cew collageIn an end of year essay on the state of play in the South Caucasus, long time regional analyst Dennis Sammut says that democrats in the South Caucasus, and their friends, need not be ecstatic about the achievements of 2012. But they can allow themselves a moment of optimism and satisfaction.

Fragile gains give hope

There has not been a single revolution. The three Presidents who held office at the beginning of the year were still sitting in their palaces as the year end approached. Yet in many respects 2012 has been an unprecedented and momentous year for the countries of the South Caucasus and one that is bound to leave its mark on the future politics of the region.

By and large democracy has won. An opposition party thrashed the ruling party in parliamentary  elections in Georgia. Parliamentary elections in Armenia were deemed better than previous ones and five political forces gained seats in the new National Assembly, and in Azerbaijan pro-democracy activists carved a larger space for their activity through clever use of new media, whilst a much predicted post Eurovision crack-down on dissent failed to materialise.

The fragile gains of 2012 give hope that the region has turned the corner in its efforts towards democratic state-building, but democracy is far from secure. There remains a serious democratic deficit and none of this year’s gains are as yet consolidated, so they can easily be swept away. But for once, it does no harm to be optimistic.


Strong Personalities; weak institutions; flawed processes.

Politics in the South Caucasus over the last two decades has mainly been characterised by strong personalities, weak institutions and flawed processes.

The first wave of populist nationalist leaders that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union: Gamsakhurdia, Elcebey and Ter Petrossian were quickly swept away unceremoniously despite their popular mandates.  What followed them has determined the region’s political course so far. In Georgia, a laissez faire government headed by Edward Shevardnadze wobbled along for a decade before being overthrown in 2003 in a bloodless revolt, characterised as the Rose Revolution. The Saakashvili wing of the triumvirate that led the revolt soon emerged as the sole victor; In Azerbaijan from the ashes of the Karabakh war Heidar Aliev emerged from his stronghold in Nakhicevan to fight off various uprising, rebellions and dissent and to consolidate power. On his death he was succeeded by his son Ilham who has subsequently exploited the oil bonanza that the country is experiencing to build a new power base.  In Armenia Levon Ter Petrossian was pushed out of office when he looked as if he was compromising on the Karabakh problem. He was replaced by the leader of Karabakh, Robert Kocharian. After completing two terms in office Kocharian made way for his ally, also from Karabakh, Serzh Sargsyan, whose election victory in 2008 was contested by opposition protesters resulting in deaths on the streets of Yerevan.

Each country has had three Presidents. None left power because they had lost an election, and none of these leaders can be characterised as being first and foremost a democrats and a reformer. However neither were any of them dictators who tried to impose a totalitarian rule over their nations.

Some (Gamsakhurdia, Elchebey, Ter Petrossian) were romantic nationalists; others (Shevardnadze, Heidar Aliev) were former communists who achieved the status of statesman by a mixture of shrewdness, tactical flexibility, and wisdom at key moments.

The three current presidents (Saakashvili, Ilham Aliev and Sargsyan) are best characterised as modernisers who prefer firm government over democratic niceties.

The fragility of the newly independent states and decades of soviet totalitarianism has led people in the region to seek out strong leaders as an antidote to chaos and instability. For many, the years immediately following the dissolution of the Soviet Union were traumatic, characterised by lawlessness, economic collapse and serious decline in their standard of living. For some democracy became synonymous with chaos and people wanted firm government. They were not disappointed.

For the last two decades democracy in the South Caucasus has been relegated to a largely ornamental status. The three current Presidents in the region preferred to modernise now and democratise later.

Report after report from international human rights organisations, election monitoring missions and inter-governmental bodies spell out an unhappy story of election fraud, muzzling of media, lack of independent judiciary, abuse of power and ineffective parliamentary control. Some saw Georgia under Saakashvili as an exception to this pattern, but facts speak differently.

All three leaderships justified their actions mainly with reference to the geo-political realities of the region. For the Georgians, it was the threat of Russia; for the Azerbaijanis, the conflict with Armenia and the need to liberate Karabakh; for the Armenians the Turkish blockade and the conflict with Azerbaijan. Democracy could not be prioritised when their countries faced these challenges, they argued. It was important to first and foremost modernise and build a strong state. It seemed that for a while this argument held sway. Opposition to the incumbent governments was weak and disorganised in all three countries. With the media firmly controlled by those in power, those who dared challenge the existing order were depicted as spoilers and losers.

