A Contradiction Between Civil Liberties and Democracy in Azerbaijan

Many conversations about civil liberties focus on the freedom of expression and belief, associational and organizational rights, rule of law, personal autonomy and individual rights. According to Freedom House, these civil liberties play an essential role in measuring the robustness of democracies worldwide. CRRC data from the 2012 Caucasus Barometer (CB) shows a disjoint between perceptions of democracy and civil liberties in Azerbaijan. Specifically, the data suggest that in Azerbaijan, which is categorized as a Not-Free country according to the Freedom House 2012 rankings, people perceive that their country is either a full democracy or one with minor problems more than the other two South Caucasus countries. This blog reveals the ambiguity of the relationship between civil liberties and perceptions of democracy in Azerbaijan and provides comparisons with Georgia and Armenia.

Democracy means something different to different people. The perception of democracy is different in three countries of the South Caucasus. For instance, even though the Economist Intelligence Unit rankings show Azerbaijan as an authoritarian regime, Azerbaijanis themselves perceive their country to be more democratic than citizens in Armenia and Georgia. Despite the fact that Azerbaijanis recognize a number of weaknesses of civil liberties in their country (e.g., an unfair court system and controlled freedom of expression), the 2012 CB shows that about half of the population assess Azerbaijan as a full democracy or democracy with minor problems.

Less than a half of Azerbaijanis identified the most recent national election (2010 parliamentary election) as fair, compared to 54% of Armenians (2012 parliamentary election) and 87% of Georgians (2012 parliamentary election). Azerbaijanis are also more skeptical about their participation in elections and its importance for citizens although voting in fair elections is an essential feature of a functioning democracy. Two thirds (68%) of Azerbaijanis say they would participate in a presidential election the following Sunday, and approximately one fourth (24%) doubt that voting is important for citizens. While these results focus specifically on electoral process, they are also major indicators of civil liberties.

Freedom of assembly and expression are additional indicators of democracy. Over half of Armenians (66%) and Georgians (55%) agreed that people should take part in protest actions against the government to show the government that the people are in charge, whereas only 29% of Azerbaijanis said the same. There is a similar tendency regarding freedom of expression. Just under half of the Azerbaijan population (47%) think people have the right to openly say what they think (in comparison with two thirds in other two countries). Additionally, 19% of Azerbaijanis agreed that it is important for a good citizen to be critical towards the government, compared to more than half of Georgian and Armenian populations (55% and 53% respectively).

CB data also suggest a strong feeling of inequality before the law and government in all three countries. Only half of the populations in Azerbaijan and Georgia believe that people are treated fairly by the government, whereas one fifth of Armenians agreed. Additionally, the results are even more controversial regarding the legal system; only around one tenth (approximately 13%) of each population believes their court system treats everyone equally. This means that laws, policies, and practices do not guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population. However, one third of Azerbaijanis trust in their court system although the majority does not believe that it is equal for everyone.

Despite problems with certain civil liberties in the South Caucasus, many people still believe that their country is a democracy or a democracy with minor problems. This is most recognizable in Azerbaijan where many people distrust court system, question the fairness of elections, and remain concerned about the right to criticize the government or participate in protest actions. Moreover, the Economist Intelligence Unit named Azerbaijan a strong authoritarian regime although half of the population believes it is represented by a democratic government or a democracy with minor problems. This seeming contradiction in perceptions of democracy as measured by subjective and objective measures would be an excellent topic for further research.
If you want to explore more about these questions, visit the 2012 Caucasus Barometer dataset