It was a near miss that activists say was too close for comfort.
The Azerbaijani parliament on June 30 adopted a law that had been expected to impose harsh restrictions on nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs. But in a last-minute twist, the law was stripped of its harshest amendments.
Those amendments would have banned NGOs from receiving more than half their funding from abroad, required all nongovernmental organizations to register with the state, and sharply restricted the activities of foreign NGOs.
The proposed restrictions were grimly reminiscent of past crackdowns on NGOs in Russia, Belarus, and Uzbekistan.
Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch: "There are other things to bear in mind."
To the minds of many activists, they were also the natural extension of the Azerbaijani government's drive to eliminate all possible outlets for dissent -- beginning with the political opposition and moving on to free media and civil society.
The sudden decision to water down the NGO law, therefore, was met with cautious welcome.
"Assuming that these restrictive elements from the draft have indeed been removed from the version that was adopted, then it's a big success," says Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch.
"There are other things, though, to bear in mind. First, that this very restrictive draft was only one way, one element, that the government has used to crack down on NGOs, journalists, and other people and organizations in Azerbaijan who strive to have more transparency and to hold the government accountable," Denber adds.
The weeks leading up to the parliament session were accompanied by rising alarm among rights groups inside and outside Azerbaijan.
The bill was expected to receive an easy ride through Azerbaijan's parliament, the Milli Mejlis. The office of President Ilham Aliyev submitted the proposals to parliament on June 8; by the next day, they had already received preliminary approval from the parliament's legal policy committee.
What Azerbaijani officials might not have been expected was the wave of public opposition that followed.
Azerbaijani NGO activists quickly formed a coalition to oppose the draft law. HRW and other international organizations spoke out against the proposal.
U.S. Ambassador Anne Derse: "Contravene international standards..."
Anne Derse, the U.S. ambassador to Baku -- whose country this year earmarked $10 million in assistance for rule-of-law and anticorruption programs in Azerbaijan -- warned the legislation would "contravene international standards, result in further restrictions on freedom of speech and association, and put development of civil society in Azerbaijan at risk."
Opponents of the bill scored a minor victory on June 19, when parliament, facing mounting public opposition and street demonstrations, postponed a scheduled vote until June 30. When that vote came, the most stringent limitations had vanished from the bill.
"For the first time since I don't remember when -- well, at least the previous 10 years -- this is the first time the government was faced with very well-organized civil protests," says Erkin Gadirli, a lawyer who helped organize two protests against the amendments. "And what made the government more or less willing to accept this milestone is that the protests weren't directly aimed at their political positions."
Holding Their Applause
Police prevented activists from staging a protest against the amendments in front of the Azerbaijan parliament in late June.
Activists, however, are largely holding their applause. The softening of the NGO law, so far, is the exception for Azerbaijan rather than the rule.
Aliyev, who easily won a second term in disputed elections last year before pushing through constitutional referendums lifting term limits, has earned notoreity for seeking to secure his grip on his energy-rich country.
The rights watchdog Freedom House continues to list Azerbaijan among its "consolidated authoritarian regimes" of the postcommunist sphere. Opposition politicians and journalists are regularly harassed and beaten; at its worst, Azerbaijan was holding eight journalists behind bars.
Nathalie Losekoot is the senior Europe program officer for Article 19, an international human rights NGO specializing in free-speech issues that worked on the campaign against the proposed amendments. While she welcomes the decision by parliament to pare away the worst of the NGO law, she says the lawmakers' early willingness to ignore the concerns of NGO workers themselves set an alarming precedent that could easily be repeated.
"This step by parliament is to a certain extent positive, because they didn't adopt the most restrictive provisions that were envisaged," Losekoot says.
"But at the same time, it's both the process and, actually, the possibility that something like this could happen again -- and again, that there would be no consultation, and no inclusive decision making. That's very, very worrying."