Is there an axis shift in Georgia and Armenia?

The tensions in domestic politics ahead of the presidential elections slated for this year in the Caucasus are making a direct impact on the countries’ foreign policies. Even in Azerbaijan, which seems to be the most stable of these countries, dozens of civil society organizations (CSOs) are able raise their voice against the government while dissident politicians can make an unprecedented impact and share their messages with the outer world.

But the political crises in Georgia and Armenia provide us with hints as to how democratic values may differ and along what lines.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who recently handed over his post to a new government after a democratically held election in 2012, had implemented a number of reforms to turn the country into a Western-styled one, but this reformist leader fell from grace because there weren’t any visible improvements to the quality of life. The rising leader of the country, Bidzina Ivanishvili, was elected as prime minister by campaigning that Georgia’s priorities are to pursue equilibrium-centered policies with its neighbors and to improve the welfare of the general public. Since his election to office, Ivanishvili has maintained a policy of arresting dozens of politicians and bureaucrats of the old government who were close to Saakashvili, and his move to reinforce his clout over the state apparatus is welcomed by the general public, but Western authorities who denounce such a move as antidemocratic cannot raise their voice much. Furthermore, Ivanishvili quickly set out on a policy of normalizing Georgia’s ties with Russia, and it appears he will attain this target in the medium term.

After giving a green light to dialogue with Russia by announcing that they can hold talks with Russia through mediation by a third country, the Tbilisi administration finally held its first meeting with Russian authorities in Geneva. This gathering between Georgia’s special envoy on Russian issues, Zurab Abashidze, and Russian State Secretary and Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Grigory Karasin was welcomed by Russia, and both countries agreed to boost trade relations in the first instance. Russian authorities announced that bilateral relations will improve gradually and that they may change their fixed attitudes concerning Abkhazia and South Ossetia if improvements continue at this pace. Indeed, Ivanishvili has attached great importance to the normalization of bilateral ties with Russia, and contrary to what previous governments have done, he announced that Georgia will give its full support to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games. He also moved on to declare that they are ready to reopen the Abkhazian railway.

The Sochi Olympics initiative by Georgia, which has also officially recognized the Circassian genocide, as well as its policy regarding the Abkhazian railway, which will only serve to make Armenia happy in the region while disturbing Azerbaijan, Turkey and Abkhazia, are indications of Georgia’s intention to establish close ties with Russia at the expense of offending regional countries and administrations.

This railway will connect Tbilisi both to Russia via Sukhumi, and to Armenia via Gyumri. The reopening of this railway as a show of goodwill will facilitate access to the military base in Gyumri for Russian military troops, and improve transportation between Georgia and Russia and Abkhazia. But initially Russia did not attach much importance to this proposal, and Abkhazia opposed the plan, describing it as a trap, and Azerbaijan called on Tbilisi to act in a more reasonable manner, fearing that Armenia might get another source of relief via this railway. Indeed, the Georgia railway plan will prove most beneficial to Armenia as well as to Russia.

Georgia is indebted to Saakashvili for its current affinity with the Euro-Atlantic axis. Despite the prime minister’s efforts to purge pro-Saakashvili government officials and tilt the country toward Russia, Saakashvili continues to give positive pro-Western messages. In this context, the presidential elections slated for this are so vital that it will make a deep impact on the future of the entire Caucasian region. These developments have the potential to create tremors that would be of interest to Turkey and lead to cracks in geopolitical balances. 

Democracy suppressed in Armenia

The presidential election slated for February in Armenia has brought many politicians face-to-face in Yerevan. A civil society organization, called the Civilitas Foundation, established by former Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanyan, whose political impact has scared many in recent months, has been subjected to a large-scale smear campaign due to fraud allegations. Since he was eliminated from the political scene, Oskanyan’s power in the political arena in his country has been reduced to a great extent, while competition has continued between other politicians. Likewise, Prosperous Armenia Party leader Gagik Tsarukyan, one of the leading oligarchs of the country, too, dropped his bid to become president, allegedly because he was being blackmailed. Similarly, many politicians who are being suppressed are not able to express their opinions freely. The most remarkable common feature of these people is that they all advocate for Armenia to have more effective relations with its neighbors and to free their country from Russian influence. Nevertheless, it seems that the circles that support the survival of the status quo prevail, as always, and this shows that there will be no improvement on the side of democracy.

The existence of a system in Yerevan in which both a separate politics and oligarchy are at play continues to guide the final say in the country’s policy on domestic and international affairs, the actors of this system seek to increase their personal profits and fail to manage the country’s economy successfully.

The politicians who search for a solution to free Armenia from troubles rooted in its geopolitical situation are silenced in one way or another.

During the tenure of the new president, the changes that take place in the countries in the region, including improvements in Georgia-Russia relations, Russian efforts to establish a Eurasian Union, developments to be seen in Nagorno-Karabakh and the policies of the region’s states on their relations with the West, are important in determining the political route of Armenia. In addition to the dependency of Armenia on Russia, the positive messages delivered by the country to the European Union and NATO must be carefully scrutinized. Moreover, the new Armenian president’s term in office will extend to 2015. Therefore, the approach of the new president towards Turkey is very important.

The changes taking place in the region must be followed seriously by Turkey and, if need be, Turkey must take precautions. Because the Western and Russian effect in the region has the power of determining Turkey’s position in the Caucasus.

Mehmet Fatih ÖZTARSU

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