Freedom in the World 2006 - Nagorno-Karabakh [Armenia/Azerbaijan]

Political Rights: 5
Civil Liberties: 5
Status: Partly Free
Population: 145,000
GNI/Capita: N/A
Life Expectancy: N/A
Religious Groups: Apostolic (majority), Armenian, other
Ethnic Groups: Armenian [majority], other
Capital: Yerevan


* 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.

The year 2005 saw no major thawing of relations over the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh region. There was, however, increased dialogue between Azerbaijan and Armenia, giving some hope that international efforts to bring about a political resolution to the disputed territory could move forward in the foreseeable future. The ruling Democratic Union Artsakh (ZhAM) captured the most seats in the June parliamentary election.

The Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region, which is largely populated by ethnic Armenians and is located inside the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, was established 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 successive battles and counteroffensives over the next several years between various Armenian, Azerbaijani, and 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 Azerbaijani districts surrounding the enclave. 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 casualties 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. In the territory's June 2000 parliamentary vote, 123 candidates representing five parties competed for the assembly's 33 seats. The ruling Democratic Union Artsakh (ZhAM), which supported 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 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 on August 11, 2002, with 89 percent of the vote. His closest challenger, former Speaker of Parliament Artur Tovmasian, received just 8 percent. Voter turnout was close to 75 percent. Observers from countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, 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 voice some criticisms, 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, Robert Kocharian, and Azerbaijan's president, Heydar Aliyev, poised to seek reelection in 2003 – and the domestic political risk associated with either leader's making significant public concessions over the territory during a campaign year – few observers expected any breakthroughs in the conflict during 2003. An upsurge in shooting incidents along the ceasefire line that summer, which both Armenian and Azerbaijani officials accused the other side of instigating, fueled concerns of a further and more widespread escalation of violence. Nagorno-Karabakh held local elections in August 2004, ignoring calls from the Council of Europe to cancel the balloting. The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry issued a protest at the holding of these elections in the territory, which is internationally recognized as being part of Azerbaijan.

Parliamentary elections were held on June 19, 2005. The opposition criticized the vote, claiming that the authorities used state administrative resources to influence the vote. Azerbaijani officials likewise criticized the election, insisting that any vote in the region would be illegal until the many Azerbaijanis who fled Nagorno-Karabakh were allowed to return. According to results issued by the Central Election Commission in Stepanakert, President Ghukasian's ZhAM received 12 seats. The Free Motherland Party, allied with the DPA, received 10 seats. Another 8 seats went to unaffiliated candidates, who are believed to be loyal to Ghukasian. Only 3 seats were received 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 was established a decade earlier to facilitate dialogue on a political settlement on Nagorno-Karabakh's status – convened a number of confidence-building meetings in 2005 under its auspices in order to continue a dialogue between the principal parties. Kocharian and Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan's current president, met on two separate occasions in 2005 – in May in Warsaw, Poland, and August in Kazan, Russia. There is, however, considerable negotiating distance between these parties, and prospects for a comprehensive resolution of the dispute remained remote at year's end.

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. The elections, however, were considered invalid by the international community, which does not recognize Nagorno-Karabakh's independence. According to an International Crisis Group report issued in September 2005, all Nagorno-Karabakh permanent residents, including IDPs from Azerbaijan, as well as inhabitants of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast and parts of the occupied districts, are allowed to vote. International observers have observed considerable obstacles to IDPs voting for candidates of their choice.

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 dealing with policies related to Azerbaijan and the peace process. Under-resourced public television broadcasts only several hours a day. In 2004, Demo, the first independent nongovernmental publication, appeared in Nagorno-Karabakh. Printed in Armenian and Russian and provided with support by a British NGO, Demo, however, reaches a very limited audience. 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, which is the territory's predominant religion, is the only faith 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 is 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. In 2003, the republic's authorities announced the replacement of the death penalty with life imprisonment.

The majority of Azeris who fled the fighting continue to live in dreadful conditions in IDP camps in Azerbaijan. International aid organizations, meanwhile, are reducing direct assistance to the IDPs. Land mine explosions continue to result in casualties each year, with children and teenagers among the most vulnerable groups. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, at least 50,000 anti-personnel mines were laid during the war, although 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.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.