Freedom House: Democracy declines across the Caucasus

13 April 2018
(Freedom House)

Democracy declines in the Caucasus with ‘half-hearted reforms’ in Georgia, improper investigation of high-level corruption in Armenia, ‘deeply entrenched’ authoritarianism in Azerbaijan, and a crackdown on queer people in the North Caucasus, according to American right group Freedom House’s Nations in Transit 2018 report.

‘Half-hearted democratic reforms’ in Georgia

Georgia’s democracy score declined since last year amidst a period of slight setbacks for Georgia’s democratic development, the report said. It said the Georgian authorities had found it difficult to ‘strike a balance between the contradictory goals of advancing democratisation on the one hand and consolidating power on the other’. The country is classified as a ‘transitional government or hybrid regime’.

‘The trend of half-hearted democratic reforms that started after the 2012 elections has stalled in recent years. Georgia’s democratic transformation will remain incomplete so long as the priorities of the country’s ruling elites are split between democratisation and staying in power’, it reads.

The report said the ruling party Georgian Dream put party interests ahead of the need for democratic reforms in 2017, though the authorities never crossed any red lines and pulled back in most cases when they encountered strong domestic and international resistance.

‘However, in the future, [Georgian Dream] will face the dilemma of conflicting interests that is characteristic of most semi-democratic regimes: Genuine consolidated democracy would ultimately endanger its grip on power’, the report reads.

Georgia’s ‘Independent Media’ rating also declined ‘due to apparently politicised editorial policies at Georgian Public Broadcasting, continuing pressure on the critical television channel Rustavi 2, and ownership consolidation among pro-government private television stations’.

It said it is unclear whether Georgia’s media landscape will recover in 2018.

[Read more about the Georgian Public Broadcaster on OC Media: Calls for resignation of head of Georgian Public Broadcaster]

[Read more about the Rustavi 2 case: European Court of Human Rights ‘indefinitely suspends’ Georgian Supreme Court ruling on Rustavi 2]

The report also claimed the country’s judicial framework and independence had declined, due to the ‘illegal deportation of dissident Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli to Azerbaijan and a high-profile case in which a foreign company faced punitive fines after a deeply flawed judicial process’.

[Read more about tobacco firm court-case on OC Media: Controversy after Tbilisi Court fines businessman for ‘slandering judge’]

Georgia remained the least corrupt country in the post-Soviet world, excluding the Baltic states, the report said emphasising its strong anti-corruption legislation, ‘which is contained in the criminal code and offers a robust legal basis to fight corruption at all levels’. However, it said, ‘as in previous years, enforcement of the legislation was often problematic in 2017, mostly due to a lack of independence and efficiency in the judiciary, the public prosecutor’s office, and law enforcement agencies’.

The report highlighted the alleged influence of ex-PM Bidzina Ivanishvili on the current government.

He ‘continued to exert significant influence on the political process after stepping down, making informal governance one of the key features of GD’s rule’, the report said. It elaborated that ‘neither Ivanishvili himself nor the Georgian government have made a secret of the fact that Ivanishvili has played a “consulting” role’.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia ‘deteriorated further’

The report said the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia ‘remained unchanged, and in some aspects deteriorated further’.

‘Russia continued the process of fencing off the de facto borders of the two territories, which limits people-to-people contacts and damages the likelihood of a resolution to the conflicts based on reconciliation and other confidence-building measures. Skepticism among the majority of residents of the occupied territories toward the idea of reintegration, combined with Russia’s attempts to make reconciliation as difficult as possible, left the prospects for such a resolution looking rather bleak’, it reads.

‘Business as usual’ in Armenia

Armenia’s democracy score also declined in 2017 and the country was classified as a ‘semi-consolidated authoritarian regime’. The report noted the transition from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary republic approved by a referendum in December 2015, which was ‘heavily flawed, with observers noting abuse of administrative resources, fraudulent voting, alteration of votes, and voter intimidation — staples of Armenia’s electoral process in recent years’. It said parliamentary elections held in April 2017 confirmed the continuation of this electoral standard when the Republican party swept the vote amid widespread reports of major violations.

It said that besides electoral events, the political arena was ‘largely business as usual’. Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan’s cabinet, which took office with promises of major socioeconomic improvements and an anticorruption drive, ‘did not make major advances in 2017’, it said.

The corruption rating also declined for the country, because of the solidification of systemic corruption as a consequence of the Republican party’s consolidation of executive, legislative, and judicial power, and due to accumulated evidence of government unwillingness to root out high-level abuse of office, the report said. It said high-level corruption that came to light through investigative journalism in 2016 did not lead to proper criminal investigations in 2017.

