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Analysis: Can 2017 be a year of opportunity for Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia?
08 January 2017

The governments in the three South Caucasus countries all have ambitious agendas for 2017.  These agendas however can only be achieved if governments give more attention to internal cohesion built on wider consensus within their respective societies, argues Dr Dennis Sammut in the third and final article in the series looking at the region at the start of the new year.

This article was first published in the weekly electronic newsletter, Caucasus Concise on 5 January 2017.

In their new year's addresses to their respective citizens, President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia, President Ilham Aliev of Azerbaijan and Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili of Georgia all stressed the importance of self reliance, and of not depending on outside factors, as they face the challenges ahead. Given the global conditions, and the likelihood that things will get worse before they get better, they were of course right to do so.

The governments of the three South Caucasus countries need to pursue policies that will contribute to national cohesion as they deal with domestic and external challenges in 2017. The extent to which they can fulfil their ambitious agendas for the year ahead will depend on their willingness and ability to do so. National cohesion is sometimes confused with stability, and stability has often been used in the past to justify the silence of dissenting voices. National cohesion cannot however be achieved through fear - it needs to be built on a wide consensus within society on a whole set of issues. This will be a common challenge facing Armenia, Azerbaijan  and Georgia in 2017.

Armenia, and the dance of the three presidents

Armenian politics over the last twenty-five years have been dominated by the three persons who have held the the country's Presidency since independence - Levon Ter-Petrosyan, Robert Kocharian and the incumbent, Serzh Sargsyan. Theirs has been an intricate ritual dance, sometimes messy, sometimes dignified. Armenians will go to the polls on 2 April to vote in parliamentary elections. Following the recent constitutional changes Armenia will become a parliamentary republic once the term of the incumbent expires in April 2018, so the new parliament will be significantly more powerful than previous once. Quite how this will play out is yet to be seen, but the task for the current authorities is to conduct the elections to high international standards, a promise president Sargsyan emphatically made in his new year address, whilst ensuring a favourable outcome. It is likely that this once more turns out to be a competition between the three presidents and their proxies. But this cosy arrangement is for the first time being challenged by elements at both ends of the political spectrum - ultra nationalists and pro-western liberals, both unhappy with Moscow's stranglehold, and who despite their differences may also find common ground. Other players, that have so far by and large been happy to exist as satellites of the three presidential heavy weights, are also becoming increasingly more assertive.

The two issues that will define 2017 Armenian politics are Karabakh and the economy. Karabakh has divided the three presidents in the past, but Serzh Sargsyan needs to have at least the support of one of the other two to decide any major issue of war or peace. Hence his pilgrimage to meet Ter-Petrosian, immediately after the short war with Azerbaijan last April. Ter-Petrosian has recently endorsed Sargsyan's position on the Karabakh negotiations, which is crucial at a time when relations between Sargsyan and Kocharian are reported to be awkward.

The backdrop for the political drama is the economy which has been in dire straits for a number of years. The heavy doze of medicine that the new Prime Minister, Karen Karapetyan, has started administrating, may take time to work and in the meantime key stakeholders may be alienated just when their loyalty is needed most.

So while national cohesion may seem to be easier in Armenia than in the other two countries given the homogeneity of the population, this, as was amply shown in the past, is not necessarily the case and 2017 may turn out to be a testing year for the Armenian leadership

 

Azerbaijan, and the unfinished generational transition

When president Ilham Aliev replaced his father as leader of Azerbaijan in 2003, the main argument of those within the ruling circles who were against the succession was that he was too young and inexperienced. Conscious of this criticism he subsequently failed to make some necessary changes at the top of his team. This has coloured Ilham Aliev's presidency, and how the world perceives it. Fourteen years later he remains surrounded in the highest echelons of the state by people of his father's generation who have constantly applied the breaks to the process of reform in the country. It is likely that this issue will come to a head in 2017, simply because the challenges facing Azerbaijan are going to be too big for it to be ignored any further. So far the leadership's priority has been to emphasise stability, but this has been done at a high cost, especially in the silencing of dissenting voices within society. Big chunks of society have been pushed to the outer fringes of political life, to the point where this has now become itself a distabilising factor.

