Meet the New Boss in Azerbaijan

There are reasons‘s Special December issueThis year marks the 30th anniversary the fall of the Soviet Union. We are exploring the legacy of this evil empire around the world and trying to ensure that it does not continue. Not forgetting the terrible effects of communism is not easy.

Azerbaijan was the first Muslim-majority country to have a parliamentary government, equal political rights for women and a two year independence period before being absorbed into the Soviet Union. Azerbaijan was initially seen as returning to liberal democracy after it broke off from the Soviet Union.

The promising beginning was also quickly ended. A military coup, in 1993, installed Heydar Aliyev (the former leader of Soviet Azerbaijan) as President. The country has never had fair and free elections since. Today, Azerbaijan—which is essentially an autocracy controlled by Ilham Aliyev, Heydar’s son, and his extended family—retains the forms of constitutional government without the substance.

Freedom House has rated Azerbaijan “not free” with two points out of forty for political rights, and eight points out of sixty for civil rights. Its 2021 survey gave the country two points out of 40 for freedom of speech. According to the report, corruption is rampant and formal political resistance has suffered years of persecution. The report notes that authorities in recent years have intensified their crackdown on civil freedoms, making it difficult for activists or independent expression to take place.

International observers have noted that the opposition candidate must be granted permission by government to host rallies and appear on TV. Furthermore, political interference hinders court investigations into electoral irregularities. Aliyev was elected to a fourth term after he received 86% of the votes. Main opposition parties boycotted election as they refused to accept a flawed and corrupt process.

Azerbaijani journalist face frequent harassment. They are sometimes arrested and imprisoned on untrumped up charges. Websites that it considers to be a danger to national security or public order are blocked unilaterally by the government. The COVID-19 pandemic was another reason for mass censorship.

The state tightly controls religious activity, and is particularly hostile to independent Muslim groups and Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is not uncommon for telephone conversations and internet communications to be monitored without warrant. Only gatherings conforming to “public order” and other morals are allowed. Travel restrictions also apply.

Freedom House describes Azerbaijani’s judiciary to be “corrupted and subservient” to the executive. Due process guarantees such as the right to counsel, protections from arbitrary arrest or torture and the right of counsel are regularly violated, particularly in cases that involve activists and journalists.

This is inconsistent with Azerbaijan’s constitution. It shows that promises made on paper do not mean anything if they aren’t enforced by the necessary institutions. Azerbaijan is missing these institutions. It has replaced one set dictators by another.