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Egor Chobanian

Democracy in the Southern Caucasus: cases of Armenia and Georgia

Republic Square, Yerevan

The Revolution of Roses of 2003 in Georgia and the Armenian velvet revolution of 2018 indicated the fact that these nations strive for democratic regimes. Many outside observers would be wondering how two geographically remote countries from Europe have come to the democratic system of governance and elections, and whether they are true democracies. To answer these questions, we should look at modern history and the problems the two South Caucasian states faced since they were formed following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The South Caucasus region includes three states – Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. The pioneer in the region, Georgia made a breakthrough toward democracy after the so-called “the Rose Revolution” which took place in November of 2003. During that political change, the young opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili ousted the former President of Georgia Eduard Shevardnadze and got power over the country. Why did this revolution take place in Georgia? The main reason was that people were fed up with their gloomy economic prospects and the government’s rampant corruption. It is true that corruption, sharp economic decline, and, of course, blatant election rigging all fed the popular frustration that fueled the revolution, but these and other injustices can be found in many other countries where no democratic revolutions have occurred. Why of all countries, including the states of the former Soviet Union, did such a breakthrough happen first in Georgia? What made this case special? We need to examine the specifics of the political and social landscape in Georgia before the revolution, the dynamics of the protests sparked by rigged elections, and the actors who contributed to laying the groundwork for change and supporting the revolution itself. Many writers and scholars had competing interpretations of the kind of regime it was in Georgia before the 2003 Revolution.

The meeting between Saakashvili (left) and Shevardnadze (right)

Shevardnadze’s regime most probably could be placed somewhere between authoritarian and “post-totalitarian.” Economic pluralism in Georgia was certainly greater than in a classic autocratic regime, while the political leadership was oligarchic. At first, Shevardnadze had good reason to support and foster the freedoms in media. However, it was more of a political calculation than a commitment to an open society. Nevertheless, it led to the development of a civil society that did not accept the rules and practices of the ruling oligarchy at face value. But Shevardnadze and his allies thought he could constantly claim credit for allowing more political freedom (as opposed to many other post-Soviet states) while containing challengers from civil society. In a time not only did these assumptions prove wrong, but the system itself started to erode. Favoritism, nepotism (benefiting Shevardnadze’s own family), and the spoils system became entrenched in virtually every sphere of Georgia’s social and political life. Rampant corruption shrank the tax base, and budgetary shortfalls destroyed the state’s ability to carry out some basic functions, such as paying pensions and salaries to civil servants. Since their salaries were no longer paid, public servants were expected to earn their living through bribery and had to share the illegal income with their superiors. Budget shortfalls also made it increasingly difficult to satisfy the various interest groups around the president. Eventually, escalating systemic corruption put elements of the so-called “blackmail state” into place. That is, the executive collects compromising information about individuals’ illegal activities to ensure the loyalty of elite groups, individuals, and businesses. When it no longer needs them, it files corruption charges against them. It was becoming impossible for Shevardnadze to maintain his image as a democratic reformer, and in 2001 he decided to drop it altogether. When that year the government tried to shut down Rustavi-2 — a private television broadcasting company, which had been in strong opposition to the president since its foundations in 1994, many reformers left Shevardnadze’s Citizens Union of Georgia party and formed opposition parties. Among them were the people who made the Rose Revolution — Mikheil Saakashvili, Nino Burjanadze, and Zurab Zhvania. Although Shevardnadze rightly claimed credit for the development of civil society in Georgia, parts of this sector deserve a large share of the credit for unseating him. From his own perspective, allowing such freedoms was a mistake, as Shevardnadze stated in numerous interviews after the revolution, when he regretted not having made sure that all appropriate mechanisms for “managing democracy” were put in place before the elections.

The mass protests that eventually led to President Shevardnadze’s resignation continued for twenty days, from November 3 to November 23, 2003. Starting November 3, a relatively small number of demonstrators began gathering at Freedom Square in central Tbilisi every evening, by November 18 more than 100,000 were in the Freedom Square to pressure all the opposition parties with more than 7 percent of the votes not to enter parliament. This effort was not successful, and protesters had to consider other ways to disrupt the illegitimate parliament’s first session. During the afternoon, protesters moved toward the chancellery, towing buses with heavy trucks to block the way and facing riot troops along the route. Overwhelmed by the number of people, troops stood by and took no action as the protesters passed them. Troops also stood at the rear entrance of parliament, while the front was occupied by Revival Union supporters unaware of what was happening in the back. Demonstrators began entering parliament from the rear in the middle of Shevardnadze’s speech. His guards promptly removed him from the podium and evacuated him.

