The Crackdown on Independent Voices in Azerbaijan

January 12, 2015
12:00 pm - 02:00 pm

About the Event


Altay Goyushov
Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow, National Endowment for Democracy
Professor of Turkic History, Baku State University

Kenan Aliyev
Director, RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service

Audrey Altstadt
Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Professor of History, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Catherine Cosman
Senior Policy Analyst, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

Thomas O. Melia (invited)
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
United States Department of State

With comments by:

Miriam Lanskoy
Director of Russia and Eurasia Programs, National Endowment for Democracy

Moderated by:

Christopher Walker
Executive Director, International Forum for Democratic Studies

The current crackdown on independent voices in Azerbaijan is unprecedented. Although the country has long held a poor record on human rights, the precipitous decline in recent months has halted the work of Azerbaijan’s brave and resilient civil society. Arrests, detentions, and media smear campaigns against independent activists have become a regular occurrence, and now have reached the country’s most prominent journalists and human rights defenders. This harsh rhetoric and the larger crackdown on civil society set a dangerous precedent and are reverberating throughout the region. Azerbaijan’s deepening repression is being watched carefully by other regimes in the neighborhood that are beginning to implement similarly repressive measures in their own countries.

There is more than one motivation behind this crackdown, which is a response to domestic and international factors. There were several instances of grass roots protests over social issues in the winter of 2013 that demonstrated considerable popular frustration with corruption and social inequality. In the presidential election in the fall of 2013 the opposition united behind a single candidate demonstrating a degree of organization and cohesion among opposition forces that had not existed in the past. The crackdown against civil society started as a response to these factors but grew in intensity over the course of 2014. The anti-corruption revolution in Ukraine has contributed to the Azerbaijani government’s continued sense of insecurity and the growth of Russian propaganda and influence in the region provides legitimation for Azerbaijan’s crackdown. Although Azerbaijan continues to work closely with some European institutions, especially the Council of Europe, international institutions have largely proven unwilling or unable to hold Azerbaijan to its democratic commitments. Calls for sanctions against Azerbaijan from intergovernmental organizations, civil society organizations, and prominent individuals are mounting as Azerbaijan fails to fulfill its international commitments. In this panel, Altay Goyushov, Kenan Aliyev, Audrey Altstadt, Catherine Cosman, Thomas Melia, and Miriam Lanskoy examined the domestic and international dimensions of this crackdown, as well as the implications it will have for the future of Azerbaijan, and the region.

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About the Speakers

Audrey Altstadt is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is also currently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Kennan Institute, where she is working on a project entitled “Why Unblooms the Hope: Frustrated Democracy in Post-Soviet Azerbaijan.” She is the author of dozens of articles on Azerbaijan’s history, politics, and culture, and of the books The Azerbaijani Turks: Power and Identity Under Russian Rule (1992) and Culture Wars in Soviet Azerbaijan, 1920-1940 (forthcoming).

Kenan Aliyev is the director of RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2004, Aliyev worked in Washington, DC as a broadcaster for Voice of America and was also a regular contributor for BBC World Service. Aliyev served as a Baku-based reporter for RFE/RL’s Russian Service and for the local Azadliq newspaper before he immigrated to the US in 1997.

Catherine Cosman is a senior policy analyst at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, where her areas of responsibility include the countries of the former Soviet Union, East and Central Europe, and Western Europe. She previously served on the staff of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Human Rights Watch, the Free Trade Union Institute, and RFE/RL.

Altay Goyushov is professor of Turkic history at Baku State University. He is currently a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, where he is working on a project entitled “Secularism and Religion in Azerbaijan: Lessons from the First Azerbaijani Republic of 1918–1920.” He is also one of the leaders of the “Republican Alternative” (“REAL”) movement, which promotes liberal democratic concepts and values, and a frequent commentator on local and international media on issues relating to religion, history, and civil society in Azerbaijan. He has lectured at the Baku-based Free Thought University and has held prestigious fellowships and visiting professorships in Italy, France, and the United States.

Miriam Lanskoy is the director of Russia and Eurasia programs at the National Endowment for Democracy. She has published articles in the Journal of Democracy, The SAIS Review of International Affairs, and The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs and has appeared on the PBS Newshour to discuss developments in the region. She has also testified in Congress. Her book, The Chechen Struggle: Independence Won and Lost, co-authored with Ilyas Akhmadov was published in 2010.

Thomas O. Melia is Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL). He is responsible for DRL’s work in Europe, including Russia and the South Caucasus, and the countries of the Middle East and North Africa region. In addition to serving as Head of U.S. Delegation to several meetings of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Melia was the U.S. co-chair of the Civil Society Working Group in the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission. Mr. Melia came to DRL in 2010 from Freedom House where he was Deputy Executive Director for five years. Earlier, Mr. Melia held senior posts at the National Democratic Institute including, from 1998 to 2001, Vice President for Programs. From 1999 to 2010, he taught at Georgetown University and The John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.