South Caucasus Political Overview Part II
In 2015, despite negotiations on an association agreement with the EU (looser accession than full membership – gets many of the benefits of the agreement, but not co-determination), Armenia chose to join the Russian-initiated Eurasian Economic Union (EU). Of the three countries in the South Caucasus, today only Armenia allows a permanent presence of Russian soldiers on its own territory.
GEORGIA . In contrast to Armenia, according to COMPUTERGEES, Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic orientation has been relatively stable since the mid-1990s. The economic crisis made the country dependent on aid from Western countries and international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. At the same time, the country’s territorial sovereignty was exposed and made little room for political action vis-à-vis Russia. This became clear when war broke out between the two states in 2008. Relations are still tense , but have since 2012 shown signs of improvement . Among other things, trade has resumed (something the Georgian economy has been completely dependent on), and arrangements have been made for Russia to transport gas over Georgian territory to Armenia.
Georgia has had a strong desire to join Western organizations such as the EU and NATO since the early 2000s. Under President Mikhail Saakashvili, the defense budget was multiplied , among other things, to be able to assist the US-led operations in Afghanistan and Iraq militarily . In 2016, a free trade agreement with the EU entered into force, after many years of gradual adaptation to the Union’s trading system. In February 2016, a law was passed in the European Parliament that gives Georgian citizens a visa-free entry permit to EU countries, plus the other Schengen countries, among others. Norway).
4: Azerbaijan – from diplomacy to dictatorship
Azerbaijan , for its part, wanted to liberate itself from the former “colonial power” Russia. Initially, they refused to join the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and ruled out Russian participation in the development of the country’s oil industry.
Azerbaijan’s vast oil deposits soon proved to provide important opportunities for maneuvering and bargaining in the balance between the great powers’ interest in the newly independent oil state. The award of oil agreements laid the foundation for a so-called “oil diplomacy”. Norway was also involved: Statoil was the second largest investor in Azerbaijan’s petroleum sector until 2014. President Heydar Aliyev wanted oil contracts to link partners from outside to regional development and to a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. By balancing investors, Azerbaijan also avoided dependence on one particular country.
Such a strategy was also reflected in foreign policy. In particular, the Azerbaijani authorities were skeptical of what they saw as Russia’s intentions for regional rule. Russia’s close relationship with Armenia and suspicions of covert Russian support for the Armenian warfare made it extra difficult to establish a relationship of trust.
The opportunity to choose independently from international partners became important in consolidating Azerbaijan’s position as an independent player in the region. This line of foreign policy independence has – in strong words – been continued under current President Ilham Aliyev .
Behind the political scenes, in parallel with the oil adventure of the 1990s, the president had consolidated his power. By 2003, constitutional amendments, electoral fraud, and threats and violence against opposition figures and journalists had paved the way for the transfer of presidential power from father to son. Since then, the re-election of President Ilham Aliyev (2008, 2013) has been criticized for a number of shortcomings. In March 2009, the constitution was amended to ensure the president the opportunity to be re-elected an unlimited number of times. Today, most human rights activists, journalists, opposition figures and other critics of the regime in Azerbaijan are in prison.
Azerbaijan can therefore be defined as pseudo-democratic: the country has an authoritarian government “made up” with a democratic appearance, such as elections (but unfree) and a relatively free internet.
At the same time, the Azerbaijani president is enjoying some popularity , at least on the surface. Researchers explain this with a combination of
- citizens’ fear of being sanctioned if they criticize the presidential family (eg losing their job)
- an unwritten law that one can criticize the authorities, but not the president personally
- the media’s portrayal of the president as one of the initiators of many of the country’s welfare programs.
The president’s party has shown willingness to increase spending on social benefits (such as building roads) to buy support (legitimacy) in the population, especially before an election year.
In addition, the large oil revenues have contributed to an enormous economic growth , which has also benefited the population: the level of poverty is lower in Azerbaijan than in the democratic neighboring country Georgia. The biggest challenge in Azerbaijan, however, is to diversify the country’s oil-dependent economy – get more legs to stand on and become less oil-dependent. About 80 percent of the economy is petroleum-based, and the authorities have long neglectedthe urgent need for structural reforms. The oil crisis in 2015 therefore led to several dramatic write-downs (devaluations) of the Azerbaijani currency (manats). The fact that the authorities had spent huge sums of money on the prestigious European Games project the same year added to the burden.