Stability in the Caucasus is fragile

The Caucasus has long been a part of the world that has required the attention of Europe. Since the 2008 invasion of Georgia by Russia, Europe has worked hard to encourage a Euro-Atlantic future for these countries in order to help bring them lasting peace and stability.

For an extended period of time, there seemed to be positive progress in the region. Recent elections in both Georgia and Armenia have helped deliver stable, reformist governments that have pushed through agendas that are aimed at changing their countries for the better and secure their independence.

In Armenia, the government of Nikol Pashinyan came to power with a great deal of promise in the spring of 2018 following a popular, citizen-led revolution that toppled the corrupt regime of Serzh Sargsyan.

Much to the surprise of many observers, support for the protestors eventually came from Prosperous Armenia, a socially and economically conservative political party that was created by former Prime Minister Robert Kocharyan, who, himself, was only recently released in June on a $4 million bail after having been arrested for the third time on charges of abuse of power.

On June 16, the governing majority party in the Armenian Parliament voted to strip Prosperous Armenia’s leader, Gagik Tsarukyan, of his parliamentary immunity after he criticised the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.

All of the opposition parties in parliament refused to take part in the vote as they believed it to be politically motivated. Protestors, who came out in support of Tsarukyan and Prosperous Armenia, were detained outside the Parliament building for gathering.

Shortly thereafter, Armenia’s National Security Services raided the offices of Prosperous Armenia and Tsarukyan’s home. As many as 120 investigators are reported to be taking part in the case, a disproportionate number that adds weight to the argument that the charges brought against both the party and Tsarukyan are politically motivated.

These events should be of concern as they represent yet another stumbling block for the development of democracy in Armenia. With the government going after opposition figures that dare to speak out against the actions of the government, further risks to democratic backsliding in the country become more common and questions begin to arise about the direction of Armenia’s democratisation process.

For Armenia to truly continue moving towards a democratic future, it must allow its opposition to having its voice freely heard without fear of censorship or reprimands.

When Armenia’s ‘velvet revolution’ brought Pashinyan to power two years ago, it looked as though the nation of 3 million was once on the right path. The last few months, however, have shown that it seems to be business as usual.

The international community should be looking at these events in the wider context of stability in the Caucasus region. In the last few weeks, there has been a dangerous escalation in the on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The clashes, which have occurred far from Nagorno-Karabakh – the ethnically Armenian region that Azeris and Armenians fought a bloody war over in the early 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union – have led to the deaths of soldiers on both sides, including an Azeri general and several officers.

In neighbouring Georgia, parliamentary elections are scheduled for later this year. They will need to be closely watched by the international community as the outcome will likely determine whether or not Georgia continues down a reformist, Euro-Atlantic path.

Georgia faces a difficult choice in the upcoming elections as the two main political parties remain largely unpopular with voters. The incumbent Georgian Dream party of Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire oligarch who briefly served as prime minister, has been widely criticised for its mismanagement of the economy, its less-than-enthusiastic embrace of Western integration, its embrace and hands-off relationship with the powerful and deeply reactionary Georgian Orthodox Church, and its consolidation of power at the expense of opposition groups and the country’s previously independent courts since it became Georgia’s dominant political party in 2012.

The Georgian Dream has, however, won widespread praise from the European Union and the United States for its decisive handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Georgia has successfully contained the coronavirus and has registered one of the lowest infection and mortality rates in the world.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, growing animosity towards the Georgian Dream had been building for the past several years. This was further exacerbated by the fact that no viable alternative in the opposition currently exists. While the former ruling party, the United National Movement, remains the second-largest in the Georgian parliament, few in the country pine for the UNM, as the party is more commonly known, due to the near-dictatorial influence that ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has over the party.

Though Saakashvili currently remains in Kyiv as the head of the National Reform Council for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, most Georgians are far from interested in seeing Saakashvili return to any position of either power or influence due to his disturbingly erratic behaviour in recent years and the legacy of Saakashvili’s final years in office, which were characterised by his increasingly authoritarian tendencies and the personality cult built around him by his backers both inside and outside of Georgia.

The international community will want to guarantee that the Georgian elections in October do not become the spark for a deepening of the ever-more bitter divide between those who support the Georgian Dream and the United National Movement. Georgia has a very recent post-Soviet history of internal tensions that have led to brief, but fundamentally damaging, civil conflicts.  A return to the days of the 1990s isn’t in the interest of anyone in the region, let alone in the rest of the world

What’s paramount when assessing the immediate future of the Caucasus region is that the European Union must continue to support these countries as they transition, rather than only paying attention to them when it suits Europe’s interests.

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