Annual report 2019: Eastern Europe and Central Asia


In 2019 threats to the international system of human rights protection worsened. Safeguards were eroded as those who saw themselves as traditional champions of human rights in the region, including international and regional institutions and national governments, were increasingly compromised. At the same time, Russia and China, key political and economic players in Central Asia and Eastern Europe, actively sought to undermine the international human rights framework and the institutions mandated to protect it. 

Eastern Europe and Central Asia was no exception to this disheartening trend. Many governments in the region pursued an extensive offensive. The rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly were routinely suppressed, economic and social rights neglected, refugees pushed back, left stranded in or returned to destinations where they remained at risk, while discrimination against women, ethnic and other minorities and marginalised groups continued unabated.

In tune with global trends, nonetheless, and often at deep personal cost, ordinary people across the region joined peaceful protests to demand respect for their human rights and better and more dignified lives for themselves and their societies. The voices of women, anti-corruption and environmental activists in particular grew more prominent in collective action and protest. Issues including declining living standards, forced evictions and rigged elections were some of the forward-looking drivers of people power in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

From Belarus to Kazakhstan, the right to freedom of assembly was severely restricted; with few exceptions, official permission was required for any street protest and demonstrations by a single person were often regarded as “unlawful”. Peaceful rallies were met with police violence and criminal prosecution of organisers and participants, from Azerbaijan to Russia.
No country in the region was immune from assaults on free expression. Ukraine, for example, which enjoys media pluralism, saw regular violent attacks against journalists almost never effectively investigated. In Turkmenistan, the authorities went as far as barring people from travelling abroad to prevent “slander” of their home country.
Freedom of association was also embattled. In Tajikistan, for example, NGOs feared that new broad powers granted to the Ministry of Justice in relation to their reporting obligations would be used to silence critical voices. In Uzbekistan, economic and wider reforms were ongoing, but torture and other ill-treatment continued, and those who worked to oppose these faced bureaucratic hurdles to obtain organisational registration.
Judicial systems in countries as diverse as Moldova and Armenia were vulnerable to political pressure. In Kyrgyzstan the courts once again confirmed the conviction and life imprisonment of ethnic Uzbek human rights defender Azimjan Askarov, unfairly jailed for his human rights work since 2010.
Certain ethnic minorities, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people, religious groups including Jehovah’s Witnesses, and people with mental and other disabilities were targeted with discrimination, prosecution and sometimes violence. Domestic violence particularly affecting women and children, and gender-based violence was prevalent.
Traditional international and regional institutions mandated to protect and promote human rights failed to effectively oppose this dangerous current. For example, a diplomatic deal struck at the Council of Europe returned Russia’s delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, five years after its voting rights were suspended due to its illegal annexation of Crimea and despite the fact that no progress had been made on the issues which led to the sanctions. The compromise proved deeply divisive: some in the Russian human rights community viewed it as a betrayal of the Council’s core values, while others welcomed the retention of Russia within the Council’s orbit and the ability of Russians to gain recourse to the European Court of Human Rights.
Meanwhile Russia set a perilous precedent for the region as it continued to denigrate the very notion of human rights. Legislation on “foreign agents” and “undesirable organizations” was systematically wielded against human rights and other NGOs, alongside criminal prosecutions and smears in government-controlled media. Russian authorities further set the bar ominously low with new legislation expanding the status of “foreign agents” to private persons, including bloggers and independent journalists. In other countries in the region, while laws did not directly vilify human rights defenders, their work placed them at great personal risk. In Uzbekistan, harassment and surveillance of civic activists by the authorities continued, and the forcible psychiatric detention of a female blogger covering protest sent a chilling message. In Tajikistan, continuing intimidation and threats of arbitrary detention and torture and other ill-treatment against lawyers confirmed that rights defenders were imperilled frontline workers. Turkmenistan’s oppression of any dissent made open human rights work in-country impossible.
To add insult to injury, unresolved conflicts across the region continued to stymy healthy development and hold back regional cooperation: Abkhazia, Crimea, Donbas, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia/Tskhinvali Region and Transnistria all suffered in consequence. In the breakaway territories of South Ossetia/Tskhinvali Region and Abkhazia, ongoing efforts by Russian forces and the de-facto authorities to physically restrict freedom of movement with the rest of Georgia eroded living standards and the economic, social and cultural rights of local people.

Despite this grim picture, Eastern Europe and Central Asia was aligned with the rest of the world as people power came to the fore.

In numbers greater than in previous years, ordinary citizens throughout the region took to the streets. They sought accountability for injustices, the right to be heard and to determine their own present and future, rights to free expression and peaceful assembly, and also guarantees of a better life for themselves and their communities against falling living standards, discrimination and economic and social inequality. They as well called for a healthy environment, accessible health care, gender equality and effective measures against domestic violence. Freedom of peaceful assembly continued to be violently repressed in many countries, but street power showed that people knew it mattered and they were brave enough to reclaim it back.

Georgia saw thousands assemble in Tbilisi, driven by ongoing conflict with Russia and the authorities’ broken promises on electoral reform. They were undeterred by the police’s heavy-handed response including use of water cannons. In Azerbaijan, peaceful protesters in Baku repeatedly braved brutal repression of all political dissent, as did women who called for accountability on, and effective measures to end, domestic violence.

In Moldova, people assembled peacefully in the streets in response to momentous political events, but also with their own agenda. Thus, years of unflagging activist efforts led to the biggest LGBTI march to date in Chisinau, effectively protected by police. The same was true in Ukraine, where the largest ever Pride in Kyiv was no longer a mere show of courage but a genuine celebration for participants, made possible by effective police protection against violent groups advocating discrimination. In both countries, elections led to a peaceful transition of power. In the case of Ukraine, presidential elections saw active participation from all sectors of the population against the backdrop of ongoing armed conflict in Donbas, and resulted in a near-total overhaul of political elites.

In Russia the largest numbers of peaceful protesters in many years denounced not only a manipulated election process in Moscow and an abusive criminal justice system which targeted dissenting voices, but also growing online censorship, corruption and harmful environmental practices. In Kazakhstan peaceful political protest by citizens and corresponding repression from the authorities drew growing numbers to the streets. These numbers were in evidence when the authorities called a snap election to legitimise Nursultan Nazarbaev’s handover of the presidency to Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, all the while retaining key powers for Nazarbaev himself. Genuine political competition was absent in the elections, and protest – more creative and inspiring than ever – was the popular response.

In Uzbekistan, where the Andijan massacre of 2005 seemed to have quelled street protest beyond occasional individual picketers, urban regeneration projects in the capital Tashkent and other cities saw grassroot protests against the large-scale destruction of hundreds of homes, many in traditional mahallas (local neighbourhoods). Homeowners and tenants complained they were not given timely eviction notices, appropriate alternative accommodation or adequate compensation.

Increasing numbers of young people and women were at the forefront of these protests and initiatives. Against steep odds the call for justice, accountability and human rights was alive and well in the new generation and amongst those whose voices were silenced in previous years. People power is growing the space for the future of human rights in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Download Annual report 2019