2018 was notable for elections and important political events in all three countries of the South Caucasus region. Azerbaijan held an early presidential election in April, which had originally been scheduled to take place in October, without providing any meaningful justification. The joint observation mission of the OSCE ODIHR, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe came to the conclusion that “there was the absence of genuine competition” and that the election was held “in a restrictive political environment”.
Armenia held snap parliamentary elections on December 9, with the Kayl Ara coalition, led by Nikol Pashinyan, winning a majority in parliament, with 70% of the vote. The international observation mission noted that the elections were held in an atmosphere of “respect to fundamental liberties” and “broad public confidence” and the results were recognized by all parties participating in the elections. By this act, the “Velvet Revolution” started in April-May was completed.
In Georgia, a two-round presidential election was held on October 28 and November 28 and was recognized by an international observation mission as “competitive”, in which “candidates were able to freely campaign”. However, it was also mentioned that there was unequal competition between the sides, and certain administrative resources were abused, blurring the line between the state and the party. The elections were won by Salome Zurabishvili, the foreign minister in Mikheil Saakashvili’s former government, and currently supported by Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Three elections – three regimes
All three elections hold special political significance in terms of qualitative change in the current regimes. To ensure the legitimacy of the 2016 amendments to the Constitution of Azerbaijan, it was necessary to hold both presidential and parliamentary elections. It has a simple principled explanation: these elected institutions were elected under circumstances, which existed before amendments to the Constitution, and amendments to the constitution can only be legitimized after a renewal of these institutions. An elected institution being elected under certain circumstances, and then later being burdened with a new set of circumstances is problematic in terms of legitimacy. Therefore, it was necessary to hold a presidential election to legitimize the constitutional amendments made in 2016. There were discussions about parliamentary elections being held after the presidential vote, but so far, there is no official information on this.
The last presidential election in Azerbaijan was also notable for the opposition not participating and voter turnout being low as a result. Generally, after the 2013 election, Azerbaijan was observed to have decreased respect for human rights and freedom, a weakening of democracy, and an increase in pressure on civil society, per reports from international organizations.
The importance of the elections in Armenia is connected to the fulfillment of the change instigated by the “Velvet Revolution”. In April and May, Kayl Ara started street protests. The resignation of Serzh Sargsyan and pressure from the public led to N. Pashinyan becoming the prime minister on 8 May, on his second attempt. N. Pashinyan made two promises to the people when he came to power: to change the election code, and to hold early elections. Proposed changes to the election code involved a complete transition to the party list system, a decrease in the election threshold, an increase in the gender quota, and so on. But N. Pashinyan became prime minister only after pressure by the people and his parliamentary bloc held only 9 seats, while the majority was controlled by the Armenian Republican Party and its coalition partner, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation – Dashnaksutyun. Under these parliamentary conditions, it would probably be impossible to pass any reforms or to rule the country in general.
Snap elections were planned for March 2019, but the Armenian Republican Party and Dashnaksutyun attempted to adopt procedural amendments that would make it more difficult for N.Pashinyan to go to early elections. The snap parliamentary elections were eventually held on December 9.
N. Pashinyan’s pre-election, interim government’s work can be divided into the following directions: I) anti-corruption operations and regaining damages to the budget; ii) examination of personnel from the previous regime and formation of a team; and iii) strengthening the economy and attracting new economic investment (for example, from Iran).
But this bright democratic scene creates new questions for the Armenian public. Many are concerned with the possibility that N. Pashinyan was motivated by a desire for power derived from the revolution, and could use his majority in parliament not only to fight corruption but also to settle old scores with his political opponents, especially considering the fact that there is no strong or healthy opposition to balance his authority. The main opposition in parliament is the Flourishing Armenia party, led by an oligarch Tsarukyan, which is viewed by many as a relic of the previous corrupt regime. Many think that, because of this, they will not be able to become a meaningful counterweight to the majority. Another parliamentary party – Bright Armenia - was in the YELK coalition together with N. Pashinyan’s Civil Contract until September, and it is not clear how they differ from the authorities in terms of political views and position. In general, the limited number of relevant parties in Armenian politics is troubling – only 3 hold seats in parliament. 11 political parties and blocs took part in the elections in December, along with more than 10 parties that did not participate. The former ruling party, the Armenian Republican Party, along with its coalition partner Dashnaksutyun, remain outside of the parliament due to 5% and 7% thresholds set for parties and blocs, respectively. Prior to the elections, N. Pashinyan offered to reduce the threshold, but there was no quorum, due to a lack of support from the Republican Party and Dashnaksutyun.
