Future of democracy in South Caucasus
According to the 2021 Democracy Index released by The Economist Intelligence Unit, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia are considered to be hybrid regimes. If we look at the results of previous years, the countries kept almost the same positions. In this article, we will discuss the democratic development of the South Caucasus countries over the past decades and the future of democracy in the region.
Despite the fact that Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia gained their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the countries of the South Caucasus have not yet been able to have a democratic image.
Nevertheless, democracy and the prosperity and freedom, it will bring, have always been desirable goals for the societies of all three countries. However, both the country's internal problems and external influences on the region have been enough to slow down the transition to democracy over the years.
Russia - as an "ostacle" to democracy
Russia's undemocratic and dominant policies, to which all three countries of the South Caucasus must submit in one way or another, are considered to be the main obstacles to their democratization. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia tried to keep the former Soviet countries still within its sphere of influence.
Although the countries of the South Caucasus gained independence after the collapse of the USSR, they could not completely get rid of the control of the Russian Federation. Russia created a threat to Georgia's territorial integrity by supporting Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia's internationally recognized territories. As for Armenia and Azerbaijan, it has always triggered the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between the two countries, ensuring that none of them can make serious decisions without Russia's approval. Russia also maintains troops in all three South Caucasus countries.
There are Russian troops in unrecognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the sovereign territory of Georgia. Armenia, on the other hand, maintains Russian military bases on its territory as a member of the CSTO. Until 2020, Azerbaijan was the only former Soviet state(other than the Baltic states) without a Russian army in its territory, but after the second Karabakh war, Russian peacekeepers settled in Karabakh, according to a statement signed by Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia. After all Russia had its troops in all three South Caucasus countries.
The countries that Russia wants to keep under control are not only the countries of the South Caucasus. Russia is considered a key issue for each of the former Soviet states (except the Baltic states) to take into account when pursuing an independent foreign policy, either as an ally or because of certain problems created or supported by Russia.
However, attitudes towards Russia have changed compared to previous years.
After Russia's military intervention in Ukraine, many countries, including the United States and the West, have sharply changed their position on Russia, imposed sanctions on it, and removed it from a number of influential bodies, such as the UN Human Rights Council. The situation threatens not only Russia's power, but also its existence. Therefore, it is questionable whether it will be able to keep the South Caucasus in its sphere of influence in the near future.
In addition, after the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 2020, the conflict over Karabakh was largely resolved. The adoption of the peace agreement proposed by Azerbaijan after the meeting between the President of Azerbaijan and the Prime Minister of Armenia in Brussels by Armenia also shows that the parties will make progress in resolving ethnic and territorial conflicts between the two countries.
Based on the attitude of the people of the South Caucasus to Russia, we can say that all three nations want to get out of its sphere of influence.
Only time will tell how Russia will get out of the current situation, but regardless of the outcome, it is possible to assume that the attitude to Russia and the political situation in the South Caucasus will change.
After the fraudulent parliamentary elections in 2003, the "Rose Revolution" began under the leadership of Mikhail Saakashvili.
Following the resignation of then-President Eduard Shevardnadze, Saakashvili started ruling the country in January 2004. Georgia, especially after the revolution and as a result of Saakashvili's pro-Western policy, had created a hope for the democratization of Georgia and, if possible, the South Caucasus. In 2008, after NATO rejected giving Georgia the hoped-for Membership Action Plan while reassuring that Georgia will join the alliance at an unspecified future date.
Also, the war started in South Ossetia this year and it made clear that Georgia will not join the EU in the near future. Saakashvili's silent departure from power in 2013 created a tradition in Georgia of fair elections and a change of government through elections. Although Georgia has suffered from corruption and oligarchy over the past decade, it is more democratic than other countries in the region and a leader in democratization in the South Caucasus. The Georgian leader's appeal for EU membership in March, along with his Moldovan counterpart, gives reason for hope for the future of democracy in Georgia.
In 2018, as a result of Serzh Sargsyan's desire to extend the term of office in Armenia and become the country's prime minister in the new parliamentary system, he was forced to resign after protests led by Nicole Pashinyan, and Pashinyan himself became prime minister.
Pashinyan, who was considered as pro-Western and wanted to reduce Armenia's dependence on Russia, created a hope for the country's democratization. After losing the war in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, Armenia sought to build good neighbourly relations by developing relations with Azerbaijan and its main ally and partner, Turkey, shortly after the war, and to reduce its dependence on Russia by completely giving up Nagorno-Karabakh. The Armenian leadership, which agreed to sign a peace agreement with Azerbaijan, seems to consider peace and cooperation as a key factor in the development of the region. Armenia's dependence on Russia and its lack of political and economical relations with its two neighbours were obstacles to its democratization and development, but now as the situation has changed, we can hope for a positive impact on Armenia.
Hopes for democratization in Azerbaijan are less than in other Caucasian countries.
Ilham Aliyev, who was elected president after his father Heydar Aliyev in 2003, won the next three elections and has been in power for almost 20 years. Democratic institutions are also in a weak position in Azerbaijan, which lags behind its Caucasus neighbours in terms of the democracy index. According to its energy sources, Azerbaijan has more wealth than other countries and its government has more resources to maintain its power.
By developing oil and gas relations with Europe, Azerbaijan is no longer under pressure from Europe for its "authoritarian" government, and Ilham Aliyev is able to find common ground with his European counterparts. The growing authoritarianism of Turkey, Azerbaijan's main ally and strategic partner, continues to have a negative impact on the democratization of Azerbaijan. The government of Azerbaijan, which won the Karabakh war in 2020 and almost restored its territorial integrity, also received the unequivocal support of the people, and Ilham Aliyev strengthened his position.
Today, there is neither public pressure nor any outside influence that will trigger democratization in Azerbaijan. It seems that there is not any reason to prevent the ruling YAP government, which has been in power for nearly 30 years, from extending its rule.
Today, based on all the problems in the world, from migration to poverty, we can say that the future of democracy and liberalism is not only under pressure, but even in danger. For the peoples of the South Caucasus, who have not fully tasted democracy since their independence, it is still considered to be the key to prosperity and freedom. We can say that Armenia and Georgia are striving for democracy and trying to overcome the barriers that stand in the way, but for Azerbaijan, such a need or desire does not seem real yet. However, the democratization of the two neighbouring countries will most likely affect the oil country as well.