The Revolution of Roses

After escaping to his Krtsanisi residence, Shevardnadze announced a state of emergency in Georgia and ordered the use of force to stop the protests. But the loyalty of the troops went increasingly to Nino Burjanadze, who had declared herself acting president. The order for violent repression was never carried out. Bereft of all other options, Eduard Shevardnadze resigned the evening of November 23, and Mikheil Saakashvili, leader of the united opposition groups, was elected president. Why him and how did he become the leader? Mikheil Saakashvili first became popular for his anticorruption rhetoric as a parliament member in Shevardnadze’s government. After leaving to form the National Movement party, he began effectively reaching out to regional segments previously blocked from national politics. Also, by stepping into previously politically “safe” areas, he succeeded in radicalizing political discourse and positioning himself as the most radical fighter against the regime, uncompromising in the face of its corruption.

Saakashvili’s main strategy could be summarized as radicalizing the political situation and expanding the political space. One of the National Movement’s most important achievements was effectively reaching out to provincial populations. A variety of factors made the Rose Revolution possible: the incumbent regime’s systemic weakness, its history of liberal policies, the National Movement party’s success in radicalizing politics and broadening political participation, civic education efforts by civil society members during recent years, free media (Rustavi-2), and the radical, nonpartisan, nonviolent Kmara (student group). The legacy of the Rose Revolution is great. As the first bloodless change of power in the region’s history, it rekindled hopes for democracy, which many believed intrinsically foreign to this part of the world. Many observers refer to the Rose Revolution as an inspiration for what some, including Georgia’s new president, Mikheil Saakashvili, have called a “new wave of democratization.” In addition to profoundly altering the development of Georgia and the Caucasus for years to come, the revolution inspired supporters of democracy throughout the former Soviet Union. Neither before nor during the 2003 mass protests in Georgia could opposition activists in Tbilisi have dreamt of the level of support the Ukrainian opposition would receive a year later from western countries and institutions. Ukraine’s political weight is far greater than Georgia’s, but the Georgian experience convinced many western policymakers that nonviolent regime change is indeed possible in the former Soviet Union and will not necessarily lead to civil war. Finally, international actors such as the European Union and the United States should abandon the illusion that rigged elections might “not be so bad” or could be “an improvement over the last elections” in most post-Soviet countries. Softening wording of election monitoring results might undermine the reputation of authoritative election monitoring organizations such as the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the OSCE while putting democratic activists and forces in danger. Pressures on nondemocratic regimes should include measures responding to the country’s internal situation—for example, pressure on governments to release political prisoners and stop arresting people for distributing posters. Western or EU ambassadors could make good use of their diplomatic status by publicly supporting demonstrations asserting that freedom is a right, not a luxury.

Armenia which is bordered by Georgia to the north could not make a pro-democratic revolution until 2018. When in 2003 the Rose Revolution led Georgia to democracy, Armenia was under the control of the authoritarian “Karabakh clan” — President Robert Kocharyan and his successor Serzh Sargsyan. Both of them originally are from the Nagorno-Karabakh region which plays a major in the political life of Armenia.

Sargsyan and Kocharyan

So why did it happen earlier in Georgia and after only 15 years in Armenia, although the last also suffered from the corrupted regime, economic problems, a rising level of emigration. That is because of the specifics of Armenia and its geopolitical position. The country is situated in worse geopolitical conditions – landlocked, having closed borders with 2 out 4 neighboring countries, and waging a war with Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh since the foundations of both countries in the early 1990s. And it definitely imposes some country’s specifics: first, as Thomas de Waal, the author of several books on the Caucasus, said that it is a “small country with a high feeling of national solidarity”; second, Armenia had been ruling by strong warlords and war veterans who fought in Nagorno-Karabakh war for many years; third, it has a big and influential Diaspora spread out the world, but mainly in Russia, France, USA; and finally, Armenians were always trying to avoid serious political destabilization inside the country in the fear of losing Nagorno-Karabakh which was won by Armenia. So the main driver of Armenia's failed transition after independence was its war with Azerbaijan and the continued state of belligerence after the ceasefire was signed in 1994. That factor was essential for Serzh Sargsyan, the third president of Armenia, to create its own authoritarian regime and become a dictator. Another issue with the revolution in Armenia is that Russia has a military base here and patrols the border with Turkey. Armenia is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union and is part of Russia's regional military alliance - Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Unresolved conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh made Armenia being dependent on Russia for security. So Russia's stake in this country of 3 million people is significant.

