Opinion: A view from Yerevan of events in Tbilisi and Baku
11 December 2019

Benyamin Poghosyan relects on ongoing domestic developments in neighbouring Georgia and Azerbaijan in this op-ed

The year 2019 was marked by domestic transformations in both Georgia and Azerbaijan. Georgia has seen the unprecedented rise  in street protests, and the clashes between demonstrators and riot police. The summer protests in Tbilisi triggered by the   appearance in Georgian parliament's speaker seat of Russian MP Gavrilov were calmed down only after the resignation of Speakerof Parliament, and  a promise by the ruling Georgian Dream party leader Bidzina Ivanishvili to amend the electoral law and move to a  fully proportional electoral system ahead of the crucial 2020 parliamentary elections. However, as a result   resistance from the sitting majoritarian MPs,  Parliament failed to pass the necessary constitutional amendments which triggered a new wave of street demonstrations. Many pundits argue that Parliament's negative vote was in fact a plot hatched by Mr. Ivanishvili  since a fully   proportional voting system did not guarantee a victory for Georgian Dream. Some believe that is was a real insurgency of majoritarian MPs, who had very little chance  to enter the Parliament through the new system. Many majoritarian MPs have tangible influence in Georgian regions, thus Mr. Ivanishvili could not afford to lose their support. However, regardless of the true reasons behind  Parliament's decision almost all opposition parties now are united against Georgian Dream and its leader Bidzina Ivanishvili and demand electoral reforms - suggesting the introduction of the so called "German model" as a compromise.   Georgian Dream argues that the German model does not comply with the constitution.

 Western diplomatic representatives made enormous efforts to bring the two sides to the negotiation table. As a result of two meetings held on November 30 and December 8, the Georgian Dream agreed to discuss the opposition proposals to create a multi-mandate election constituencies - 10 instead of the existing 73 suggesting, that from each 10 constituencies six-eight majoritarian MPs will be elected and as a result the country will again have 73 majoritarian MPs as now. The third meeting is scheduled to take place within two weeks. However, regardless of these meetings, most probably the domestic political crisis will continue well into 2020 and instability will be a prevailing pattern of Georgia till next Parliamentary elections scheduled for October. Meanwhile, Georgia is gradually becoming a hot spot not only for the US - Russia but also US - China competition. The fate of the Anaklia deep port construction, where Americans clearly prevented Chinese investors' efforts to be part of the project, was a clear sign of US - China rivalry. Meanwhile, Russia also carefully looks though Georgian domestic developments. On December 5 the Russian deputy foreign minister met with one of the leaders of the Georgian opposition, former Parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze in Moscow. The possible interference of external actors in Georgian domestic political and economic issues may further complicate the situation there.    

Meanwhile, another South Caucasian Republic, Azerbaijan is in the midst of significant political transformation dubbed by some experts as a "Silent revolution". In recent months many representatives close to the late President Heydar Aliyev, the leaders of the so called "Nakhijevan clan", were fired from their positions and replaced by   persons close to the First Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva. The decision to dissolve the Parliament and hold snap Parliamentary elections on February 9, 2020 was another move to finalize the transformation of Azerbaijani political elites. Given the recent successful visit of Mehriban Aliyeva to Moscow and her meeting with President Putin during which Russian President awarded her with a Russian state order, the Order of Friendship, we may  conclude that these domestic political transformations were being discussed, and were backed by the Kremlin.

Just four days after the Aliyeva - Putin meeting, President Ilham Aliyev made several anti-European statements during his public speech on the 100th anniversary of Baku State University. President Aliyev called the 2003 Rose and 2004 Orange revolutions as diseases and plagues and hailed Azerbaijan for being able to prevent foreign attempts to instigate revolution also there. President Aliyev stated that Azerbaijan will not integrate to Europe gripped by an economic crisis, where society is saying "Stop Islam" and does not see the difference between men and women. These statements mainly go in line with Russian official propaganda accusing the West of instigating revolutions in Post Soviet space and abandoning the traditional Christian values.

It's difficult to assess the real reasons for these dramatic changes in Azerbaijan. Some experts argue that the key is the economy, as due to the decline of oil prices and deteriorating economic situation Azerbaijan has to make real reforms and fight against shadow economy which means fight also against entrenched old elites who have vested interests in current   system which has left plenty of room for corruption. Others mention the "Velvet revolution" in Armenia in 2018 claiming that the Azerbaijani leadership wants to prevent  a "people's revolution" in Azerbaijan and therefore is forced to make substantial "top - down" changes. Given the growing role of Mehriban Aliyeva in Azerbaijan some inside and outside Azerbaijan predict the preparation of Mr. Aliyev's resignation in 2021-2022 and explain all changes as an effort to make a smooth transition from Mr. Aliyev to his wife. However, regardless of the true reasons behind the recent reshuffle in Azerbaijan, all accept that the events of autumn 2019 are comparable by their magnitude only with events in 2003 when Ilham Aliyev was elected President and even with events in 1993 when   President Elchibey was forced out of office and Heydar Aliyev came to power in Baku.

Both Georgia and Azerbaijan are in an active phase of domestic transformation. The final destination of the current political  crisis in Georgia is the 2020 Parliamentary elections which will define the future of Georgia for another four years. As for Azerbaijan, most probably, political transformations will continue beyond 2020 with unclear results as for now.      

source: Benyamin Poghosyan is the Founder and Chairman of the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan. 

photo: Azerbaijani First Vice president Mehriban Aliyeva was in Moscow just before important personnel changes were announced in Azerbaijan. (picture courtesy of Azertac)

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