2012 has changed that. It does not mean that all of a sudden the democratic deficit has been addressed. It does mean however that a process of change that has started now looks unstoppable. Young people in particular, no longer accept the excuses for the democratic deficit and are increasingly challenging them.

Change need not happen through revolution. In fact for many reasons a calmer and more peaceful transition is desirable. The first step needs to be the increase of transparency in governance and effective check and balances.

Armenia – Turning the page

For a country with such a small population Armenia’s recent political history has been very bloody. The mass killing of many of its political elite in the parliament in 1999, and the violence that resulted in many deaths on the streets of Yerevan in 2008, would have shocked even bigger societies. They have left modern Armenia scarred.

Armenian political society is thorn between reconciling the heritage of the wider Armenian nation spread all over the world – with all the baggage of its past glories and horrendous pains of history, on the one hand; and dealing with the mundane business of running a small land locked country that is still technically at war with one of its neighbours, and on the receiving end of an economic embargo, on the other another.

Armenia’s precarious geo political situation has forced the hands of its leadership. Over the last five years it became increasingly dependent on Russia for its military, economic and financial survival. The Armenian leadership has identified the European Union as the best option to balance some of this dependence in all but the military sphere. Armenia throughout 2012 engaged with gusto in negotiations with the EU on a wide range of issues that should lead it to sign an Association agreement with the EU, sometime in the future. There was one snag: conditionality. The EU increasingly raises democracy, governance and human rights issues as areas on which it expects to see progress from the part of the Armenian government. The big test was the election for a new Parliament held in May 2012.

There were more problems with the May 2012 elections in Armenia than the report of ODIHR recognises. However there is no doubt that the elections were a step forward, and the result has opened the way for a different dynamic inside the Armenian parliament with parties that are not part of the governing coalition playing an active role in scrutinising the work of government. A strong parliamentary presence also gives the opposition, if it decides to unite, the chance to put a serious challenge to President Sargsyan in the Presidential elections in February.

How he will be challenged and by whom is not yet clear, even though we are now only weeks ahead of the poll.

Armenia’s first President Levon Ter Petrossyan failed to unite the opposition either when he challenged Serzh Sargsyan in 2008, or after. Many now see him playing a role as a historical figure, rather than an effective political operator. There was an “Ivanishvili moment” immediately after the May elections when Vartan Oscanian, the former Foreign Minister who is now an MP for the Prosperous Armenia Party, started being mentioned as a possible figure around which the opposition might unite. Oscanian was hastily accused of money laundering and a criminal case opened against him.

Whoever emerges it is clear that this will not be a walk over and the government’s ability and/or willingness to have massive electoral fraud seems to be weak. Unlike the parliamentary elections, and even if some dud candidates emerge, it is likely that Armenians will have a clear choice between two strong candidates come next February. Not bad for democracy and probably good for Armenia if all sides abide by the rules.


Azerbaijan – Spoilt for choices

Azerbaijan had no elections this year, unlike the other two. Instead it organised a song festival: Eurovision 2012. Given the importance this event assumed in the political one could easily have been confused.

There are currently two completely different narratives of the current state of play in Azerbaijan.

The first, spread by the Azerbaijani government and its increasingly swish public relations machinery, presents Azerbaijan as a successful, modern, fast developing country with a tolerant society, democratic governance and a secular leadership which contributes to world peace and European energy security. As if to underpin this narrative, at the beginning of the year Azerbaijan was elected by the world community to be one of the non-permanent members of the UN Security Council.

The second narrative, disseminated by opposition groups – and increasingly amplified by a small but determined group of young on-line activists, presents Azerbaijan as a despotic country ruled by a feudal ruling family and the clans that support it, who muzzle the media, imprison journalists and bloggers – if not worse, prohibit public manifestations of protests, and sell seats in the country’s tame parliament to the highest bidder. This view became increasingly endorsed by high profile media outlets in the west during 2012 as the country came in the limelight, partly as a result of Azerbaijan’s hosting of Eurovision.

The problem is that large chunks of both narratives are true. Azerbaijan is at the moment a country of contradictions, and unlike Georgia and Armenia where circumstances predetermine to some extent some of the decisions of their respective leaderships, Azerbaijan is spoilt for choices. The main reason for this is the revenue from the oil sector that has given the government a lot of room for manoeuvre.

