What happens to the Caucasus when Russia stumbles

Russia’s weakening status will have a major economic and political impact on the divided and fragmen

The three republics have varying degrees of dependencies on Russia, writes Oskanian [AFP]

It is hard to think of another region in the world where three neighbouring countries, with at least seven decades of a common past, have taken such divergent paths in their political orientations and state building processes as the three republics of the Caucasus – Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan.

What divides these countries today is not religion, ethnicity, culture, history, or traditions; it is the differing visions, prospects, ambitions, convictions, and aspirations that they espouse and pursue.

The list of examples is long. Armenia is a member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation, while Georgia and Azerbaijan are not. Georgia aspires to NATO membership; Azerbaijan does not, and has strong security arrangements with Turkey and Israel while purchasing modern military hardware from Russia.

Georgia recently signed the Association Agreement with the European Union joining the Union’s free trade zone while committing to reforms that will strengthen the European value system in Georgia. Armenia went in the other direction by joining the Eurasian Union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, becoming part of a customs union that will enable free trade among the four with common customs regulations. Azerbaijan stayed away from both.

Divisive similarities

These are just some of the differences. There are similarities but of a divisive nature: The imitation of democracy and a lack of an independent judiciary – albeit to different degrees and in different forms.

Pretence at democratisation is dangerous and counterproductive. It distorts the relationship between government and the governed, raising expectations that can’t be met, and obstructing progress that could be taking place elsewhere in society. Constitutions, which, by definition, affirm the prevalence of law over governmental fiat, have little meaning where the notion of an independent judiciary is nonexistent.

Caucasus countries have taken divergent paths [AlJazeera]

This non-democratic and non-judicial environment breeds the kind of populism among leaders that we witness in Armenia, Georgia and particularly in Azerbaijan. They have moralised politics, claimed that they alone represent the people, and it is they who can identify the common good and implement the public’s genuine desires. This way, they relegate all political opponents to obscurity.   

Such disconnect is fraught with dire social and economic consequences, growing resentment and disenchantment among the public in all three republics.

Georgians have twice forced a change of government – first through the 2003 Rose Revolution, which imposed the popular will on an unelected government, and then again last year through the ballot box. However, there is little progress in Georgia on things that matter to Georgians, including jobs and territorial integrity. The economy is stalling, foreign direct investment is drying up and political pressure on the media is rising.

For their part, Armenians came close to forcing a change of government through street protests on three occasions – but failed each time. No election since independence has brought a change of government. This past month, three leading Armenian opposition parties joined forces – for the first time since independence – in mobilising the public in two mass rallies demanding fresh national elections.

Azerbaijan is the most autocratic among the three. No serious attempt to change the government has been made. Indeed, power has simply been transferred from Heydar Aliyev to his son, Ilham Aliyev, who, after assuming office in 2003, amended the constitution to make himself “President for Life”.

Dissent is brutally suppressed and the crackdown on protests is harsh. Over the last two and a half years, Azerbaijan has either threatened or actually brought criminal charges against at least 50 independent and opposition political activists, journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders.

Russia’s vision

Regardless of the nature of its formal relations with each of the three republics, Russia casts a long shadow over the Caucasus. Whatever these countries decide, they must remain cognisant of the “Russia factor”, the perceived significance of which inevitably influences their foreign policy orientation and priorities.

The three republics have varying degrees of dependencies on Russia. Armenia’s is the deepest. Russia is Armenia’s largest trade partner, biggest investor and sole supplier of gas and nuclear fuel.  All three have big diaspora communities in Russia and they send billions of dollars in remittances to their kin back home – critical inflows for the economic survival of the individuals and their republics. But the biggest dependence for all three countries is geopolitical as they struggle to resolve ethnic conflicts in which Russia is either the main protagonist (in the case of Abkhazia and South Ossetia) or a major player (in the case of Nagorno Karabakh).

Russia today faces serious geopolitical and economic challenges. It is in direct confrontation with the West on its vision about the world order, Ukraine, Syria and a great many big and small issues. Economically, Russia is beginning to feel the aggregate impact of western economic sanctions, falling oil prices, ruble devaluation, capital outflow and decline in direct foreign investment.

What’s happening to oil prices today is very reminiscent of developments on the eve of the sunset of the Soviet Union. It took two years for crumbling oil prices to bring the Soviet Union to its knees in the mid-1980s, and another two years of stagnation to break the Union altogether.

One might think the pressures, the declining economy and the anticipated public dissatisfaction, especially among the elite, may force the Kremlin into partial submission and change its posture on global issues and weaken its grip on its immediate neighbourhood. But Putin could easily see his way out of this by consolidating the most vulnerable.

Russia’s weakening status no doubt will have a major economic and political impact on the divided and fragmented Caucasus causing further turmoil and economic misery in the three republics.

Indeed, the Caucasus today is a divided and incoherent region. The three republics – Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan – could have learned from countries in similar configurations, such as the Benelux countries and the Baltic States. These other regions, each in their time, were catapulted to stability, prosperity and democracy by virtue of their common history, unity and clear sense of purpose, despite the great many historical grievances and political differences and disagreements among them. For the Caucasus, it is too late.

Vartan Oskanian is a member of Armenia’s National Assembly, a former foreign minister and the founder of Yerevan’s Civilitas Foundation.