While the Soviet Union might have collapsed over two decades ago, in many of the post-Soviet states, the system by which majority of these countries are ruled is often reminiscent of the purges carried out under Stalin; where political repression; crackdown on the free press and limited space for freedom of association are still prevalent. Not surprisingly as a result, there have been no signs of meaningful democratic transition process especially when the issues at stake are rights and freedoms. The on-going struggle of opposition groups and independent media outlets in the face of authoritarian regimes in many of these countries has become an all too common trend used often to describe the status of present day struggles in post-Soviet republics such as Belarus, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan or elsewhere. In many of these countries, governments continue to promote their agendas while attacking the regimes’ opponents at home and abroad.
Out of fifteen post-soviet states, seven have not had free and fair elections since independence. These countries are Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Armenia, and Tajikistan. In the Freedom House Freedom in the World report 2017, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan made to the list of 11 countries that scored worst for political rights and civil liberties. Only three post-Soviet countries have had all their subsequent elections be free and fair (Estonia, Lithuanian, Latvia) while the rest have a history of some elections being considered free and fair. Since independence, in majority of the former Soviet countries, regimes are more concerned about stability at the expense of crackdown rather than institutional, and long term reforms. Unlike the Baltic states, in countries like Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Belarus and Russia, regimes have systematically gone after its critics, closing or dismantling media, confiscating and banning newspapers, detaining, arresting, harassing and persecuting opponents. In many of these countries, harsh anti- defamation laws are still in place that are often used to stifle criticism and intimidate political opposition.
It is an uneven battle ground where the ruling power always prevails while being a critic whether an activist, a rights defender or opposition party member, turns one into an easy target of the ruling regime looking to silence anyone for dissent. In addition, the practice of unfair and undemocratic elections, constitutional changes that benefit the ruling regime always miraculously approved by near majority, monopolies virtually across all sectors of the economy, have created a harsher environment with any kind of checks and balances misplaced in what could be described as despotic rule.
In Russia repression, intimidation and political sabotage have led to the near total extinction of liberal opposition while the introduction of lists with ‘extremist’ websites and branding of foreign as well as local NGOs as ‘foreign agents’ have suffocated any sign of hope.
In countries like Azerbaijan, referendums have served as means to consolidate further powers. In the 2009 referendum, President Aliyev, scrapped the presidential term limit and in the most recent 2016 referendum Aliyev secured a longer presidential term, extending it from five to seven years. As a result, next presidential elections that were scheduled for 2018 will now take place in 2020.
Similarly to Azerbaijan, in Tajikistan, President Emomali Rahmon also scrapped term limits. And in both countries, the age limits to run for parliamentary and presidential elections were lowered, which critics and observers describe as signs that the Presidents’ male offspring may be entering the political stage. But the similarities between two countries go beyond just similar amendments in the referendum. ‘The most active people, those who did not give up and did not break down, have been arrested. The authorities have planted drugs, religious brochures, or bullets on them […]’, wrote Muhiddin Kabiri, leader of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan in an essay for Central Asia Program at George Washington University which has also been largely the case in Azerbaijan. Most recently, a court in Baku sentenced two youth activists to ten years in jail on trumped up drug possession charges for drawing graffiti on the statue of late President Heydar Aliyev.
Hello world, we are rich and famous
In his piece, investigating Azerbaijan’s lobbying ventures in the US, journalist Ilya Lozovsky wrote, ‘Azerbaijan is among the top 10 foreign governments buying influence in Washington […] In addition to traditional diplomacy, it has advanced these messages through aggressive lobbying in the think-tank world, in state legislatures, and in the halls of Congress’.
Organisations such as the Azerbaijan American Alliance (AAA) in Washington DC, set up by the son of Azerbaijan Minister of Transportation, or the European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS), set up by the son of the Minister of Emergency Situations in London and Brussels, work with local lobbying firms, host various events and promote Azerbaijan abroad as beacon of democracy and liberalism and a potential source of and home for investment.
Commercial advertisements, promo videos, pro-Azerbaijan articles in international media, are often deployed to push for a positive image. A similar strategy appears to be the branding work of Kazakhstan’s authorities too. Erica Marat wrote of her observations in Nation Branding in Central Asia: A New Campaign to Present Ideas about the State and the Nation. ‘Relaxing in a luxury hotel room in Paris, world travellers are exposed to TV commercials for Kazakhstan, a ‘land of democracy’ located in the ‘Heart of Eurasia’ with similar adverts appearing on the pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Economist.
‘Do you know where the magic lives? Our legacy. Our freedom. Our feelings. Our soul. Our future. Welcome to our world. Kazakhstan, the heart of Eurasia!’ showed one such promotional video on YouTube shared by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan. And yet, Kazakhstan is ranked under ‘Authoritarian’ countries in the Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index 2016, occupying 139th place (out of 167), ranking it just below Rwanda and China but before Zimbabwe and just a few seats ahead of Azerbaijan, which is ranked 148th.
