Azerbaijani rights activists are hailing as a rare victory the passage of amendments to a law on non-governmental organizations after a fierce fight with the government over earlier, more restrictive proposed changes. Worries nonetheless persist about the bill's long-term implications for civil liberties within Azerbaijan.
In their original form, the June 30 amendments contained a bevy of provisions that experts feared would give Baku greater control over civil society and in some cases force NGOs to close. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The most controversial amendments included a requirement that NGOs limit their foreign funding to 50 percent. It also prohibited foreigners from creating NGOs and would have created harsh sanctions for non-compliance, including a five-year ban on NGO activity for those found in violation of the law.
Amidst harsh international and domestic criticism, those stipulations were nixed, but the controversy about the amendments continues.
Among the approved provisions sparking concern among civil society activists is a new requirement that NGOs provide a list of their members to the government. Foreign NGOs continue to be singled out in the legislation. Although foreigners may create and lead NGOs, the new amendments require an Azerbaijani citizen to serve as deputy.
The final version of the law also retained a vague provision that foreign NGOs must operate pursuant to a signed agreement with Azerbaijan. Still unclear is what kind of agreement will satisfy this provision.
The new amendments were easily passed in a 93-7 vote and will now go to President Ilham Aliyev to be signed into law.
At a June 30 press conference, Gubad Ibadoglu, a member of the Committee to Protect Civil Society, a coalition of NGOs which opposes the draft law, expressed relief that the original amendments had not passed, but stressed that "we are not satisfied fully with the adopted document."
In the coming weeks, the Committee will draft comments on the new amendments and propose changes in what it terms an effort to bring the law into line with international standards. On June 23, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe cited numerous flaws in the original amendments and inconsistencies with Azerbaijan's international obligations.
Some fear, however, that Azerbaijan may seek to reintroduce the more controversial amendments in the fall and few expect the government will ease its pressure on civil society.
"One of the conclusions we have to draw is that we won and the government is upset with that," said Ilgar Mammadov, a member of the Committee to Protect Civil Society, and co-founder of the Republican Alternative Union, a group that promotes a republican form of government.
"The government has seen the strength of civil society and may decide to crack down on civil society by administrative measures so there is not such a strong and powerful resistance [in the future]," he predicted.
[Mammadov is a board member of the Open Society Institute-Assistance Foundation Azerbaijan. EurasiaNet.org is financed by the Open Society Institute's Central Eurasia Project, but functions separately from the Azerbaijan foundation.]
Ali Hasanov, the influential head of the presidential administration's Policy Analysis and Information Department, however, maintains that respect for civil society criticism prompted the government to withdraw the original amendments. "The initially proposed amendments 'On NGOs' were not directed at restricting civil society," Turan news service reported Hasanov as telling lawmakers on June 30. "But considering the numerous appeals from representatives of NGOs it has been decided to cancel the amendments."
One civil society activist counters that concern about Azerbaijan's international image carried an equally heavy weight with the government.
Rashid Hajili, director of the Media Rights Institute and a prominent civil society leader, noted that "the government understands that [passing the original NGO law] would isolate Azerbaijan from the international community."
The NGO amendment controversy follows a string of measures observers believe are aimed at silencing dissent in Azerbaijan.
Earlier this year, the government terminated licenses for foreign broadcasters such as the British Broadcasting Corporation, Voice of America, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Despite intense international criticism, the radio stations remain off the air. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
A nationwide referendum held in March swept in numerous changes to the country's constitution including a provision that will allow current President Ilham Aliyev to serve for life. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The Swedish Helsinki Commission for Human Rights, in a June 29 appeal to the President of Azerbaijan, criticized the amendments and noted that they must "be seen in context of earlier actions taken by the authorities to create obstacles for human rights defenders, independent journalism and civil society in general."
Jessica Powley Hayden is a freelance reporter based in Baku.