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Problematizing Cross (Sub)Regional Comparisons: The Cases of Post-Soviet Azerbaijan and Georgia

Amanda Jessen, M.A. Candidate Conflict Resolution

Comparative Democratization Final Paper December 19, 2013

Introduction Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in December of 1991, academics and policymakers have busied themselves with debate over the hypothetical and realized trajectories of newly-post-Soviet nations. The question of how each of the 15 newly independent states – Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Lithuania, Turkmenistan, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia, Armenia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Moldova – would develop is one that is not yet fully answered, as the dust related to the quality of governance in each state, as well as the parallel transition to market economies has not yet fully settled. Area studies specialists have been quick to draw substantive comparisons between the dissolution of the Soviet Union into disparate states to waves of democratization in Latin America and southern Europe.1 While much can be discerned from looking to trends in other recently democratized parts of the world, cross-regional analysis can also risk essentializing and homogenizing the regions themselves, which leads to glossing over important variation within regional spaces. The diversity of intra-regional cases is better highlighted, perhaps, when regions are broken down analytically into their constitutive sub-regions, though even at the sub-regional level, important variations can get lost in the mix when macro-comparisons are made. In addition, inter-regional analysis may actually confuse anticipated results because the benchmarks for progress and parameters for democratic transitions are largely defined by experiences in historically and culturally different regions of the world. This study seeks to highlight how a more granular analysis of political trends within states can gift to observers a clearer picture of states in flux (as opposed to simply looking between regions for clues) by underscoring the radically different trajectories on which the post1 Valerie Bunce (2003). “Rethinking Recent Democratization: Lessons from the Postcommunist Experience.” World Politics, Vol. 55, p. 167.


Soviet states of Georgia and Azerbaijan currently reside. In the sub-region of the South Caucuses, where one might assume that states share more in common from historical, political, cultural, and even ethnic traditions than they do with post-Soviet states outside of the sub-region, the very fact that such profound variation demarcates the cases of Azerbaijan and Georgia should both alert comparative democracy analysts of the risks inherent in comparing one region to another and underscore the value in conducting “like-like” comparisons between states. One scholar provocatively notes that the post-Soviet experiences of Caucasian and Central Asian countries more closely resemble post-colonial experiences in Africa,2 which certainly encourages the reader to rethink the convenience of geography as a mode of analysis. This study does not suggest that inter-regional comparison is useless or always misleading, but rather this study functions as an alert to the importance of choosing appropriate modes of comparison in case studies, rather than uncritically selecting two states from within the same region to compare just because they reside in the same geographical space. As such, this paper will consider whether or not it makes more sense to prioritize substantive association as a comparative strategy over regional or even sub-regional closeness. Hopefully this study will lend balance to the discussion of post-Soviet states by recognizing the importance of South Caucuses case studies. Where emphases on Eastern European countries dominate the current debate and continue a trend of “long neglect[ing] transitions in the post-Soviet south”3, this study seeks to highlight the often-overlooked experiences of Georgia and Azerbaijan, with a particular emphasis on Azerbaijan, as it somehow still exists in relative obscurity in both the academy and policymaking worlds.

2 Jordan Gans-Morse. (2004). “Searching for Transitologists: Contemporary Theories of Post-Communist Transitions and the Myth of a Dominant Paradigm.” Post-Soviet Affairs, Vol. 20, No. 4., p. 342. 3 Farid Guliyev (2004). “Post-Soviet Azerbaijan: Transition to Sultanistic Semiauthoritarianism? An Attempt at Conceptualization.” Demokratizatsiya. p. 400.


Research Questions This paper seeks to answer the following questions: Where Azerbaijan and Georgia are similarly historically situated in the small sub-region of the South Caucasus, how different are the two regimes politically and how are these differences reflected by each country’s most recent elections? In addition, does a comparative analysis of these two cases help to problematize the practice of cross-regional analysis? Methodology First, a note about case study selection: the cases of Azerbaijan and Georgia because they share geographic borders and yet boast divergent regime types. They also share a common experience as former Soviet Republics under the U.S.S.R. The ensuing discussion over profound difference between the two states should encourage the reader to rethink the value of high-level, inter-regional comparison and analysis in the field of democracy studies, particularly when states may be better compared along different, substantive axes (like whether they have oil or whether they are engaged in protracted, violent conflict). The paper will begin with a literature review that will help discern the types of regime that currently head the states of Georgia and Azerbaijan. Establishing consistent terminology will help to flesh out the implications of regime type as they relate to the political sphere of each state – and what these implications mean for democratic prospects moving forward. Conversely, teasing out the political realities in Georgia and Azerbaijan will help to confirm regime-type classification for each case. The term “political reality” as such is taken to refer to elites, oppositions, and elections. As each country has a long history of political upheaval, the temporal focus will be restricted to each country’s most recent presidential or parliamentary election. Lastly, factors that on the surface differentiate the Georgian and Azerbaijani experiences, namely, 4