There is clearly a debate within the Azerbaijani political elite as to which choice to take. Some remain firmly embedded in supporting a European model, not quite Sweden but at least Bulgaria or Slovenia; others favour a Russian model – a statist approach with firm government but without unnecessary ideology; and others still look further east at the oil rich countries of the Gulf with their ruling families, content citizens and largely apolitical existence. The issue is not decided yet, and it probably never will be for it is a hard choice that risks creating unhealable rifts within Azerbaijani society. So the country tilts sometimes to one, sometimes to the other of these options.

Prima facie, the government of Azerbaijan has adopted a “rentier” approach as its strategy, sharing the spoils of energy resources amongst elite groups whilst also providing regular sweetners to different sections of wider society. The government has also embarked on a massive programme of infrastructural development, and is an increasingly important actor in the international arena, particularly in the energy sector where it considers itself to be a leading player.

At the same time it has held a firm grip on power. The government sought to demonise the opposition, and to weaken it to the point where it stops being effective.

There are some signs however that this may be about to change. Either because it had a change of heart, or because it felt it was strong enough to afford it, or perhaps concerned that the marginalisation of the key opposition parties had left space for other oppositionists to fill, the government has given some signs that it is ready to engage with Ali Kerimli’s ‘Popular Front Party’ and Isa Gambar’s ‘Musavat Party’, and other forces that until yesterday were derided and ridiculed. It is not at all clear where this is all going, but for the moment this can only be a good sign of a healthier environment ahead.

Many feared that whilst the government would be willing to tolerate some dissent before and during Eurovision it would crack down harshly immediately afterwards. By and large this did not happen. The space that democracy activists carved out on the back of the Eurovision campaign remains, even if it is largely in cyberspace. Small comfort they may argue, but in fact it is significant.


Georgia – People’s power

The campaign ahead of the 1 October parliamentary Elections in Georgia was long and tough, starting as soon as Bidhzina Ivanishvili announced he would be entering politics against the incumbent government. The news took the ruling party of Mikheil Saakashvili by surprise. They, like many in the international community, misunderstood Ivanishvili and grossly underestimated him. They feared his money, but never thought about his political acumen.

The campaign played out in three phases: From  November 2011 to May 2012; from May 2012 to August 2012, and the official campaign in September 2012.

Saakashvili and his allies tried to knock out Ivanishvili in the first phase, simply by eliminating him from the contest. Bespoke legislation tried to restrict his ability to fund his campaign from his private sources, and with the stroke of a pen he was deprived of his Georgian citizenship. He pushed ahead, undeterred even when he started being fined tens of millions of laris for alleged breach of the new laws.

The second phase started in May when Ivanishvili took his campaign to the streets. Until that moment he was an unknown political quantity. From the first event on the streets of Tbilisi on 27 May it was clear that Saakashvili had a problem, and that Ivanishvili was leading a well organised and well disciplined political force that had wide political support.

The third phase of the campaign started when the date of the election was announced in late August. It coincided a few days later with the release of a video depicting graphic scenes of torture in Georgian prisons.

It was not that people were surprised.  There had been so many rumours and stories of prisoner abuse, including ones substantiated by reports of reputable international organisations, so the video could hardly have come as a surprise to anybody. However to see the abuse so graphically was both a shock and a wake-up call for many.

There is a fine line between collective public fear and collective public anger. The prisoner abuse scandal made it much easier for many Georgians, especially young people to cross that line.  The rest is history.

Saakashvili’s government tried to play the Georgian elections two ways, with the result that some aspects of the elections were exemplary, other aspects a sad repetition of past shenanigans. Ivanishvili’s victory was overwhelming. The 60% figure of the official result only partly reflects it. In Tbilisi Saakashvili’s United National movement was thrashed, losing all Majoritarian seats.

In subsequent days and weeks foreign leaders queued up to congratulate Ivanishvili.

They also congratulated Saakashvili. Indeed never has the leader of a party that had just been thrashed so badly in an election been congratulated so warmly by the international community. The reason is few believed Saakashvili will accept defeat graciously. Regardless of whether or not he had a choice he did, and in doing so saved Georgia from much pain, and the international community from many headaches.

What has ensued is a system of co-habitation, with a much weakened President at the head of a government led by his opponents. Saakashvili’s term under the present arrangements expires in October 2013, and he is not able to contest again because of the two term limitation. Regardless of who wins he or she will have much less power under the new constitution that Saakashvili pushed through when he still held sway over parliament.

