Earlier this month at the Open Government Partnership (OGP) steering committee meeting in Cape Town, members voted to change Azerbaijan’s status in the initiative to "inactive." This was the first time that OGP had taken such action under its "response policy," which it adopted in 2014.
The decision echoed Azerbaijan’s downgrade from compliant to candidate status in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) one year ago. EITI’s international board gave the country 12 months to address its civil society problems in accordance with a corrective action plan. The board will decide Azerbaijan’s fate in EITI at a forthcoming meeting.
Azerbaijan has struggled to maintain good standing in both OGP and EITI due to the government’s restrictions on and treatment of civil society actors. The country is now at a critical juncture, with international observers—and well intentioned change agents within Azerbaijan—wondering if the government will step up to the challenge of opening dialogue and subjecting itself to oversight.
A brief history of oppression
The country’s so-called "enabling environment" for CSOs worsened significantly starting in 2014. Government changes to laws on grants and non-governmental organizations made foreign funding for civil society work all but impossible. Law enforcement bodies started harassing independent NGOs, resulting in arrests, relocations, blocked bank accounts and obstructed activities.
In March 2015, Article 19, Civicus and Publish What You Pay submitted a joint letter to the OGP steering committee, raising concerns about harassment, intimidations and restrictions on independent civil society’s ability to participate to meaningfully participate in the OGP process. In line with the OGP response policy, the criteria and standards sub-committee of OGP then prepared a report, which validated the claims made in the letter. In July 2015, the sub-committee requested that Azerbaijan Government undertake a series of "stage one" actions, while also setting timelines for action. Under this solution, the government of Azerbaijan was asked to:
- submit a new national action plan that involved meaningful consultation with civil society organizations and citizens according to OGP requirements
- accept offers of peer exchange and technical support, and invitations to engage with the OGP steering committee
- improve the operating environment for civil society
The sub-committee gave an initial deadline of three months; the deadlines was subsequently extended in light of ongoing discussions with the government.
In the wake of the 2015 EITI demotion and the OGP joint letter, the government did start taking action.
This past December and January, authorities freed many political imprisoners, among them Leyla Yunus, Intigam Aliyev and Rasul Jafarov. However others, including NRGI advisory council member Ilgar Mammadov, remain incarcerated. And even those freed have not been exonerated—they could be prosecuted again.
There were also improvements related to customs checks, blocked bank accounts and criminal investigations of NGO leaders. Local experts completed an evaluation of the civil society enabling environment, which documented progress and showed that almost all bank accounts had been unfrozen. However, even with access to their money, few NGOs were able to resume project activities because of complicated grant registration processes at the Ministry of Justice. In addition, restrictions remained in place that prohibited civil society organizations from accessing new foreign funding.
Overall, improvements on CSO enabling environment were not systematic or substantial, but rather ad hoc. The release of political imprisoners was conditional; money from unblocked bank accounts could not be used; and legislative acts adopted in 2015 did not simplify or make possible free and unlimited funding of NGO operations.
The government finally submitted a draft national action plan in February. Later in the month, the sub-committee met and reviewed the status of the case. They issued a resolution calling for the "OGP Steering Committee to consider that the appropriate stage 2 action is for the country to be listed as inactive in OGP."
A final national action plan was finally completed on 27 April, just a week prior to the OGP meeting. Concerns remained about the extent to which independent civil society had sufficient input into the process and plan. Very important commitments related to state procurement, state-owned enterprise transparency, public participation, establishing an enabling environment for civil society and government accountability were left out. Critically, neither through the national action plan nor through other mechanisms did Azerbaijan demonstrate concrete, systemic change in the operating environment for civil society organizations. This was a key requirement of the sub-committee for resolution of the original letter of complaint.
Although the OGP steering committee recognized the positive steps taken by government, it made Azerbaijan inactive in the initiative, having determined that civil society in the country still operates under unacceptable restraints.
Next up: an EITI decision
Now inactive in OGP, the country will go through an EITI evaluation in the coming months. Azerbaijan successfully produced timely EITI reports and the latest updates have indicated productive dialogue on the EITI report process at the level of the EITI multi-stakeholder group; many of Azerbaijan EITI’s NGO coalition’s recommendations were taken into account and resulted in improved EITI reporting. But the EITI international board may not consider this enough for EITI progress.
The board will now consider whether Azerbaijan has adequately addressed the prescribed remedial actions related to civic space. OGP’s finding that the environment for civil society in the country remains problematic is an important signal as the EITI considers this issue.
Azerbaijan’s government must take meaningful action
To return active status in OGP, the government of Azerbaijan has a maximum of one year to address the concerns raised and the actions recommended. Azerbaijan will be ineligible to vote in OGP elections and will only be able to attend OGP events as an observer for learning purposes. It will continue to receive steering committee and support unit assistance, including from OGP working groups and multilateral partners, and will be able to participate in peer exchange visits.
According to local experts, Azerbaijan’s inactivity in OGP could have political and economic impacts. Azerbaijan has faced economic challenges as oil prices have cratered, rendering foreign investments and lending even more important. It’s not inconceivable that it’s troubles in OGP and EITI may affect its ability to secure external financial support.
"The case of Azerbaijan’s demotion in OGP and lack of further improvements will complicate the EITI situation," Rovshan Aghayev, a CSO activist from Baku, told me. "EITI and OGP are unique platforms forcing the government to collaborate with civil society. One of the main advantages of these initiatives is that they have international influence mechanisms that can protect local CSOs and activists from government pressure."
"The government has two clear options at present," said Samir Aliyev, the head of the Center For Media and Public Initiatives. "It can meet its commitments and restore its status, or continue the previous rhetoric and totally lose OGP status. I am optimistic about the next 12 months and don’t think things will worsen. I think the government will try to keep good relations with international organizations, restore OGP status and take more positive steps towards enabling the environment for CSOs. The government will maintain dialogue process with local CSOs unless it is delisted. Once it is delisted the government won’t be interested in any positive changes for the CSO environment."
Zohrab Ismayil from the Center of Support to Free Economy said: "OGP’s decision regarding Azerbaijan will change the government’s attitude. The next 12 months is an opportunity for government to take real measures to meet OGP commitments and improve the situation for CSOs. This also means guaranteed dialogue between CSO and government."
International initiatives can confer benefits for both government and civil soceity—to further improve transparency, accountability, good governance and create a space for dialogue at this critical juncture. However, for such potential to be realized, the Azerbaijan government must put in place the necessary policies and systems to ensure that independent civil society can meaningfully engage in multi-stakeholder processes.
Fidan Bagirova is the Eurasia senior officer at the Natural Resource Governance Institute.