Dr Leila Alieva, President of the Center for National and International Studies (CNIS) in Baku, Azerbaijan, spoke to CIVICUS recently about the deteriorating civil society environment in her country and what international civil society can do to assist colleagues in Azerbaijan. Dr Alieva has published extensively on issues of security, conflict and politics in Central Asia, and has long years of experience as a civil society activist.
The environment for civil society in Azerbaijan has progressively deteriorated over the past few months. Can you tell us a little about the course of events?
The environment for civil society in Azerbaijan has worsened, particularly after the adoption of the amendment to the Law on NGOs, which requires every NGO to be registered with the Ministry of Justice. At this point, the NGOs that are complying with the new registration requirements have not received confirmation of registration, making them susceptible to threats. The authorities in Azerbaijan are known for delaying NGO registration and also de-registering organisations, particularly those seeking to promote and advance democratic freedoms. The Institute for Peace and Democracy has been waiting for the approval of their NGO registration since 1995, and CNIS received their registration after three years, but only when pressure was imposed by the Council of Europe.
The situation in the autonomous republic of Nakchivan is particularly grave as journalists and civil society organisations (CSOs) have been under constant watch by authorities. Mlahat Nasibova, the head of the Democracy and NGOs Development Resources Center, has received multiple threats from authorities for her objective coverage on the violation of democratic freedoms. Authorities have threatened to shut down organisations and have also contacted donors asking them to cut off financial support.
Currently, CSOs and opposition parties are finding their freedom of expression and assembly to be severely restricted throughout Azerbaijan. In previous years, to run events, NGOs simply had to send a letter to the local executive informing them of their activities, but this year authorities are requiring NGOs to obtain written permission from both local executives and the Presidential administration. In June 2011, local authorities in the city of Shaki prevented CNIS from holding a conference on women’s rights by threatening the organisation that agreed to provide the venue. Restrictions on freedom of assembly were first applied to outdoor gatherings like public meetings and rallies and have since been extended to meetings held indoors at public organisations. Further, authorities have been cutting power supplies at venues where CSOs and opposition parties have planned events.
Human rights defenders and lawyers in Azerbaijan have also been under attack. Recently the Baku City Police Department sent an appeal to the Bar Association requesting they halt the legal activities of Khalid Bagirov, a human rights lawyer who is currently fighting for the release of human rights defender Vidadi Iskandarli. Another human rights lawyer, Elchin Namazov, has been banned from practising law for defending human rights activists, and authorities have appealed for his expulsion from the Bar Association.
Why do you think the government is cracking down on civil society now?
I think the government is cracking down on CSOs and severely restricting activities and democratic freedoms because they feel that independent organisations are a threat to governmental control. The social uprisings and revolutions throughout the Middle East and North Africa have shown the power of civil society and the Azerbaijani authorities want to silence civil society in an effort to maintain control of power.
What do you see as the major impediments or stumbling blocks for an enabling environment for civil society in the country?
I see three major impediments to establishing an enabling environment:
First, there is pervasive absence of political will and democratic values. The government sees CSOs as a threat to sovereignty and are doing whatever they can to restrict the voice of civil society in an effort to maintain absolute power over the people.
Second, there is restricted funding domestically which creates economic uncertainty for CSOs. Until CSOs can operate as independent organisations, free from arbitrary, harsh government regulations, civic activism will not be sustainable.
Third, international relations are politicised and often work at cross purposes. Conflicting government agendas and political alliances have resulted in inconsistent support from Western countries. The international community has been contradictory in promoting democracy in Azerbaijan, and much of this has to do with the energy agenda and security cooperation.
What can international civil society do to support colleagues in Azerbaijan?
We need the international community to bring attention to the restrictions civil society is facing in Azerbaijan. Civil society in this country needs both political and financial support and we need international civil society to pressure their governments to condemn the repressive behaviour of the Azerbaijani authorities. Civil society in Azerbaijan is committed to promoting and protecting democratic freedoms, but with current restrictions and constant repression from the government, we cannot do this alone. We need international civil society to stand in solidarity with CSOs in Azerbaijan and help bring our plight to the international spotlight.
28 February 2012