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Azerbaijan's Still Incomplete Reforms

(Washington, DC--March 2, 2001) Azerbaijan has achieved many positive legislative changes as it has moved away from totalitarianism. But in many cases, the promise of these reforms has remained unfulfilled, either because officials subvert them or because some widespread assumptions about how to create a freer or more open society have proven to be untrue.

That was the message delivered yesterday at an RFE/RL briefing in Washington by Eldar Zeynalov, the head of the Human Rights Center of Azerbaijan, and Agalar Agashirinov, the co-founder of the Azerbaijan Lawyers Association.

Zeynalov stressed that there had been many positive changes in human rights legislation and practice in his country, but many of the reforms have remained decorative, he said. On the one hand, this is because almost all the changes have been introduced by the authorities from above, rather than from below by individuals and groups in Azerbaijan's still nascent civil society.

On the other hand, Zeynalov suggested, recent events have shown that some earlier expectations about the change to democracy were misplaced. For example, "the abolition of censorship has not stopped the persecution of the media; it has only changed its form." In the past, state officials decreed what could appear; now, economic pressure, including the widespread use of insult laws to impose steep fines on opponents, has much the same effect.

In other comments, Zeynalov said that what he called the Western preference for stability over human rights was especially troubling in the case of Azerbaijan. "Our stability," he said, "is based on a steep pyramid of power" with an aging leader at its head. Unless civil society develops, Zeynalov said, Azerbaijan could find itself in serious difficulties in the near future.

Agashirinov provided an example of the ways in which officials can subvert a superficially inoffensive law. As in many countries, Azerbaijan both guarantees the right of association in its constitution and requires non-governmental associations to register with the state. But Agashirinov's applications to register an independent lawyer's organization, the XXI Century Lawyers Association, have been rejected six times already by justice ministry officials for what he said were blatantly political reasons.

Despite the problems they face, both men held out hope for the future. Zeynalov stressed the importance of Western support for human rights in his country. And Agashirinov said that Baku's adherence to the Council of Europe should offer new avenues to defend the rights of all Azerbaijanis.