Rebecca Vincent: Azerbaijan prepares for election after locking up critics

Photo: Aziz Karimov

Photo: Aziz Karimov

Azerbaijani citizens are set to go to the polls this Sunday to vote for their representatives in 125 parliamentary districts, but this process will be far from democratic. This country has not held a democratic election for more than 20 years, and Azerbaijan’s parliament, the Milli Mejlis, is little more than a rubber-stamping body. These elections also take place against a backdrop of unprecedented repression as well as recent criticism from international bodies.

The leadership of the OSCE parliamentary assembly has recently cancelled a planned observation mission to the upcoming parliamentary election. And the OSCE parliamentary assembly’s democracy and human rights chairperson, Isabel Santos, said this week: “The Azerbaijani government’s crackdown on independent and critical voices has a particularly damaging effect ahead of the country’s 1 November parliamentary elections.”

“On the eve of parliamentary elections, when independent voices are crucial for having an informed debate about the country’s direction, Azerbaijani citizens will especially suffer from the silence their government has imposed,” Santos said.

A recent European Parliament statement said it expressed its “serious concern as to whether the conditions are in place for a free and fair vote on 1 November 2015, given that leaders of opposition parties have been imprisoned, media and journalists are not allowed to operate freely and without intimidation, and a climate of fear is prevalent”.

In addition to the OSCE parliamentary assembly, the OSCE’s office for democratic institutions and human rights as well as the European Parliament have also taken the unprecedented step of cancelling their election-monitoring missions to Azerbaijan.

There are now dozens of political prisoners in Azerbaijan, including prominent journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders, politicians, youth activists, and others who dared to express opinions critical of the ruling regime. Young journalist Rasim Aliyev, Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety chairman, was tragically murdered in August, and there appears to be no hope of  justice in his case. Independent media continue to be ruthlessly targeted, in particular online television station Meydan TV, whose staff and their relatives have been facing extensive pressure ranging from threats to detention.

As detailed in a new report from the Sport for Rights campaign group, No Holds Barred: Azerbaijan’s Human Rights Crackdown in Aliyev’s Third Term, this brutal crackdown started with the re-election of President Ilham Aliyev to a third term  in October 2013. In the two years that followed, the Aliyev regime aggressively targeted its critics, starting with those who told the truth about that fraudulent election, then moving on to the human rights defenders working to defend the rights of those political prisoners.

Although the election’s results may be a foregone conclusion, they do have political significance for Azerbaijan’s international relations. As the Sport for Rights’ report details, during Aliyev’s third term Azerbaijan’s relations with key international bodies have sharply deteriorated – in particular, the OSCE and the European Parliament.

This move was a serious blow to the Aliyev regime, which needs international observers to lend an air of legitimacy to what can only be an illegitimate vote.

The Aliyev regime should think carefully about how to proceed, before this damage to its international relations becomes irreparable. Something the Azerbaijani leadership does not seem to have realised is that the affirmation it is seeking from these international bodies – and indeed, the good public relations it seeks – cannot be bought. But real steps towards democratic reform would, in turn, generate more positive coverage of the country, not to mention genuinely improve its standing with international bodies.

Whilst it is too late to salvage Sunday’s parliamentary elections, it is not too late for the ruling Azerbaijani regime to right the serious wrongs being perpetrated in the country and to repair its relations with international bodies. Immediately and unconditionally releasing political prisoners would be an excellent – and very welcome – start.

This article was posted on 30 October 2015 at

Tens of thousands march against Putin in Moscow


One month ahead of presidential polls, tens of thousands of people marched through the centre of Moscow today to protest Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s expected return to the Kremlin for a third presidential term.
The stop-Putin movement staged its third major rally since disputed 4 December parliamentary polls. Protesters rallied together and accepted a set of demands read aloud by organisers during the rally. Opposition leaders demanded new parliamentary elections, the release of political prisoners, the dismissal of the head of the Central Election Committee, as well as the registration of Grigory Yavlinsky as a presidential candidate. Yavlinksy, the founder of the Yabloko opposition party, was recently refused registration in the race by the Central Election Committee.

