corruption.

In March, the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front, Musavat, Liberal, and Democratic parties formed a coalition to ensure that the presidential elections were fair. It announced a boycott, however, after a new election law allowed President Aliyev and the rubber stamp parliament to appoint the Central Election Commission and permitted police and security forces to monitor voting at polling stations. In addition to Sulyemanov, President Aliyev was challenged by Etibar Mamedov, whose pro-government Democratic Party of Independence of Azerbaijan had split in 1997, and four other candidates.

The Central Election Commission announced that President Aliyev received 72 percent of the vote, more than the two-thirds necessary to avoid a runoff election. Mamedov finished second with 11 percent. Western observers reported "serious irregularities."

At year's end, international mediation efforts over control of the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh remained inconclusive. Azerbaijan continued to support a phased approach through which Armenia would return occupied Azeri territory, the blockade of Armenia would be lifted, and refugees would be returned prior to a final decision on the enclave's status.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Azerbaijan's citizens cannot change their government democratically. President Aliyev has imposed a totalitarian regime while building a cult of personality. The 1995 constitution gives the president control over the government, legislature, and judiciary.

While a 1992 media law and the 1995 constitution enshrine the principles of press freedom, in reality the print media in Azerbaijan are subject to harassment, and the state- run electronic media are firmly in the hands of the government and President Aliyev. In August, President Aliyev signed a decree abolishing Glavlit, the main department for protection of state secrets in the press. In June, the Chag daily accused the government of intimidation after its offices were searched, equipment confiscated, and several journalists briefly detained. Several articles in the criminal code limit criticism of government officials. Forty-seven radio and television companies are registered with the government, but only eight are operating. Most private newspapers operate with precarious finances and depend on government-controlled printing and distribution facilities.

Most Azeris are Shiite Muslims. The Russian and Jewish minorities can worship freely. There have been reports of continued persecution of the small Kurdish minority and the Lezhgin people. Most Armenian Christians outside of Nagorno-Karabakh were expelled during ethnic tensions in the early 1990s.

Freedom of assembly and association have been curtailed. Scores of demonstrators were arrested during several rallies in September, but most were subsequently released.

More than 45 parties applied for official registration prior to the 1995 parliamentary vote, but only 32 were recognized by the Ministry of Justice. Since 1996, several parties and opposition organizations have been banned. In March, the Ministry of Justice threatened to take legal action against the opposition Brotherhood, Evolution, and Moderan Turan Party for engaging in "illegal acts and activities."

The largest labor organization is the government-subsidized, post-Communist Azerbaijan Labor Federation. The largest independent union is the oil workers' union, which represents approximately 80 percent of the industry's workers. In August, the Committee for the Protection of Oilmen's Rights charged that foreign oil companies pay local workers less than foreign workers for the same work and deprive local workers of benefits such as sick leave.

The constitution provides for a judicial system of limited independence. A 1997 judicial reform law created regional appellate courts and an appellate Supreme Court. With parliamentary approval, the president appoints Supreme Court and Constitutional Court judges. The judicial system is subject to the influence of executive authorities and is inefficient and corrupt. In July, former prime minister Suret Huseynov, who was extradited from Russia in 1997, was tried for treason for his part in a failed 1994 coup.

The constitution enshrines the right to property and freedom of enterprise and business. Privatization has led to a rise in small businesses, mostly in the retail and service sectors, and a significant segment of urban housing has been privatized. Bureaucratic hurdles and rampant corruption at all levels of government and services are common. Significant parts of the economy remain in the hands of a corrupt nomenklatura, including many individuals from President Aliyev's native Nakichevan region. These factors severely limit equality of opportunity. Most Azeris, particularly refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh, live in privation.

Cultural traditions often impede resolution of social problems and perpetuate discrimination and violence against women.

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