And yet, low rankings by international watchdogs seem to bother authoritarian leaderships little. Outside of Washington circles, Aliyev and his lackeys have made their way into the structures of European institutions undermining the very core of human rights standards. ‘They [Azerbaijan] have done so in close cooperation with Russia’ states a most recent publication by the European Stability Initiative (ESI), a Berlin based think tank, known for its critical report, ‘Caviar Diplomacy: How Azerbaijan Silenced the Council of Europe’ that was published in 2012. The newest report, looks at the progress if any, on the state of affairs at the Council of Europe and corruption and concludes there has been little achieved.
When lobbying is not enough
In Kazakhstan, ‘nation-branding has become a permanent feature of the state discourse’ argues Sabina Insebayeva, visiting fellow at George Washington University. ‘Since becoming familiar with the idea of the ‘brand state’, Kazakhstan has deployed a full panoply of branding strategies to cultivate a positive international image, including wide media exposure, ‘spectacular urbanisation’, and aggressive pursuit of image building projects’.
As in the case of Kazakhstan, in Azerbaijan too, no government funds are too much such that, the government of Azerbaijan covered all expenses (including free taxi rides) of some 6,000 athletes who came to compete in the first European Games in 2015. The multi-billion dollar effort cost an estimated US$1.2bn although many said, the real figures are much higher especially when one considers that the Olympic Stadium alone came with a US$600m price tag.
In 2016, Azerbaijan was host to its first ever Formula 1 Grand Prix. Speaking at Azerbaijan-Germany Economic Forum in Berlin, President Aliyev proudly boasted that the race “will attract great attention to our country”. President Aliyev seemed not to be bothered by the tanking economy, and two sharp currency devaluations. But while the president was busy signing off agreements, others paid were paying attention after all. In February 2016, the country was downgraded by Fitch on its long-term foreign and local currency bonds. And just a month earlier, Azerbaijan’s debt was downgraded to ‘junk’ by Standard and Poor’s with a warning to potential investors.
But the most recent stunt in image branding and urge for recognition was adaptation of a book, Ali and Nino, a novel by writer Kurban Said (known as Lev Nussembaum) about a love story between Azeri Muslim Ali and Georgian Christian Nino. The couple’s story revolves around World War I and Azerbaijan’s struggle for independence. But with the film’s executive producer being the daughter of Azerbaijan’s president the film turned out to be more of a love story than a film about the country’s first independent republic and the efforts that went into achieving it. Needless to say, the film received much praise from the authorities.
But praise and dismissal is what many authoritarian states know and do best. When the FIFA corruption scandal hit the media, one of the main event sponsors Gazprom was quick to dismiss the scandal. In fact, the Russian oil giant was the only sponsor who expressed no concern. In an interview with CNN, the company’s spokesman Sergei Kuprianov said, “of course, Gazprom’s sponsorship agreement is not affected by the situation around FIFA. How can this situation affect it? It simply can’t”. Kuprianov is absolutely right because no one knows corruption better than Gazprom itself which has been accused of anti-competitive practices in its business operations; suspected of overcharging customers; engaged in fraud, document falsification and money laundering to name a few. But few are going to question this as Russia hosts the 2018 World Cup across 11 of its cities and Azerbaijan chiming in by hosting four qualifying games.
Lies, surveillance and all that jazz
George Orwell once said, “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful, and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. If there is one thing some of the most repressive post-Soviet states like Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have in common, then it is to make lies sound truthful. And they have media to do that both at home and abroad. In the case of Russia, we have observed how over recent years, it has gained momentum through its international mouthpiece outlets Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik while stifling independent media voices at home. While outlets such as Dojd TV and Echo Moskvy radio station continue their presence, some say they are preserved simply as a facade of democracy.
In Turkmenistan, Soltan Achilova, one of the remaining correspondents with the Turkmen service for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty reporting from within the country was questioned by the police in October 2016. She was then assaulted and robbed. This is not the first time correspondents of Turkmen Service Radio Azatlyk have been harassed. In 2015, Saparmamed Nepeskuliev was sentenced to three years in prison on trumped up drug charges and according to Human Rights Watch, Turkmen authorities control print and electronic media while exercising control over internet access too. Not surprisingly, Turkmenistan is among the top ten countries where the internet is censored according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
In a previous Foreign Policy Centre publication, No shelter: The harassment of activists abroad by intelligence services from the former Soviet Union, many of the authors wrote in detail about the various forms of persecution that dissidents face at home and even after fleeing their countries, often having their families go through persecution too, including intimidation and fear.
In January 2017, family members of dissident Azerbaijani rapper Jamal Ali were arrested and detained for four days. The arrests came shortly after the rapper released a video titled “Heykel Baba” [Monument Grandpa] on December 31. The lyrics of the song were a sharp criticism of the ruling regime in Baku and for arresting youth activists Giyas Ibrahimov and Bayram Mammadov and later sentencing them to 10 years in jail. In an interview with Eurasianet.org 29-year-old rapper said, “they are in jail for nonsense, a fact that most people see but can’t express in Azerbaijan out of fear”.
