In 2011 Eurasia witnessed several watershed events, which indicated deep-seated public dissatisfaction and a growing capacity for sustained public protest. This new activism galvanized civil society throughout the region and NED partners sought to support the growing popular demand for accountability, transparency, and adherence to human rights norms.
In Russia, the December 2011 State Duma elections represented a decisive moment for civil society. Despite a near monopoly on media, the abuse of administrative resources, and massive electoral fraud, United Russia received less than 50 percent of the vote. Two rallies in December protesting election fraud unified broad segments of Russian civil society with an emerging protest movement which seeks free elections and the release of political prisoners. Although unable to achieve these goals in the short term, Russian civil society has experienced a rebirth of activism. Consequently, the paramount priorities for Russian civil society and NED grantees were the protection of the freedoms of assembly and association, as well as monitoring and reporting on the elections. NED grantees, including the Levada Center and the political research of NGO “Panorama,” focused on voter education, monitoring, information dissemination, and public opinion polling.
In the Caucasus, 2011 was also marked by increased political activity as Armenia and Georgia began preparations for 2012 parliamentary elections, while Azerbaijan experienced a wave of repression. In Armenia, opposition protests led to talks between the government and the main opposition bloc, which in turn yielded important concessions, including permission to hold rallies in symbolic locations and an amnesty of all political prisoners. NED has increased support for civic activism on issues of public concern, including the deaths of Armenian soldiers during peacetime, as documented by NED-grantee Journalists’ Club Asparez, and the release of political prisoners, driven by the activism of Shahkhatun Women’s Democracy Promotion NGO.
In Georgia, civic organizations and political parties began preparations for the 2012 parliamentary elections, which will be a historical crossroads for Georgia’s democracy. NED’s partners in Georgia focus on supporting democratic political processes and instilling democratic values. The International Society for Fair Election and Democracy (ISFED) conducted a national audit of the voter lists, an area which was particularly problematic during the 2003 elections. Media projects including televised talk shows produced by Studio Re, radio talk shows from NGO Abkhazia Info, and investigative reporting produced by Studio Monitor provided independent, objective information to Georgian society.
The most severe crackdown on activists in the region occurred in Azerbaijan, where youth groups, academics, political activists and NGOs became the targets of government repression. The government also accelerated its efforts to renovate downtown Baku, involving the demolition of several whole neighborhoods, dislocating hundreds of people without adequate compensation. Those buildings demolished included the offices of long-time NED grantee, the Society of Women of Azerbaijan for Peace and Democracy in the Caucasus. Another grantee, Public Forum “For Azerbaijan”, became the target of a smear campaign in government-backed media provoked by its success in recruiting highly-regarded members of the intelligentsia to campaign for increased liberalism in the country. In this context, NED assisted international advocacy efforts, including the Sing for Democracy campaign aimed at raising awareness of Azerbaijan’s democratic shortcomings in the run-up to the May 2012 Eurovision contest, hosted in Baku.
NED has also emphasized support for forums where the increasingly small circle of democratic activists can gather to discuss important issues and introduce young people to democratic ideas and values. Such programs include the Center for National and International Studies, which brings together Azerbaijani and Turkish activists to draw parallels between the political cultures in the two countries, and the FAR Center, where experienced civic activists provide advice and resources for youth groups.
Meanwhile, in Central Asia, the Kyrgyz Republic presented the most promise for democratic development in the near term. Since the April 2010 overthrow of the Bakiev regime, the country has successfully reformed its constitutional system and held three competitive national elections. In December 2011, Interim President Otunbaeva became the first Central Asian leader to stand down at the end of her term. However, the Kyrgyz Republic still needs to address ongoing ethnic tensions and mistreatment of national minorities, lack of due process of the law, corruption, and lack of judicial independence.
Elsewhere in Central Asia, governments remained largely authoritarian throughout 2011. In Kazakhstan, the presidential and parliamentary elections, which were criticized for lacking real political competition, ensured that President Nazarbayev and the ruling Nur-Otan party would remain in power. Space for civic and political participation continued to shrink as independent NGOs, media organizations, trade unions and political activists were subjected to increasing pressure by the government. In a particularly stark example, the police violently broke up a protest by striking oil workers in Zhanaozen, killing at least 16 unarmed protestors. To address these challenges, NED programs included monitoring and reporting on freedom of assembly and defending human rights activists and independent media.
In Tajikistan, the government continued its assault on religious freedom by shutting down mosques where imams have criticized state policies, exerting pressure on madrasahs to adopt a government-approved curriculum; and seeking to marginalize the Islamic Renaissance Party. NED programs attempted to counter these moves by supporting Asia Plus’s new website aimed at providing objective news and analysis on religious issues. Independent media, however, was another target of the government’s oppressive policies. NANSMIT, a NED grantee and leading advocate for media freedom, offered legal assistance to persecuted journalists throughout the year, including to the director of “Fourth Power,” a NED grantee in Khujand who was sentenced to prison for his journalism work.
Meanwhile, the government in Turkmenistan continued to restrict access to alternative sources of information, and the country’s human rights situation continued to deteriorate. NED’s programs were aimed at redressing some of the most egregious human rights violations by providing legal aid to citizens, monitoring human rights in prison colonies, and providing alternative news and information to audiences inside and outside of the country.
Finally, Uzbekistan offered little hope for any improvement in the government’s respect for political, civil, and human rights. NED’s programs focused on educating citizens about their basic human rights and providing free legal aid to the most vulnerable segments of society.