Azerbaijan has enacted a new law that greatly restricts the already miniscule space for opposition political activity.
But opposition activists say that the effect is repressive all the same, and that the process of softening some of the draft’s most draconian provisions was a charade organized by the ruling party and its satellites in parliament.
During lawmakers' deliberations, the requirement that a party have 200 founding members residing continuously in Azerbaijan for the past 20 years was scrapped; now the minimum is 50 Azerbaijani citizen founding members with no residency requirement.
The minimum number of members was reduced from 10,000 to 5,000, and the amount of time parties have to comply with the law from its enactment was increased from 90 to 180 days.
Another controversial provision removed from the final text was the automatic deregistration of parties that fail to contest two consecutive elections.
Some other criticized requirements were kept, however. For instance, parties must submit to the relevant authorities a complete list of their members, including their national ID numbers, addresses, and phone numbers. Once a party is deregistered by the state, it is prohibited from operating "in any way," including holding meetings and making financial transactions. Also, a party can receive donations or membership fees only in the national currency and by bank transfer, which makes donations from abroad difficult.
The relative liberalization of the bill did not impress critics of the Azerbaijani government.
The deputy chair of the Popular Front Party, Seymur Hazi, told Eurasianet that, while his party meets the technical requirements, it sees the law as a means for the government to further restrict the political landscape. "In particular, the requirement to go through a state registry is a tool for the government to destroy opposition parties, especially the Popular Front, because it will be able to use the list of members to put pressure on people," he said.
Hazi added that when the bill was first announced, the Popular Front proposed an alternate bill, which was a slightly altered version of the previous political parties law that had been on the books since 1992, during the short-lived presidency of the Popular Front's Abulfaz Elchibey. "We believed that the previous law was good enough, and our suggestions were to reduce the requirements, not to increase or strengthen them," he said.
Arif Hajili, the head of another prominent opposition party, Musavat, believes that the new law is one more step toward codifying a one-party system. "Now the government is trying to legalize the restriction and deregistration of parties, refusal to register them and similar issues," he told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service, adding that the law could also be a means to later arrest the heads of parties.
The law has, in a sense, already claimed its first victim. Azerbaijan Democracy and Prosperity Movement's chair, economist Gubad Ibadoglu, announced on January 13 that he was abandoning his group’s efforts to register as a party. The movement declared its intention to register and established relevant party structures in October 2021 but was rejected each of the four times it applied.
Ibadoglu wrote on Facebook that his movement would continue to fight the law.
Azerbaijan has been ruled since 1993 by the New Azerbaijan Party (Azerbaijani acronym: YAP), co-founded by Heydar Aliyev, the former president and father of the current president. YAP now holds 70 of the 125 seats in parliament. Seven seats are vacant and nearly all the remaining 48 are divided among independents and other parties that could all be described, to varying degrees, as pro-Aliyev.
Azerbaijan's political parties, including the fiercest opposition members, supported the country's war against Armenia in 2020 over Karabakh, and the victory provided the government a platform to co-opt parties, including all of the ones with seats in parliament.
The Popular Front and Musavat, mentioned above, do not currently have any representation in the legislature.
From the start, MPs of the various parliamentary factions all backed the bill on political parties in principle, and only debated its details. It was ultimately approved by a vote of 102-1.
The chair of the parliament's Human Rights Committee, Zahid Oruj, said in a hearing in October last year that the new law was drafted arising from "the need to form a winning political system" and to "protect national unity in peacetime just like in wartime."
It was asserted at the hearing that more than 250 suggestions from 47 parties were considered following the presentation of the bill's initial draft.
Another non-YAP member of parliament, Razi Nurullayev, chair of National Front Party, chided opposition groups for not supporting the law, which he said would "make real parties more visible."
"Let those who are only good at speaking think about party-building and attracting new members," he said in a parliamentary meeting in December.
"A party that cannot gather members is a force with fallen leaves experiencing the autumn of its life."
Najmin Kamilsoy, co-founder of Agora Analytical Collective, thinks that the authorities planned all along to soften the bill. "This was useful to the government in two ways. First, to create an image for both the local and international community that a draft law is open to public debate and that proposals for change are taken into account. Second, to further discredit some parliamentary parties in public opinion," he wrote on Agora's website.
"By canceling these clauses in the new version of the law, the government had the opportunity to present itself as a more progressive force."
In an interview with Eurasianet, Kamilsoy said that the law could ultimately lead to "undesirable consequences" for the country's leadership, "because the formation of political actors outside of regulatory control will be a reality directly caused by the law."
"This could take the form of 'movements' being established rather than 'parties,' and those movements can participate [indirectly] in elections through independent candidates. As a result, the law is not in the interest of the ruling elite, society, or other political parties."
Heydar Isayev is a journalist from Baku.