(New York) – A warning from a prominent international transparency group on October 15, 2014, gives Azerbaijan’s government a clear incentive to promptly open up space for activists to operate. The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) decided at a board meeting in Naypyidaw, Burma to require Azerbaijan to undergo a compliance check by January 1, 2015, five months earlier than planned.

The EITI chair, Clare Short, issued a statement saying conditions for independent activists in Azerbaijan are “clearly problematic,” sparking “deep concern.” She said that the board, in ordering an early review, urged Azerbaijan to “open up more space for civil society.”

“Azerbaijan boasts of its membership in this international good government coalition, which is telling Azerbaijan it needs to clean up its act,” said Lisa Misol, senior business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Azerbaijani government needs to make the necessary reforms to live up to its commitments to the transparency group or face the consequences.”

EITI is an international effort to promote better governance of resource-rich countries by fostering open public debate about how oil, gas, and mining revenues are used.

The Azerbaijani government has often highlighted its participation in EITI as a sign of international prestige. Azerbaijan is a founding member of the global initiative, was the first member to be rated as a “compliant” country, based on a 2009 review, and the government holds a seat on the EITI international board. The EITI board’s decision signals that Azerbaijan’s continued participation in EITI is at serious risk.

“I very much hope that progress can be made and that Azerbaijan will remain a member of the EITI family,” Short said in her statement.

For the past year the government of oil-rich Azerbaijan has been impeding the activities of independent groups in the country, flouting its commitments as an EITI member. The international coalition relies on the participation of governments, companies, and independent organizations at all levels, and free and active civil society participation is one of its cornerstones.

The Azerbaijani government has refused to register the grants of independent groups for work on natural resource transparency or related issues and frozen the bank accounts of the majority of the independent groups in the national EITI coalition of nongovernmental organizations. Authorities have also opened politically motivated investigations for alleged tax or other violations and employed other intimidation tactics against leading EITI activists. As a result of the intense financial and other pressure, independent groups working on EITI have had to halt all activities, and the coalition’s participation in the initiative is at a standstill in Azerbaijan.

Human Rights Watch had called for Azerbaijan to be immediately suspended from participation in EITI for a “material breach” of the initiative’s requirements.

EITI rules for candidates and participating countries require respect for fundamental freedoms. A country’s adherence to the rules is verified periodically through a formal “validation” review. If Azerbaijan does not pass the compliance check, the EITI board could downgrade its membership status or expel Azerbaijan.

The EITI announcement did not elaborate specific conditions Azerbaijan must meet, but an EITI blog page noted that the board reached agreement on “important identified actions related to the space for civil society.” It was unclear if Azerbaijan would retain its “compliant” designation pending the new review. It had been scheduled to undergo a new compliance check by July 2015.

Human Rights Watch has publicly identified key measures the government should take to comply with EITI rules protecting free civic participation. One is that the government should reject proposed changes introduced in parliament on September 30 that would further tighten Azerbaijan’s already harsh laws on nongovernmental organizations by giving authorities veto power over foreign-funded projects.

A member of parliament from the ruling party, Ali Huseynov, has strongly defended the proposed measures, stating that the government of Azerbaijan had sufficient resources from natural resource revenues to finance the activities of civic groups so “there’s no need” for foreign donors.

His comments heightened the concern expressed by some local activists that the government aims to eliminate independent groups and only allow those funded by and dependent on the government to participate in the national EITI process.

“With this decision, EITI’s leadership has offered some hope to independent activists in Azerbaijan who have been unable to work because of the government crackdown,” Misol said. “Azerbaijan’s government needs to reverse its crackdown and respect the basic freedoms of civic groups if it wants to keep its status in this prominent international group.”