the presence/absence of oil and the presence/absence of armed conflict will be explored as potential determinants of differences with respect to ways in which ruling elites maintain power between the two states. Following the literature review, this paper will compare how the regimes of Georgia and Azerbaijan interact with elites, opposition elements, and elections within their respective states. This comparison will help to evaluate the differences inherent in Georgia’s and Azerbaijan’s post-independence regime trajectories in order to evaluate the argument that cross-regional – and even sub-regional – comparisons cannot be made without confronting the risk of glossing over discrete and analytically distinct differences. As a part of this analysis, factors that on the surface differentiate the Georgian and Azerbaijani experiences, namely, the presence/absence of oil and the presence/absence of armed conflict will be explored as potential determinants of differences with respect to ways in which ruling elites maintain power between the two states. As the author served in the United States Peace Corps in Azerbaijan from 2009-2011, attempts will be made to weave personal observations and conversation pieces throughout the study, where appropriate. The author is conscious of the fact that having lived in one of the two countries in question involves the risk of speaking in an overly-familiar way, but every effort will be made to report personal and/or observed experiences with a distanced fairness. Literature Review First, it should be noted that post-independence regime consolidation in Azerbaijan and Georgia is not viewed through the traditional lens of “transition as natural” from authoritarianism to democracy. Consistent with Sarah Meiklejohn Terry’s critique of the transition literature, the


transitions involve the dual-processes of authoritarian breakdown and post-authoritarian creation of new structures, which are “analytically distinct but empirically interrelated phenomena.”4 The breakdown of an authoritarian regime automatically does not fix a state on an inevitable and unidirectional path to democracy. The author agrees that “critics such as Stark, Burawoy, and Verdery are correct that much of the discourse on post-communism is framed as a transition to democracy and capitalism as opposed to the mere open-ended formulation of a transition from socialism.”5 Implicit in these arguments are normative assumptions that countries like Azerbaijan and Georgia would be full-fledged and consolidated democracies given more favorable conditions. It is true that regressions away from democracy should not be viewed as “pit stops on the track to a preconceived destination” 6, but instead, hold within them important analytical moments in their own right. In looking at regime-types, it is important to develop a clear definition of “ideal-type” authoritarian, democratic, and hybrid regimes. In speaking about authoritarianism in the Middle East, Eva Bellin notes that factors [of authoritarianism]... include the weakness of civil society, the deliberate manipulation and division of opposition forces; the cooptation of social forces through the distribution of rent, cronyism and stunted economic liberalization; the region’s cultural endowment; the prevalence and peculiar logic of monarchy; the embrace of liberalized autocracy; and the effective manipulation of political institutions such as parties and electoral laws.7 While not all of the above elements of authoritarianism are in play in the cases of Azerbaijan and Georgia (notably, the point on monarchy), Bellin’s concise definition of

4 Sarah Meiklejohn Terry (1993). “Thinging about Post-Communist Transitions: How Different Are They?” The Slavic Review, Vol. 52. No. 2, p. 333. 5 Jordan Gans-Morse, p. 336. 6 Ibid, p. 338. 7 Eva Bellin (2012). “Reconsidering the Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Lessons from the Arab Spring.” Comparative Politics, p. 128.


authoritarianism is complete in the sense that it addresses the political, economic, and civic/social dimensions of control at the level of the state. Another way of looking at authoritarianism is to view it through a Linzian lens; that is, to see it as emblematic of political systems with limited, not responsible, political pluralism, without elaborate and guiding ideology, but with distinctive mentalities, without extensive nor intensive political mobilization, except at some points in their development, and in which a leader or occasional small group exercises power within formally ill-defined limits but actually quite predictable ones.8 Democratic regimes are taken to include governments that have arrived as a result of sufficient agreement over political procedures, wherein said government is placed in power by a free and fair popular vote characterized by high participation and transparency. In addition, new policies emanate from legitimate authority, which is also invested in the regime through transparent and accountable elections.9 Lastly, hybrid regimes must be considered as a potential alternative to classifying the Georgian and Azerbaijani cases as purely democratic or purely authoritarian. For example, where adults are fully franchised and able to participate in elections but do so with the full knowledge that competition is uneven and the outcome almost certainly unfair, many scholars believe classifying the regime in power as a hybrid of democratic and authoritarian strands is more analytically powerful than working within the binary of democratic/authoritarian. 10 In addition, the impact of a trend like sultanism, where, “the private and the public are fused, there is a strong tendency toward familial power and dynastic succession.... and most of all, the ruler acts only