As for the media, the report said journalists continued to experience harassment, interference, and small-scale violence.

‘Fact-checking platform and its leader faced 30 simultaneous defamation lawsuits after publishing investigative reporting about the [Republican party’s] abuse of administrative resources. Separately, before the parliamentary elections, digital rights watchdogs reported coordinated efforts to distort Armenia’s online information landscape’, it reads.

The report said questions remain about whether Serzh Sargsyan will pursue formal public office or influence politics from behind the scenes as leader of the Republican party.

[Read on OC Media: Opposition light flares in Armenian parliament against Serzh Sargsyan]

‘His choice, and the filling of the prime minister’s seat if he chooses not to take it, will have fundamental ramifications for institutions at the national level, and will also serve as a strong indication of ruling elites’ true intentions regarding the constitutional changes’, the report said.

It also pointed to Armenia’s foreign policy, saying this year will be a testing ground for the country ‘particularly for its ability to balance closer cooperation with the EU with its heavy dependence on Russia’.

Azerbaijan’s crackdown on queer people

Azerbaijan’s democracy score remained the same and left the country classified as a ‘consolidated authoritarian regime’, with the report commenting that authoritarianism ‘became more deeply entrenched than ever in 2017, as the state apparatuses took a number of unprecedented steps to limit freedom of expression, silence critics at home and abroad, and crack down on minority communities for political gain’.

It said the ruling elite responded to a persistently weak economy by further suppressing government critics, fighting behind-the-scenes battles over shrinking state resources, and emptying state coffers on international lobbying efforts rather than undertaking long-needed governmental or economic reforms.

It said president Ilham Aliyev moved to further consolidate his family’s dynastic control of the state, naming his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, as First Vice President and placing her first in the line of succession in February. It reads that the appointment seems to signal that the Aliyevs’ hold on the economy and polity has strengthened considerably in recent years.

‘The consequences of this personalisation of the state are already being felt: independent media outlets suspected that the March large-scale attacks on their websites, which eventually led to a complete blockade, were instigated by Aliyeva’s displeasure at their coverage of her appointment’, it reads.

‘After forcing essentially all independent media outlets out of the country in recent years, the government began blocking access to their websites. [...] However, the government’s blockade of these websites has severely limited the ability of Azerbaijanis to access reliable information’, the report reads.

The report said that Azerbaijan has become less responsive to international pressure and less concerned with maintaining any pretence of democratic freedoms.

The report said there had been a deterioration of human rights, noting that in September, Baku police systematically arrested at least 84 (and as many as several hundred) queer people, primarily in a series of late-night raids.

[Read on OC Media: Arrests, threats, and humiliation in Azerbaijan’s crackdown on queer people]

‘The detainees were tortured, subjected to forced medical examinations, and pressured to inform on others in the LGBT community, or on wealthy or powerful individuals with whom they had had sexual relations. The government variously argued that it had merely conducted a round-up of sex workers at the request of Baku residents, or that the purpose of the arrests was to quarantine disease-carrying people — who all, incidentally, happened to be members of the LGBT community’, it said.

Chechnya’s queer crackdown in the North Caucasus

The report also noted the crackdown on queer people in the North Caucasus. It said Russia’s ‘Judicial Framework and Independence’ rating declined due to ‘the complete absence of due process for members of the LGBT community in Chechnya who experienced brutal attacks endorsed by regional officials during the year’.

It noted the disappearance of Chechen singer Zelimkhan Bakayev. Even though Russian authorities officially denied any crackdown in Chechnya, by autumn, there was credible evidence of at least 31 deaths of Chechen men who were suspected of being gay, the report said.

‘Dozens of gay men left Chechnya to seek asylum in other Russian regions or abroad’, the report said.

The report also pointed to judicial challenges the state faced in the follow-up of the queer persecutions.

‘Victims were denied their rights to protection, due process, and the presumption of innocence throughout the Russian court system. The families of disappeared people in Chechnya were even prohibited from making complaints to the human rights commissioner, Tatyana Moskalkova, when she visited Grozny in September’, the report said.

The report also emphasised the replacement of the governor of Daghestan in October.

‘Putin’s choice for acting governor was Vladimir Vasiliyev, the head of the United Russia faction in the State Duma and a former police general. Vasiliyev’s appointment marked the first time in the post-Soviet history of Russia that Dagestan was headed by a person not originally from the republic’, it said.

It said Daghestan is a complicated multiethnic entity, marred by insurgency and local corruption.

‘In the past, Moscow has usually tried to rely on locals to govern the restive republic. Vasiliyev’s appointment appeared to signal the Kremlin’s desire to change current conditions and make the region more amenable to central rule’, it said.

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