A number of factors define the importance of this year’s presidential elections in Georgia. First of all, it is the last presidential election, where the president will be directly elected by the people (during M. Saakashvili’s tenure, amendments to the Constitution were made, according to which, a transition was made to a system where the president has a symbolic role with limited authority and is elected by the parliament). Second, although the previous president Giorgi Margvelashvili was supported by Georgian Dream, to be more precise by B. Ivanishvili, he was still able to keep himself away from the decision-making circle formed around B. Ivanishvili and to operate as an impartial president. But S. Zurabishvili will not have a chance to be as impartial as G. Margvelashvili was. One of the reasons is that Georgia is gradually turning into a country dominated, more or less, by one party. It is getting more and more difficult to protect a balance or maintain a distance between the parliament and the president. Commentators claim that the Georgian authorities understand the importance of the impartiality of S. Zurabishvili. But this will not be easy for Ms.Zurabishvili, since she is not particularly loved in opposition circles (M. Saakashvili even called her a “traitor”.)
“From democratic transition to democratic regression”
During the 2012 parliamentary elections, Georgian citizens saw the possibility of a peaceful transfer of power through elections. In this year’s election, they witnessed a superficial change in the face of the authority, while the real governing power in the country stayed put. This situation is called “from the democratic transition to democratic regression” in the Eastern European countries when democratic institutions start to crumble before they even find a chance to consolidate. Unfortunately, a similar process is going on in Georgia. The Georgian opposition refused to recognize the elections. They claim that illegitimate and dirty methods were used to buy votes. On December 2 the Georgian opposition-led street protests in Tbilisi. As a result, the following situation has emerged in Georgia: a significant portion of the population do not want Saakashvili’s return or support a political figure backed by him, but at the same time they are against the increasing control of B. Ivanishvili over the country. It is possible to say that Georgia is currently living through “puppet games”. Changing this requires fundamental changes both in the opposition and in the government. This leads one to believe that the search for a new political force will escalate in the coming years in Georgian society, while new, anti-establishment movements could also emerge.
Two different messages
In 2018, we witnessed a growing difference in terms of the quality of the political regimes in these three countries of the South Caucasus region. The elections in Armenia and Georgia, and the general political climate in these countries have relayed two different messages to the society in Azerbaijan. While the Velvet Revolution in Armenia, with its peaceful transition of power through elections and subsequent attempts to fight corruption and transition to the parliamentary system, stands as a positive model for the future, Georgia, where the country has already been through similar processes for quite a while, shows difficulties of applying this model amid post-change democratic consolidation. The events in Georgia have somewhat decreased the enthusiasm associated with the Velvet Revolution in Armenia. The possibility of oligarchs dominating politics after the change in Georgia, as well as the oligarch Tsarukyan’s Flourishing Armenia party safeguarding its existence and turning into the main opposition party, demonstrates the significance of this factor. The opportunities to balance this factor lie in the institutionalization of civil society and political parties in Azerbaijan. The current weakness of civil society and political party institutions in Azerbaijan means that, in the future, oligarchs could continue to be important political actors in Azerbaijani politics.
But there are other messages relayed by political processes in Armenia and Georgia. First of all, we witness that, in comparison with Azerbaijan, political life in these countries has livened up, and political parties play an important role in the life of their societies. Second, unlike in Azerbaijan, where the government is in the hands of one group, in Armenia and Georgia, a parliamentary regime underscored by powersharing has emerged. Parliamentarism is becoming the model from the closest neighbors of Azerbaijan and serves to increase calls by the Azerbaijani opposition to implement a similar parliamentary system in Azerbaijan. But there was another factor leading to the peaceful transition of power in Armenia: the existence of other political forces and true opposition in the parliament even during the Sargsyan regime.
This increase in political activity by the country’s neighbors impacts society in Azerbaijan. Political dynamism in these countries is going to create a growing political contrast for the Azerbaijani public in the coming years. For example, mayoral elections both in Yerevan and Tbilisi might serve as an opportunity to strengthen similar demands for Baku - which the Azerbaijan opposition has voiced already.
It is possible to shatter myths
Democratic change in Armenia shatters the myth that post-Soviet countries as Georgia and Ukraine are the exceptions and that they indeed have a culture, which is different and more open to democratization. Along with that, the dilemma of “democratization for Karabakh” weakens.
In comparison with Armenia and Georgia, another simple contrast for the Azerbaijani public emerges. This is a rapid change of the principal actors and generations in the political scene. The political analyst Anahit Shirinyan argues that the democratic changes in Armenia remove representatives of the Karabakh movement generation from the central roles in government.
The deepening of differences between the three South Caucasus countries in terms of the quality of the political regime; the controversial messages are given to society in Azerbaijan by the political processes taking place in Armenia and Georgia in 2018, link Azerbaijan ever more closely to the regional political environment and serve to strengthen the regional political sphere.