8 Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan. Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, Location 954 of 14,177. 9 Ibid, Location 324 of 14,177. 10 Leah Gilbert and Payam Mohseni (2011). “Beyond Authoritarianism: The Conceptualization of Hybrid Regimes.� Studies of Comparative International Development. Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, p. 274.


according to his own unchecked discretion, with no larger impersonal goals” 11 must be considered, particularly as it relates to the Azerbaijani case. In sum, this third category of regime type will be addressed as a perhaps better-suited label for the cases in question. Understanding how authoritarian, democratic, and hybrid regimes inform political realities with respect to elites, oppositions, and elections in their respective countries will help to flesh out the current state of political affairs in both Georgia and Azerbaijan. Elites are the decision-makers within state apparatuses with the influence and ability to control meaningfully and regularly the direction of state policies.12 Elites can be constitutive of a hierarchical military, a nonhierarchical military, a civilian cadre or a sultanistic cadre. 13 In terms of the importance of opposition forces to democracy, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a watchdog organization that works closely on human rights violations, states clearly that opposition mobilization through political parties and/or mass dissent cannot be separated from a legitimate democracy. 14Indeed, without political opposition parties, “there can be no choice” 15 in terms of elections. Elections as mechanisms of harnessing and funneling public support and decision-making for a particular political candidate or party are important, but many authors caution looking to the existence of elections as automatic evidence of democratic trends. Indeed, Lindberg writes “electoral contestation alone is not sufficient to make a democracy, because the electoral process may be flawed, wholly orchestrated, or dominated by the incumbent party to the extent of making

11 Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, Location 1188 of 14,177. 12 Michael Burton, Richard Gunther and John Highley (1993). “Introduction: Elite Transformations and Democratic Regimes,” in Highley and Gunther (eds.), Elites and Democratic Consolidation in Latin America and Southern Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 9. 13 Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, Location 1345, 14,177. 14 Inter-Parliamentary Union. “No Real Democracy Without Strong Political Opposition.” Geneva, September 11, 2013. Accessed online at 15 Steffan Lindberg (20060. “Tragic Protest: Why Do Opposition Parties Boycott Elections?” Electoral Authoritarianism: The Dynamics of Unfree Competition. Andreas Schedler (ed.), London: Lynne Reiner Publishers, p. 150.


outcomes a foregone conclusion.”16 Where elections are not free and fair, opposition parties and mobilized masses may still be able to turn the tides in their favor, but much ultimately depends on a number of coordination variables like access to the media, strength of civil society, the existence of external support, and a strong opposition.17 Broadly speaking, democracies tend to allow for political disagreements that do not fundamentally threaten the system or the institutions within it. 18 Democracies also tend to allow for the liberalization of markets, the development of a broad middle class, and some mixture of governmental oversight, which in turn creates conditions under which political control becomes more dilute. Democracies tend to allow for the flourishing of civil society, which can be understood to include “social institutions such as markets and voluntary associations and a public sphere which are outside the direct control, in a full or in a mitigated sense, of the state.” 19 The criticality of civil society as a component of a consolidated democracy is viewed as a necessary but not a wholly sufficient precondition for democracy, however.20 Authoritarian regimes are analytically distinct from democratic ones in a number of ways. Politically, authoritarian regimes are able to guarantee electoral success for themselves by either repressing the opposition or supporting uncompetitive elections by handpicking weak opponents or diluting the field with their own political proxies. In contrast, hybrid regimes may allow for electoral competition to occur on either the basis that the playing field is real but uneven or that multiparty competition exists, regardless of the strength of meaningfulness of that competition.21 16 Ibid. 17 Michael McFaul (2005). “Transitions from Postcommunism”, Journal of Democracy, Vol. 16, No. 3, p. 7. 18 Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, Location 382 of 14,177. 19 Victor Perez-Diaz (1993). The Return of Civil Society. Harvard University Press, p. 57. 20 Michael Bernhard (1993). “Civil Society and Democratic Transition in East Central Europe.” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 108, No. 2, p. 326. 21 Gilbert and Mohseni, p. 274.