In Azerbaijan too Karabakh and the economy will define 2017, but the deficit in the political system, unless rectified, may also come to a head. The constitutional changes pushed through at speed in the summer, have so far been unimplemented. They may offer a way out, although on their own they may not be enough. Bringing the main opposition back into the parliamentary fold is very necessary, and this will require an election which is not foreseen for this year.

Building national cohesion is already a challenging task for any Azerbaijani government given the diversity of the country, and president Aliev is right to take pride in how the government approaches these issues. But the government's failures, for example in providing its citizens with a modern and comprehensive health care system when the oil wealth was flowing, is eroding its popularity base.

Political cohesion in Azerbaijan needs to be restored. A first step should be the release of prisoners jailed for political crimes, such as Ilgar Mammedov and the youth activists of NIDA. The government could then relaunch a political dialogue with all stakeholders. I am hopeful this will happen in 2017.

In Georgia, reconfiguration of political forces  likely in 2017, as constitutional talks come into play

Georgia's politics and its institutions have proven quite robust in 2016. The October elections gave Prime Minister's Kvirikashvili's government a handsome vote of confidence. It also added considerably to its legitimacy. It was also a turning point in Georgian politics that had so far looked and sounded somewhat out of tune with Georgia's ambitious European agenda. Georgia has also implemented serious reforms in the judicial, economic and political aspects of life, and Georgians rightly now expect to reap the benefits - be they in the form of visa liberalisation for travel to Europe, or perhaps more pertinently, a better quality of life for people, especially those outside the major cities.

The current political situation offers a once in a lifetime opportunity for Georgia to consolidate its achievements - a window that will not however last long. This will require very hard work by the government in the economic sphere, and a lot of wisdom in dealing with the political opportunities that the present situation provides. Georgian politics are likely to be dominated in 2017 by the debate on the constitutional changes, initiated by the newly elected parliament just before the Christmas break. Quite what the government wants to achieve with these changes is not yet clear, but what they should want to do is to use them to contribute to advance national cohesion based on current realities. This means, among other things, addressing the issues of minorities - national, religious, sexual and others. As Georgia develops, national minorities may find themselves more disadvantaged compared to the mainstream. Economic and development planning needs to take this into account, and a more visible participation of people from national minorities in public life is long overdue. Addressing some of these issues in a constitutional framework will be challenging but necessary. Subsequent Georgian governments have skirted around this problem. They will continue to do so at their own risks. Georgia also has a significant Muslim minority, as well as other religious minorities. Protecting their role in Georgian society will need to be managed, especially at a time when the dominant Georgian Orthodox Church is entering a period of introspection. Georgia also has a muddled approach to the rights of sexual minorities. Any reference to this in the new constitution will need to be extremely well crafted.

The two main political forces in Georgia - the governing Georgian Dream (GD) and the opposition United National Movement (UNM) are likely to finish 2017 looking significantly different than how they started. The UNM is at a crossroads. There is now very little that holds it together, apart from the aspiration for power, and that may be more achievable if there is a reconfiguration of the forces within that party. On the other hand the Georgian Dream has always claimed that it was a broad church. It fought the 2012 elections as a national salvation movement. In 2016 it asked the Georgian people to be allowed to finish what it started. Going forward however the GD will need to be clear where it is ideologically anchored. Having a huge majority in parliament may bring problems of its own, as any party leadership in similar situations in even the most mature democracies will tell you. Keeping this broad Church cohesive and coherent will not be possible for ever. For the moment however this can be seen as a positive factor that contributes to the national cohesion of Georgia, something it may very well do, if, and it is a big if, it is able to avoid the arrogance of power, and be able to work constructively with other political forces.

Georgia remains a country with large chunks of its territory out of its control. Its relations with Russia remain problematic, and Russia has ambitions on Georgia that are far from benign. Georgia's best protection going forward should be its national cohesion based on genuine partnership between all the elements of Georgian society. 2017 will tell us a lot the extent to which this is possible.

2017 will not be an easy year for Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, but in all three countries it may very well be a year of opportunity.

This is the third and final article looking back at 2016, and analysing prospects for 2017 prepared for Caucasus Concise by Dr Dennis Sammut. Dennis Sammut is a regional analyst and Director of LINKS (Dialogue, Analysis and Research). He may be contacted at dennis@links-dar.org

You may read the first article in this series here

You may read the second article in this series here

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