Political co-habitation can be awkward in any circumstance. It can also be disastrous. Many people cite France and Poland, or even the United States as examples of how co-habitation works. They fail to remember Lebanon were co-habitation often has not worked. This therefore remains a sensitive moment for Georgia.

The issue of the arrest of a number of high profile persons from the previous government in the post- election period has caused some concern in the international community, although some also used it as an excuse to have an early go at the new government. All in all up to 30th November 29 persons had been arrested.

Most international politicians who have been to Georgia, or have received Georgian officials raised the matter with the new Georgian leadership, and where assured that the new government is not engaged in a process of political vendetta.

There are here two issues at stake: selective justice, which needs to be avoided at all cost; and accountability, regardless of position held before the election or since. Of particular concern is the issue of officials who are implicated in human rights abuses, torture, extra judicial killings and similar crimes. There should be no immunity for these officials on account of positions held now or before the election. It is important that justice is allowed to take its course, and those found guilty of such heinous crimes punished with the full strength of the law.

It is also correct that high profile cases such as the death of former Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania in 2005, are investigated thoroughly. In the Zhvania case there are many in Georgia, and internationally, this writer included, who do not accept the explanations given by the authorities at the time, and who have been asking for a full review of the case. The new government will do well to satisfy these demands.

None of this can excuse a legal process which is either flawed or not transparent. In a judicial system that had been used to following the lead of the prosecution developing a new mentality may take some time. The onus is on the new Government, and its leadership of the law enforcement bodies, to ensure this. It is as yet too early to say that they are not doing so, but the international community is right to flag this up as a possible concern.

There are bound to be thousands of other cases which the new government will be asked to look at and which are minor administrative transgresses or minor corruption. The Ivanishvili government should avoid mass prosecutions. Cases should be examined by an independent “truth and justice commission” and people who have suffered need to be compensated, but it does not serve Georgia or Georgian society well to have a repetition of mass arrests, and the criminalisation of yet another layer of Georgian society. The emphasis must not be about punishment but about correcting previous injustices.

In the medium term Georgian politics also face a number of structural challenges. The governing coalition of parties needs to be held together by something more than the personality of Bidhzina Ivanishvili. The Georgian Dream Coalition is what it says that it is – a coalition of parties with quite different political agendas. Ensuring cohesion within it is going to be challenging. To survive it needs to turn itself into a more streamlined and effective political force.

 It is not yet clear to what extent Bidhzina Ivanishvili is a democrat, or yet another moderniser. He says that he is, but then so have all the other leaders of the South Caucasus before, so nobody can be blamed for being cynical. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, and time will tell. It is correct that both the Georgian people and the international community establish a high standard against which to judge, and to allow a bit more time before they start judging.

Perhaps more interestingly is what is going to happen to the United National Movement (UNM), Mikhail Saakashvili’s party. There are in this party a lot of valid persons who Georgian politics and society cannot afford to lose. Others tarnished by scandal are best ditched.

Saakashvili himself is still very young as Presidents go. He remains highly energetic and highly ambitious but time will tell if, as he grows older he learns the value of patience and becomes less Messianic. If he does, one cannot exclude the return of Saakashvili at the helm of Georgia in the future.  In any case Georgia needs a strong well organised and internally transparent and democratic political opposition that not only helps scrutinise the work of government but can offer the Georgian people a credible alternative.

A constitution that has been endlessly tempered with to address the needs of the day is one of the worst legacies of the UNM government. One can sympathise with the need for urgent constitutional amendments to address some of the problems of this legacy, including one that would bring back the Georgian parliament back to Tbilisi. But more substantial constitutional changes should be the subject of a more considered evaluation, and if possible consensus agreement, of all the major political forces, and will benefit from being endorsed by the nation in a referendum, even if this is not technically a requirement.

Checks and balances: five brakes on absolute power

There are five areas, which if allowed to function properly, would in a normal situation, provide the necessary checks and balances that are deemed essential for democratic governance.  By looking at how the South Caucasus has performed in these five areas in 2012 we are able to gauge how much or how little progress has been made in democratic state building in this past year.