It was in 2008 that Serzh Sargsyan came to power as president amidst violent suppression of anti-government protests in which at least 10 people were killed. At the end of his second presidential term, Serzh Sargsyan was about to become prime minister - a new and enhanced role, after his own idea to bring changes to the constitution was passed by a 2015 referendum marred by widespread irregularities. But it was a miscalculation because many Armenians regarded his move essentially as a third presidential term by the backdoor. But more deep-seated animosity toward the 63-year-old over his handling of the economy and corruption has been building for a decade, with almost one-third of the country’s 3 million people living below the official poverty level, according to the Asian Development Bank. Unemployment has stubbornly remained high, hovering around 17 to 19 percent. Meanwhile, the average monthly wage is just under $400. Its economy is hugely dependent on remissions from its far-flung Diaspora in Russia, Western Europe, and the United States, as well as trade with Russia, more broadly. Iran is also an important trading partner (The World Factbook, Armenia. CIA). When Nikol Pashinyan, the leader of the opposition, set off on his protest march against Serzh Sargsyan on 31 March from Armenia's second city Gyumri only a couple of dozen people joined him, and they were mainly journalists. By the time the MP and ex-journalist had reached the capital Yerevan on 13 April, thousands more had joined his movement. Nevertheless, on 17 April Serzh Sargsyan was elected Armenian prime minister by parliament, eight days after his two-term presidency ended. It provoked outrage across the country and fueled protests. Tens of thousands, mainly students and high-school children, poured onto the streets chanting "Make the step to reject Serzh". The newly elected prime-minister tried to negotiate with the opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan, but after a brief and unsuccessful meeting between them on 22 April, Nikol was detained. That was another mistake of Serzh Sargsyan, by the next day whole country was protesting and when soldiers joined the movement against Serzh, he finally gave up and resigned, admitting “I was wrong while Nikol Pashinyan was right”. And only after 8 months, the transit of power was completely over, when Pashinyan’s alliance won 2/3 of seats in the National Assembly of Armenia.

Nikol Pashinyan

During 70 years of the Soviet-regime, democratic movements and freedom of speech were suppressed in all Soviet republics. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of the former republics found themselves in a difficult and vague situation. So in this period, 1990s-beginning of the 2000s we can observe authoritarian leaders coming to power, who tried to unite a country and build a strong central government – Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia, Heydar Aliyev and his son Ilham in Azerbaijan, Aleksandr Lukashenko in Belarus, Nursultan Nazarbaev in Kazakhstan, Askar Akayev in Kyrgyzstan, Emomali Rahmon in Tajikistan, Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan, Saparmurat Niyazov in Turkmenistan, Robert Kosharyan and Serzh Sargsyan in Armenia and finally Vladimir Putin in Russia. All these strong leaders had a lot in common – the soviet style of ruling, suppressing any kind of opposition, and free speech and media. Corruption and nepotism — favor granted to relatives in various fields, including business, politics, entertainment, sports, religion, and other activities, was an essential part of the countries. Citizens and opposition of some countries already managed to oust the dictators (Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, and Armenia).

In this article, we carefully looked at the particular cases of the revolutions in Georgia and Armenia. Only these two countries could overthrow their authoritarian leaders without any blood and serious political consequences. It is an inevitable process after the authoritarian Soviet-rule, but it takes a different time for each country to recover, due to its own specifics. By giving them examples of Armenia and Georgia, we prove that point and see the particular movements in these countries. As both revolutions were the signs of positive change and rising civil movements, they are seen as a response to the lasting corrupted regimes in Georgia and Armenia. And sooner or later such movements are unavoidable events for all countries in this region.

Democracy Index 2020 (Economist Intelligence Unit)

Reference

Philippe C.Schmitter and Terry Lynn Karl. “What democracy is… and is not”. Journal of Democracy. Summer 1991

Valerie Bunce and Sharon Wolchik. “Conclusions: Democratizing Elections, International Diffusion, and U.S. Democracy Assistance”. Defeating Authoritarian leaders in post communist countries. June 2011.

Larry Diamond. “Democracy in Decline: How Washington can reverse the tide”. Foreign Affairs. July/August 2016. p.151-159

John Thrasher Kevin Vallier. “Political Stability in the Open Society”. American journal of political science. 29 January 2018

Democracy in Crisis. Freedom in the World. 2018. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2018

United States Institute of Peace Special Report: “Georgia’s Rose Revolution. A Participant’s Perspective”. July 2006. https://www.usip.org/publications/2006/07/georgias-rose-revolution-participants-perspective

Rayhan Demytrie. “Why Armenia 'Velvet Revolution' won without a bullet fired”. BBC.com, Yerevan. 01 May 2018. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-43948181

Alan Crosby and Amos Chapple. “Armenians Want What They Need, After Getting What They Wanted”. 27 April 2018. https://www.rferl.org/a/armenians-look-to-get-what-they-need-after-getting-what-they-wanted/29196411.html

Arman Grigoryan “Why Armenia's transition to democracy failed”. Lehigh University. 30 April 2018. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-04/lu-wat042718.php

The World Factbook, Armenia. Central Intelligence Agency. 1 May 2018. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/am.html

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