Authoritarian regimes historically have pursued strategies of “cartelization”, a process described as a “program to expand regulations and controls throughout the economy, as a microeconomic extension of macroeconomic policies.” Related to this, authoritarian regimes tend to rely on state-based patronage networks that ensure their own personal enrichment and guarantee a disorganized, dependent middle class.22 Wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few and often at great expense to society in such a way that guarantees the extension of power of the ruling elite. Authoritarian regimes that rely on the export of a single commodity (like oil or minerals) to sustain their economies are even better positioned to develop structures that serve to enrich elites and impoverish constituents through vast and deeply entrenched back channels of corruption.23 Hybrid regimes may adopt all or some of these economic strategies to ensure enrichment and political power although the degree to which cartelization or the development of patronage networks are pursued is highly dependent on the degree to which the hybrid regime leans toward authoritarianism or toward democracy. In other words, where hybrid regimes squeeze out the middle class and civil society to ensure political control, it is more likely that economic schemas like cartelization will be in place. Conversely, where hybrid regimes allow for a more open civil society and private sector, wealth may be less concentrated among a small, tight circle of elites. Finally, authoritarian regimes tend to produce mixed results in terms of their respective civil societies, but generally regimes that are more “open, liberalized, and institutionalized” allow for better developed civil societies -- and produce stronger checks on political control -than regimes on the other end of that spectrum.24 Authoritarian regimes historically have clamped 22 Clement Moore-Henry and Robert Springborg (2001). Globalization and the Politics of Development in the Middle East. Cambridge University Press, p. 163. 23 Ibid. 24 Ibid, p. 70.


down on the development of non-state social and business networks, the press and various watchdog organizations with monitoring capacities within the states in order to consolidate their grip on the levers of state power. The relationship between hybrid regimes and the civic/social sphere will inevitably include elements of both authoritarianism and perhaps more liberalized attitudes toward freedoms associated with the media or organizational capacity of non-profit and non-governmental organizations. Characteristics of regime types are often not enough to situate a deep understanding of how and why elites, oppositions, and elections behave the way that they do. In other words, in seeking to understand there exist a number of variables, like oil and conflict for example, that must be considered in an analysis of a particular regime’s ability to maintain and exercise power. Theories that address the power of variables like oil and armed conflict on democratic development and/or authoritarian entrenchment are integral to establishing an understanding of how Azerbaijan and Georgia might enjoy fundamental differences despite a common historical and colonial experience under the yoke of Soviet rule. These variables may also help to explain why the South Caucuses as a sub-region should not be casually folded into “Eastern Europe” as a unit of analysis (and perhaps should not be used as a unit of analysis at all). Michael Ross statistically considers the impact of variables like “oil” and “Islam” on authoritarianism in the Middle East; essentially, he finds that the presence of Islam has no robust impact on authoritarianism while oil as a primary export commodity does. It is perfectly reasonable to extrapolate beyond that region in consideration of how those variables impact on a country like Azerbaijan where both variables are present. Where impact is either possible or likely, the absence of impact on a country like Georgia can also be analyzed.


In terms of interstate war, Ronald Krebs notes that armed conflict or crisis inflates executive authority in such a way that expanded presidential power can lead to an increase in despotism. He also points out that “the mobilization of popular sentiment around nationalist themes [that surge during times of war] has often had the effect...of silencing political opposition and freeing the state from constraints.”25 That Azerbaijan has been embroiled in frozen conflict with Armenia for over 20 years and that Georgia was recently militarily engaged – and is party to a fragile ceasefire currently – with Russia may contribute to the argument that South Caucuses nations should not be analyzed as part and parcel of the Eastern European aggregate. Azerbaijan and Georgia: Case Studies of the South Caucasus Azerbaijan Historical Context Azerbaijan first declared independence in 1918, just two years before it was conquered by the Red Army and incorporated into the newly formed Soviet Union. In 1967, Heydar Aliyev, a popular and charismatic politician from the non-contiguous Azerbaijani territory of Naxchivan, became the head of the Azerbaijani Communist party; from here, he would launch directly into the Soviet Politburo as First Deputy Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers in 1982. In 1988, the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is situated between Armenia and Azerbaijan, voted to be annexed to Armenia, a move that sparked the beginning of what would become an alternatively violent and frozen conflict that persists until present day. Dramatic presidential episodes characterized the post-independence period from 1991 until 1993, when Heydar Aliyev returned from exile in Naxchivan and seizeed power from then-President Abulfaz Elchibey. Six years after the initial onslaught of armed conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, 25 Ronald Krebs (2009). “In the Shadow of War: The Effects of Conflict on Liberal Democracy.” International Organization, Vol. 63, p. 183.