Despite the freezing temperatures turnout was higher than expected. Organisers estimated 120,000 attended, but police put that number at 36,000. The march and rally from Kaluzhskaya to Bolotnaya Square today was the largest protest to date, organisers vowed to hold another demonstration on 26 February if the Kremlin fails to meet their demands.


Today’s protest brought together the diverse elements of the ant-government movement, four big columns were formed by protesters representing the leftists, liberals, nationalists and civil activists. Smaller columns were formed to represent smaller groups, including religious and sexual minority groups. Protesters seeking peaceful change held white balloons to signify unity. Bright and creative posters were held up during the protest, with messages like “Russia without Putin,” “Putin you’re fired,” “Put in out” and “We’re ruled by vegetables.”
Putin’s supporters have dismissed the historically large rallies, claiming that participants are “financed by the West to destabilise the situation in Russia.” Vladimir Markin, member of Putin’s United People’s Front and spokesperson for the Russian Investigative Committee dismissed video evidence of fraud during the 4 December election, claiming that it was falsified, financed, and spread by the United States.

Anti-Putin rallies spread outside of the capital city, with similar rallies held across Russia and even in cities in 17 other countries, including London, Madrid, Sydney, and New York. Smaller anti-Putin rallies were held by individuals who felt that they could not march under the same banner as communists and nationalists.


A parallel rally in support of Putin was held at Poklonnaya Hill in Moscow, it attempted to link the loose stop-Putin coalition to the anti-government Orange Revolution that took place in Ukraine seven years ago, attendees were warned of an “orange threat from USA.” There have been allegations that participation in the rally was not voluntary, claims that many participants were employees of government-funded institutions, such as post offices and city councils, and that they were told that they would lose their jobs if they did not take part. Police estimated 138,000 participants, eyewitnesses put the figure much lower.
Putin speaking at a press conference in the Ural Mountains region said that the number of Muscovites who turned out in support was a  reflection of his popularity not just the product of “administrative resources“. Although he did acknowledge that such resources may have been used to mobilise his supporters.

Meanwhile bloggers, rights activists, opposition members and journalists are gearing up to monitor the upcoming presidential elections as fears of vote-rigging rise.


Blogger threatened with libel case over election law violation claim

Popular Russian blogger Oleg Kozyrev has been threatened with a defamation lawsuit by Moscow Region Election Committee for filing a complaint on alleged election law violations.

“Clearly this is an example of pressure against bloggers who succeeded on election law violations reporting,” Kozyrev told Index. “This may be regarded as a part of the Central Election Committee policy which is likely to take vengeance on bloggers by initiating show trials”, he concluded.

Two months ago Kozyrev filed a complaint to the Central Election Committee in the time leading up to Russia’s parliamentary elections on 4 December. He complained that the posters used by Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party were far too similar to those used by the committee to remind citizens to vote.

The blogger said that it was likely that the posters could confuse voters by leading them to believe that the state supported one party — United Russia. According to Kozyrev, this could compromise the impartiality of the election commission, and place political parties on different footing, which is against the law. Kozyrev used Russian election statutes to support his allegations, and asked that the Central Election Committee take down the confusing posters, and investigate whether or not United Russia also violated the law with their campaign materials.

Moscow mayor and secretary of the local chapter of United Russia, Sergey Sobyanin, slammed Kozyrev’s complaint, claiming that the resemblance between the posters did not  violate the law. Sobyanin told Itogi magazine two weeks before the election that there was no use in “stretching the truth” and that when talking about United Russia in Moscow, they “imply that the party and city superiors are in fact, the same unit.”

After the elections, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) filed a report reiterating the concerns of activists, stating that the parliamentary elections were “marked by the convergence of the State and the governing party.”

In late December Oleg Kozyrev received two replies to his concerns—one from Moscow Election Committee, the other from Moscow Region Committee. Both committees refuted his claims, and said that the United Russia posters did not violate the law. Moscow Region Committee head Irek Vildanov added that Kozyrev’s complaints had “no proper proof, do not meet reality and are slanderous, undermining the Committee’s reputation.” The blogger’s complaint was then forwarded to the local prosecution office, and the Ministry of Interior department as well as Investigative committee are both seeking an investigation of Kozyrev for slander.