(a)    Effective legislatures

Parliaments, even in countries where government has a comfortable majority, can, if organised properly, provide an effective check on the power of the executive. Through its power to legislate and scrutinise laws; its ability to quiz Ministers, its control on the budget, and its general oversight powers, parliament can act as a break on abuse, whilst promoting good practise.

The parliamentary elections in Armenia in May, and in Georgia in October were far from perfect, but for the first time in nearly a decade they resulted in parliaments were the opposition parties are well represented and have the potential to fulfil these roles. The one party rule has been broken and this is an important development.

(b)   Independent Judiciary

The sad state of affairs with regards to the independence of the judiciary in the three countries has not improved much in 2012. Promises have been made in this regard by the new Georgian government, but it is too early to say if these will be implemented.

Whilst improvements can be seen in the professional conduct of judges in the region, and the influence of the criminal world on the judiciary has decreased considerably, the practise of judges simply taking their cue from prosecutors remains widespread. This is one area where little progress was noted throughout the year.

(c)    Civil Society

Civil society has been the flag bearer for basic freedoms in the region for two decades. It is not always consistently effective and there are important nuanced differences in the situation in the three countries, but by and large this has been a force for good, and one that even in their most totalitarian moments, the three governments have not tempered with it too much.

The contribution made by Georgian civil society organisations in standing up to the Georgian government in moments when to do so was not at all easy deserves much praise. They also acted to keep both government and opposition forces in check when both were tempted to use more aggressive means to push forward their agendas. I would be very pleased if someone tomorrow proposes Georgian Civil Society for next year’s Nobel peace Prize. I really think they deserve it.

In Armenia and Azerbaijan civil society has been tainted with too much partisanship. A new positive development during the May 2012 elections in Armenia was the mobilisation of young people to monitor the electoral process rather than simply in support of a particular party. A similar trend can also be seen in Azerbaijan.

(d)   Media

The situation with media freedom and plurality in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia at the beginning of 2012 was worse than it was at the beginning of 2002. This stark reality by itself should be a source of serious concern.

Even when financial resources were not an issue other means for muzzling the press were found. Journalists were harassed in Azerbaijan and elsewhere. The “must carry” campaign ahead of the elections in Georgia was a good example of how society can stand up for media freedom when it feels necessary. On the other hand journalists in the region sometimes also act irresponsibly, as they do elsewhere in the world. Journalism and truth are not necessarily synonymous. Muzzling the media is not the solution and in the South Caucasus “the more the merrier” remains the best policy for ensuring media freedom.

(e)   New Media

This is a new, but increasingly important area and one with the best potential. 2012 saw the climax through which a spirited and talented group of people, mainly young, challenged the status quo and offered an alternative voice.

The three countries have a relatively free internet environment. There have been attempts to intimidate bloggers (in Azerbaijan), or to create fake internet traffic (Georgia), but by and large the sector has been left to its own devices. Pro government bloggers engage in battle with their opponents, but unlike in other sectors the governments do not control the rules of the game. So effective has this sector become, that it is already clear that the new generation of leaders of the region is more likely to emerge from here then from the inner elites of the political parties.

2012 has been a good year for this sector too. Azerbaijan, which is often accused of lagging behind in many of the other spheres, probably had the most vibrant new media sector of all the three. This culminated in the World Internet Forum in Baku in November which saw some very good discussions between pro-government and pro-opposition bloggers.



Fragile gains


Some may not find all the above at all reassuring, and may even call my optimism folly. One of the big problems in understanding the region is that people often do not do what they say, nor do they say what they mean. You need to cut through a lot of useless prattle before you arrive at the point where you can understand what it is that is really happening. The developments of 2012 are tangible, in many ways positive, changes. For this reason they need to be taken seriously and recognised as positive steps.

Change is happening and it is largely happening peacefully. More importantly the change that is happening is in the mind set and not simply a musical chair of elites. The people in the region are generally fed up of adventurism and will not tolerate it. This means that both authorities and their opponents need to tread much more carefully than before because they can become very quickly exposed to public condemnation.

Democrats in the South Caucasus, and their friends, need not be ecstatic about the achievements of 2012. But they can allow themselves a moment of optimism and satisfaction.

4 December 2012.

Dennis Sammut has been Director of the London Information Network on Conflicts and State-building (LINKS) since July 1997. He writes regularly on the Caucasus and on Eurasian and Arabian Peninsula political, historical and cultural issues. He lives in Oxford and may be contacted at dennis@links-dar.org.