the two countries signed a ceasefire in 1994, which, to this day, continues to be sporadically violated by both sides. That same year, Azerbaijan signed what it calls “the contract of the century” with a consortium of oil companies for the development of three Caspian oil fields. Heydar Aliyev was re-elected in 1998 despite the outcry of opposition activists who alleged unfair elections and were later arrested for their activities. In line with increasingly authoritarian practices, Heydar Aliyev appointed his son, Ilham, as Azerbaijan’s prime minister. Shortly thereafter, Heydar died and Ilham rose to power in a largely uncontested and (again) unfree election. The party of the Aliyev’s, the New Azerbaijan Party, continued to win parliamentary elections by wide margins in 2005 and Ilham Aliyev was re-elected in 2008. In 2009, Aliyev spearheaded a referendum to eliminate the constitutional limit on presidential terms, paving the way for a third presidency in 2013. In that most recent election, Azerbaijan made headlines for publishing the results of the presidential election several days before the election was to be held.26 Regime Type Since Heydar Aliyev’s rise to power in the early 1990’s, Azerbaijan routinely has been classified as some kind of authoritarian regime by interested observers. In reference to a lack of free and fair elections, a constrained civil society, high rates of poverty relative to overall GDP, and an under-developed and -institutionalized political culture, 27 there is general agreement that Azerbaijan has orbited away from democracy as it has sought to discard the Soviet way of life. Farid Guliyev takes issue with this particular classification of Azerbaijan, however. In his review of regime-type classification literature as it relates to the case of Azerbaijan, Guliyev 26 “Timeline: Azerbaijan.” BBC. November 8, 2011. Accessed online at . 27 Guliyev.


decides that Azerbaijan is one of many cases that linger in a “political gray zone”, where, citing Thomas Carothers, he points out that “feckless pluralism or dominant-power politics” are the most popular outcomes.28 He sees Azerbaijan as falling short of pure authoritarianism in as far as the two Aliyev regimes have allowed for some autonomy within the press and, at least nominally, have not outlawed or openly restricted the existence of opposition parties. He does acknowledge, however, that semi-authoritarianism does not adequately account for either the dynastic succession from father to son or the type of patrimonial domination that characterizes the relationship between the regime and the people. Instead, Guliyev opts for a classification he terms “semi-authoritarian sultanism”, a specific type of hybrid that encapsulates Azerbaijan’s hesitation to become fully authoritarian but also the unique clan-based political tendencies underpinning the degree of success that the regime has had in consolidating familial hold over power. Elites More specifically – and with particular reference to the political nature of the Azerbaijan’s current and previous regimes – Azerbaijan’s political system is not exactly a system at all; it is more a reflection of one family’s deeply entrenched hold on power. The elites of Azerbaijan are comprised largely of Aliyev’s family, friends and business associates, lending a sultanistic characteristic to leadership where the ruler “personalizes the government... and penetrates the state, political society, and civil society.” 29 Of all of the post-Soviet countries, a Freedom House study ranks Azerbaijan the fourth most entrenched in terms of leadership when the presidencies of Heydar and Ilham Aliyev are viewed separately; viewed together, Azerbaijan is tied with Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan with the most deeply 28 Ibid, p. 399. 29 Juan and Linz, Location 1425. 14