Kozyrev remains optimistic, as he thinks that Vildanov’s attempt to prosecute him will not be pursued, as prosecution of citizens for their complaints is against the law in Russia. The State Duma also amended the Criminal Code to  decriminalise defamation. Still, he is concerned, as bloggers who actively monitored the recent parliamentary elections have been threatened with prosecution. As Russian general prosecutor Yuri Chaika said in January, the administrative punishment for slander “is still quite sensible financially”. On his blog, Kozyrev wrote that such threats are merely “the authorities’ attempt not only to punish bloggers for their successful coverage of election fraud, but also to smooth out the information field on the eve of presidential elections.”

Putin censors campaign website as opposition critics debate future

Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin has launched a website dedicated to his run in the forthcoming presidential elections on 4 March. Minutes after the site went live on 12 January, comments in the site’s “suggestions” section called on him not to run in the presidential campaign. 98 per cent of visitors voted in favour of the comments, but the suggestions soon disappeared from the website. Bloggers quickly published screenshots, expressing concerns over censorship and noted that the website’s moderators left only comments wishing Putin success, and best wishes.

Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov denied the censorship allegation. “The website froze for a few hours due to the huge amount of visitors,” he told RIA Novosti news agency. Eventually, after numerous blog posts and news items, the comments calling for Putin not to run were restored.

Putin did not comment on the issue and is unlikely to do so in the near future, as he has announced he won’t be taking part in pre-election debates.

Meanwhile his potential opponents in the presidential campaign are facing hard times.

The leader of The Other Russia opposition movement Eduard Limonov has filed a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights claiming Russia’s Central Election Committee has  refused to register him as a candidate. He says the police stopped his supporters from entering the building where its meeting was to be held. Under Russian electoral law, a person who wants to run in a presidential campaign has to hold meeting with at least 500 people who sign a paper in support of the candidate, which is then passed to the Central Election Committee. Liminov’s group of initiators eventually had to hold a meeting in a bus, and the Committee refused to recognise its results.

The leaders of two political parties that did not enter the State Duma as they din’t get over the threshold of seven per cent required by the law — economist Grigory Yavlinsky of “Yabloko” and oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov of “Pravoe Delo” — had to collect the two million signatures the law demands of them to be registered. Prokhorov claims  his team has accomplished the task, though a number of experts remain skeptical about the accuracy of their work. Yavlinsky is still collecting the signatures, his team has complained about the artificial obstacles Russian electoral election law creates. For example, the number of signatories from each Russian region is limited to 50,000 people. In Moscow and St Petersburg it is relatively easy to find supporters, but regional work is harder.

Candidates are given 25 days  to accurately collect two million signatures. They will have to hand them in to the Central Election Committee on 18 January.

Meanwhile, Sergei Mironov of A Just Russia and Gennady Zyuganov of the Communist Party  have been asked to  become “transitional presidents” by many participants of the December rallies. The Left Front opposition movement sent a proposal to them saying should they win the elections they should carry out a comprehensive election law reform, hold new parliamentary elections in just one year and then step down. Mironov has accepted the proposal, while Zyuganov said he was ready to implement the election reform and re-run the parliamentary elections but did not like the idea of stepping down.

A similar proposal was made to all candidates by notable Russian political scientist Andrey Piontkovsky. In an article he suggested that  candidates who oppose Putin should “sign a contract with voters” promising to become a transitional president. This would involve carrying out radical reforms of election legislation, police and judiciary system; limiting the president’s power through passing amendments to the constitution; holding new parliamentary elections; and then within one to one-and-a-half years stepping down to participate in early presidential elections, which would be held according to new democratic laws. The candidates are yet to respond to him.

“The core goal for opposition is not to let Putin run the country again”, says Piontkovsky, who views transitional presidency as the way to achieve that. The “contract” between presidential candidates and civil society is to be “signed” on 4 February, on a third protest action for fair elections, which is expected to be the biggest yet.