The political situation across the region varies significantly, from Azerbaijan where activists face frequent repression and media freedom is limited, to Armenia and Georgia, both countries where civil societies and independent media operate in increasingly difficult environments. On a regional level, there is an overall increased sense of insecurity, due in part to an increased Russian military presence following the 2020 Nagorno Karabakh war.
Armenia: civil society acting as a watch dog and polarised media
In Armenia, society’s appetite for civic activism has declined in the aftermath of the war, although young activists are continuing to build communities in the regions. Following a post-2018 revolution honeymoon period, independent civil society increasingly recognises the need to act as a watchdog to hold the government to account and to raise concerns about the ruling party’s efforts to consolidate power through force.
The media landscape is deeply polarised with most media outlets affiliated to political groups and disinformation, both from domestic and foreign sources, is on the rise. In March 2021, the National Assembly adopted new legislation tripling penalties for insult and defamation, despite activists’ concerns about the impact on freedom of expression.
Minorities, particularly LGBTQI+ people continue to face harassment, hate speech, discrimination, and violence. Yezidi rights activist and EED partner Sashik Sultanyan is currently on trial for 'incitement of ethnic hatred' charges. Armenian law also fails to effectively protect women’s rights or the victims of domestic violence.
EED supports wide range of civil society and independent media actors in Armenia, who are continueing to push for difficult and procrastinated democratic reforms in sectors including the armed forces, the judiciary and the media, in the face of considerable post-war fatigue.
Media actors such as Boon TV and 4th Power are among the most important critical voices ensuring pluralism, a diversity of opinions and who are pushing the government for more transparency and accountability in decision making. Civil society plays a vital watchdog role in pushing for democratic reforms and helping to build resilience to internal threats from anti-democracy actors. In this newsletter, we include a profile of photography collective 4Plus, who are building a culture of photojournalism, as well as a profile of the Article 3 Club, a human rights organisation that runs an alternative education hub sparking debate on democracy issues.
Azerbaijan: repression against civil society and new media legislation
In Azerbaijan, recent media legislation gives little hope for progress despite government rhetoric about reform over the past two years. Repression against civil society and the opposition persists. Amendments to the Civil Procedure Code passed in July 2021 have been criticised as reducing society’s accessibility to the judicial system. While talks were launched in September 2020, there has been no progress on NGO legislative reform which is fundamental for the future development of civil society. Despite the significant risks, a young generation of independent activists is emerging and increasingly active in the regions.
Feminists are very much at the forefront of political activism with the country, as the country faces up to unprecedented levels of femicides (33 in first six months of 2021) and they advocate for women’s rights and LGBTQI+ rights.
New media legislation is likely to further curb media freedom. See here for details on this legislation and its likely impact.
Georgia: from democratic frontrunner to chronic political crisis
Georgia, long considered a democratic frontrunner in the Eastern Partnership region, has weathered a protracted political crisis since the contested parliamentary elections in October 2020, as the feud between the ruling and opposition parties has deepened. Civil society is vibrant and is actively addressing public issues overlooked by the chronic political crisis but encounters increased political pressure and intimidation. Independent media voices offering nuanced reporting on the political situation, now face escalating interference and restrictions to their editorial freedom.
EED focuses on supporting new civic groups in Georgia, that are working to refresh the civic and political landscape in the country, with a particular focus on regional initiatives. Support to independent media is also vital given the polarised media environment.
For instance,Georgian Democracy Initiative is working to defend freedom of media and freedom of expression, while also providing legal aid to activists under attack. Gavigudet, an environmental activist group is helping to reduce levels of pollution in Rustavi, an industrial hotspot of Georgia.