entrenched leadership.30 The Balkanist writes that “the regime and elite structures... are designed for self-preservation”31 and ultimately, for self-perpetuation. Opposition Elements In terms of the strength, size, organizational capacity and ability to operate of opposition parties, Azerbaijan’s most recent election provides some valuable insight. In the run up to the October 2013 presidential election, the best that the opposition coalition group, the National Council of Democratic Forces, could muster was the nomination of a candidate whose possession of a Russian passport ran counter to constitutional provisions, and ultimately, disqualified him from competing. In addition, the main thrust of his campaign was to remain in office long enough to dismantle the edifice of state-based patronage and clientelism; in his estimate, only two years.32 Even more telling signs of the uphill battle faced by already-weakened opposition candidates center on the unwillingness of Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission to register candidates. According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 5 of the 8 would-be contenders for the 2013 presidential ticket were denied registration initially on dubious grounds. Of the 10 registered candidates, 5 were parliament deputies (it is likely that these candidates were installed by the ruling party itself), 3 were extra-parliamentary candidates, one was unlikely to win because of the controversy surrounding his citizenship, and the 10 th candidate was the incumbent, Ilham Aliyev.33 In looking at this list, it is clear that no one opposition candidate was either legally able or viable enough to unseat President Aliyev. 30“Entrenched Leadership in the Former Soviet Union,” Freedom House. Accessed online at 31 North Caucasus Caucus. “Azerbaijan Presidential Elections: Opposition Missteps and an Internal Logic for Repression.” September 2, 2013. Accessed online at 32 Ibid. 33 RFE/RL. “Ten Candidates Registered for Presidential Election.” September 17, 2013. Accessed online at


For the regime critics who were not discounted through procedural measures, the government’s repression strategy of choice has been to charge opposition leaders with possession of narcotics. In May 2013, several months before the presidential election, six outspoken critics of the regime were charged with drug crimes, only to test negative for drug use following their incarceration.34 This is just one tactic of several that the regime has leveraged in an all-out smear campaign targeting opposition leaders, journalists and civil society activists who are critical of the Aliyev political machine. Elections In terms of the election itself, Azerbaijan has reached new lows with respect to paying lip service to the electoral process. One day before the voting began, the smartphone application linked to the Central Election Committee errantly released voting results, which showed that President Ilham Aliyev had garnered 73% of the popular vote. 35 His administration tried desperately to explain the humiliating mistake but in many respects, the damage had already been done: the mistake itself confirmed the electoral fallacy inherent in Azerbaijan’s purported democracy. That is, despite the institutionalization of presidential and parliamentary elections, everyone, including the opposition, knows ahead of time which candidate and which party will walk away with the lion’s share of the votes. And even when the votes are visibly and undoubtedly rigged, there do not exist strong or independent enough counterforces to challenge the results. The multitude of strategies employed by the current Aliyev regime seeks to provide observers and critics with just enough evidence that democratic elements are in play so as to 34 “How not to prepare for an election.” The Economist, Eastern Approaches Blog. September 2, 2013. Accessed online at 35 Associated Press. “Azerbaijan Announces Election Results Before Vote Even Takes Place.” Huffington Post, October 10, 2013. Accessed online at


appease the concerns of the international community without actually implementing or allowing for democratic trends to unseat the current leadership. It is a fine balance of presenting the world with a veil of democratic promise draped over authoritarian practice, a hybrid regime that engages in political strangulation disguised as procedural democracy. The current regime may be a mixture of sultanistic and semi-authoritarian tendencies, but whatever the appropriate moniker of hybridization, it is clear from this most recent presidential election that Azerbaijan has thrown off the yoke of Soviet rule only to embrace a different type of authoritarian domination. Georgia Historical Context Similar to Azerbaijan, Georgia first declared its independence in 1918, only to be made into a Soviet Socialist Republic following the invasion of the Red Army in 1921. Several decades later, Georgians rose up against the Khrushchev Administration over de-Stalinization; the rebels were effectively decimated by Soviet forces. In 1972, Eduard Shevardnazde was appointed the head of the Georgian Communist Party and from 1989 to 1991, South Ossetians began to demand more autonomy in what would eventually resemble a separatist movement in the region. In 1991, the Georgian Parliament voted to secede from the Soviet Union, Gamsakhurdia was elected president and then almost immediately deposed amid fighting in Tbilisi. As Abkhazians threatened to separate from the Georgian Republic in 1992, Shevardnadze was brought to the head of the newly formed State Council, where he would oversee the adoption of a new constitution and currency in 1994. As president of Georgia from 1995 to 2003, Shevardnazde contributed to increasing tensions between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia; in addition, Shevardnazde was accused of extending safe haven to Chechen