More recently, an attempt to keep top investigative journalist Khadija Ismayil from speaking to the European Parliament from her home in Azerbaijan is not just a matter of concern but evidence of the regime in Baku keeping its critics from speaking at any cost. Ismayil who spent 17 months in jail on bogus charges but who was released in May 2016, cannot leave Azerbaijan, as she is still facing five year travel ban. On February 6, Ismayil was invited to testify on the situation of human rights in Azerbaijan. Just twenty minutes before she was scheduled to speak her internet connection was cut off and five minutes later, the electricity was cut off in the entire district where she lives in Baku. Looking out of her apartment window, Khadija noticed two SUV cars parked outside with satellite dishes on their roofs, blocking the cell service. She was only able to proceed with her call after she left her apartment and was in a taxi. But her call was brief. 10 minutes into her call the taxi she was in was surrounded by three police cars. Surprised, the taxi driver got out of the car, trying to make sense of the commotion outside. He then told Khadija police told him he must drive the car into the car pound. Speaking to the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Ismayil said it was important she stayed focused, especially seeing as the authorities were eager to stop her from addressing the event participants in Brussels.
The tactic of cutting off internet connection and electricity is new, when one looks at the regime’s history of thwarting measures such as deploying an army of government sponsored trolls for lynching. Over the years, Azerbaijan active netizens saw their accounts harassed by members of IRELI- a pro-government youth organisation; youth branch of the ruling party New Azerbaijan (YAP); other pro-government youth organisations and some genuine accounts who believed the government was right, and its critics were wrong. And given there has never been a sense of free expression and diversity of views, the latter made sure the critics were targeted. These accounts have called anti-government pundits traitors, enemies, liars, and a number of other derogatory terms. When they are not on the offensive, “their tweets are repetitive, and seem automatically generated, full of fawning praise for the government and hatred for those who are not as pleased with the regime as they are”.
Trolls are often put to use at international events too where Azerbaijan is criticised for its dismal human rights record. During OSCE’s Human Rights Dimension Meeting in Warsaw last year, a number of accounts from Azerbaijan hijacked conference hashtag #HDIM2016 sharing graphic war photographs from the Karabakh conflict, demanding conference participants recognise the illegal occupation of Azerbaijan territories and the committed violence.
With the advent of surveillance tools, authoritarian states have also made sure they do not lag behind. In July 2015, it was revealed that Azerbaijan was among 21 clients of a Milan based firm The Hacking Team that was selling surveillance technology. Some of these tools allow authoritarian regimes break into individual’s computers and mobile phones, record Skype calls, turn on built-in device cameras, record audio and steal documents. Other clients include Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan from the former Soviet Union.
It is also not surprising that authorities in Azerbaijan as well as elsewhere in countries mentioned in this paper, have used DdOS attacks (Distributed Denial of Service). 2016 was a challenging year in that sense. According to the Index on Censorship Mapping Media Freedom, there were 38 threats to press freedom including blocked access to critical news websites such as dissident platform Meydan TV, Azerbaijan Service for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, and opposition newspaper Azadliq.
In Uzbekistan for years authorities have blocked access to international media outlets like The New York Times, Financial Times, Reuters, BBC and Deutsche Welle however in a sweeping wave of liberalisation many were unblocked in December 2016. And yet observers are sceptical seeing this as a temporary change. The country has also introduced some 38 state-run social media sites in past years, one in the summer of 2016. But Facebook and Russian social network Odnoklassniki remain the most popular as their users fear their data is made easily accessible to the authorities. One of the many state-run social media sites Muloqot.uz servers belong to the state telecom provider, which is an easy access point for the authorities at home to check on its netizens and their presence online.
Russia introduced legislation in 2014 on data storage as part of its surveillance legislation package which allowed the country’s telecommunications agency Roskomnadzor to block websites. A more recent move using this legislation was used against professional website LinkedIn as Roskomnadzor moved to block access to the page for violating the law.
But more recently, trends of cracking down and shrinking space for activists is becoming a global phenomenon and more and more counties are turning to the familiar measures used by authoritarian states to silence dissent and keep tabs on the work that is being carried out by dissident voices. The question we should be asking ourselves is whether we are ready to put on our best suit and continue the fight, or is it that time of the century when mass exhaustion, trauma and frustration will get the better of us? I think there is still some hope despite the “bigly” threats we are yet to witness.
 Freedom House, Freedom in the world 2017, Populists and Autocrats: the dual threat to global democracy https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2017
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 Uzbekistan launches its 38th own brand social network, Inga Sikorskaya, June 2016 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/17/uzbekistan-launches-state-social-networks-facebook