militants. Shevardnazde was also consistently accused of heavy-handed policies and authoritarian behavior by Georgia’s privately-owned opposition network, Rustavi-2 TV station. In 2003, the so-called Rose Revolution – triggered by allegations of an illegal parliamentary election -- swept Shevardnadze out of power and helped to install Mikhail Saakashvili as the new president. The mid-2000s were characterized by increasing altercations centered on the Russian-Georgian border that included: the unrecognized election of Sergei Bagapsh as President of Abkhazia in 2004; the detonation of explosions on the Russian side of the border that cut off the flow of electricity from Russia to Georgia; Russia’s decision to suspend the importation of Georgian wine and mineral water; and, Georgia’s demand that Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia display proper visas. Domestically, Saakashvili came under fire in 2007 amid allegations of corruption and collusion in an assassination plan, after which waves of protest rocked Tbilisi. In 2008, Abkhazia and South Ossetia severed communication with Georgia, and Georgia responded with an attempt to retake South Ossetia by force; these developments were met with a Russian counter-attack, which pushed Georgian troops out of both breakaway regions. The conflict was quickly stalled by a French-brokered ceasefire despite Russia’s acknowledgement of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent republics and its insistence on installing military troops in the regions. In 2009, Saakashvili came under fire again by opposition elements and in 2010, the Georgian parliament approved constitutional changes that limited presidential powers and expanded parliamentary and ministerial powers. In 2012, Bidzina Ivanishvili became the candidate of choice for the opposition party and after becoming the Prime Minister, appointed a new government that effectively diminished the authority of President Saakashvili. In October


2013, Georgians witnessed a peaceful transfer of presidential power between Saakasvhili and Giorgi Margvelashvili.36 Regime Type In Georgia, there exists a very different – and not all together clear – constellation of political forces that underpin the transition from rule under the Politburo to the current regime. In her chapter on elections and the treatment of the opposition in post-Soviet Georgia, Pamela Jawad considers the Merkelelian notion that Georgian democracy in the wake of the Soviet breakdown is a “defective democracy of the delegative and illiberal type” only to conclude that the tenets of defective democracy do not accurately map onto the Georgian experience. In her consideration of whether Georgia is a defective democracy, she points out that the Shevardnadze and Saakashvili regimes were defective electorally in that the five presidential elections and six parliamentary elections between them were not compliant with international standards.



of working the Georgian case into the defective democracy model, she convincingly classifies the Georgian regime as a defective or diminished authoritarian regime, one in which the regime fails to meet “conventional minimal standards for democracy”.38 Elites The elite structure under Shevardnadze was based largely on his ability to coopt and appease potential opposition leaders with the fruits of an entrenched clientelist network. He was particularly adept at balancing conflicting interests in order to preserve his grip on power within the state. Following the Rose Revolution in 2003, Saakashvili made some improvements to

36 “Timeline: Georgia.” BBC. August 14, 2013. Accessed online at 37 Pamela Jawad (2012). “Elections and Treatment of the Opposition in Post-Soviet Georgia.” Presidents, Oligarchs and Bureaucrats: Forms of Rule in the Post-Soviet Space. Susan Stewart, Margarete Klein, Andrea Schmitz and Hans-Henning Schröder (eds.), Ashgate Publishing, p. 142. 38 Ibid, p. 143.


flagging institutions and economic transformation, but the revolution itself did not bring Georgia closer to democracy in any meaningful way. Elites connected to Saakashvili enjoyed positions in the vice chairs and almost all committee chairs, and under his leadership, a constitutional change was initiated to expand presidential powers at the expense of the parliament. 39 However, the presidential elections in 2008 reflected some positive trends in electoral competitiveness in that according to OSCE, they were the first genuinely competitive elections in the roughly 20 years following Georgian independence from Soviet rule.40 Opposition Elements The opposition forces under Saakashvili lacked strength and overall credibility; even where the opposition was capable of making demands, Saakashvili’s administration was able to effectively ignore demands from both political parties and civil society organizations. In 2012 parliamentary elections, however, a coalition of opposition groups, named Georgian Dream and led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, cut Saakashvili’s power from under him by securing the vote with a 55.1% margin. Even more remarkable was Saakashvili’s concession of defeat and recasting of himself as an opposition politician.41 Clearly, opposition groups gained measurable power and organizational capacity over the course of Saakashvili’s reign and were strategic enough to combine forces during the last parliamentary election. Inherent in this dynamic change is the unwillingness, inability or growing fatigue of the Saakashvili regime to pursue methods of opposition repression. In effect, this election marked the first time in post-Soviet Georgian history that an opposition party or coalition was able to leverage procedural methods to obtain control, when power was peacefully transferred from one ruling party to another. 39 Ibid, pp. 149-151. 40 Ibid, p. 151. 41 Ellen Barry. “Georgia’s President Concedes Defeat in Parliamentary Election.” The New York Times, October 2, 2012. Accessed online at


Elections In looking at both the parliamentary election of 2012, the kinds of irregularities and illegalities that are taken for granted in more authoritarian scenarios were not overwhelmingly evident. OSCE notes that “the 1 October parliamentary elections marked an important step in consolidating the conduct of democratic elections in line with OSCE and Council of Europe commitments...The elections were competitive with active citizen participation throughout the campaign, including in peaceful mass rallies.” The report goes on to say that while freedoms of association, assembly and expression were widely respected, instances of harassment and intimidation of activists were reported to monitors throughout the country.


Overall, however,

the elections showed marked improvements from previous elections where concerns over procedural fairness were much more serious. In sum, Georgia is well-positioned to continue to adopt practices to strengthen and consolidate democratic tendencies within the region. While the Saakashvili years were marred with corruption, weak institutions, and a beleaguered opposition, recent events seem to suggest that Georgian opposition groups have become strong and effective enough to formally and peacefully assume power. The most recent parliamentary elections demanded a transfer of power from Saakashvili to Ivanishvili’s coalition government. He would later become Prime Minister and his support for Margvelashvili would ultimately land him the presidential ticket just one year later. Elites, Oppositions, and Elections in Azerbaijan and Georgia: Analysis In looking at each country’s experience with the trappings of democracy since the early 2000s, there are some very clear differences that separate Azerbaijan from Georgia. First, since 42 Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. “Georgia: Parliamentary Elections – October 1, 2012,” Warsaw, December 21, 2012. Accessed online at


Heydar Aliyev assumed power in the early 1990s, power has moved from father to son much in the way that dynastic authority moves from father to son in monarchies. In this sense, it makes more sense to compare the transfer of power at the highest levels of Azerbaijani power to the transfer of power between leaders like Hafez al-Assad and Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Following the death of his older brother Bassel, Bashar was groomed by his father’s advisors to assume the leadership position once Hafez died. In the same way, Ilham also groomed to assume power in the eventual wake of Heydar’s passing. In the Azerbaijani case, elites are part of Aliyev’s immediate and extended family, as well as his network of friends and associates. It is also clear that President Aliyev intends to perpetuate his family’s power into the near and foreseeable future. Brief chatter of nominating Aliyev’s wife, Mehriban, as president for the October election was interpreted as an attempt to test the electability of Mehriban as a candidate. 43 In addition, the ruling family has initiated the $44 million purchase of 9 waterfront mansions in Dubai in the name of Aliyev’s 11-year-old son, Heydar, in an obvious attempt to both enrich the family name and ensure the perpetual wealth and power of Ilham’s children.44 His daughters, Arzu and Leyla, are similarly named in largescale business transactions that feed directly into the Aliyev coffers.45 Opposition candidates are not credible and many appear to be installed by the ruling party itself in order to give the air of democratic accountability. The opposition itself is crippled by systemic indecision; a lack of strong alternatives to the current leader; state repression in the 43 Arifa Kazimova and Daisy Sindelar. “Azerbaijan’s First Lady Not Running for President -- For Now.” Radio Free Europe /Radio Liberty. June 25, 2013. 44 Andrew Hough. “Azerbaijan president’s son, 12, ‘buys 30 million GBP worth of Dubai property’”, The Telegraph, March 5, 2010. Accessed online at 45 See Michael Weiss. “How Azerbaijan is Like ‘The Godfather’”, The Atlantic. July 11, 2013. Accessed online at


form of dubious criminal charges, media crackdowns, and limitations on freedoms of association and expression; and, a general inability to outmaneuver the political and financial behemoth of the Aliyev family. Consistent with the Aliyev’s grip on ways of doing business in Azerbaijan, elections are rigged to the point of incredulity. In a bizarre and vaguely humorous turn of events, the results of the last presidential election were mistakenly released to the public one full day before the polls opened, a testament to the degree to which ruling elites continue to buy into the political status quo. By contrast, Georgia’s ruling elite is not rooted in clan- and family-based loyalties, but rather in the vestiges of power that were prominent during the Soviet years and increasingly in new, charismatic opposition leaders eager to challenge the trends of years past. Shevardnadze was prominent in the Soviet apparatus and ruled with a similarly heavy-hand until he was ousted by Saakashvili, who rode a revolutionary wave to power on the promise of widespread reform and commitment to modernization. Despite these promises, his 9-year hold on power resembled more of a dilution of authoritarianism than a consolidation of democracy. It is in the recent aftermath of Saakashvili’s departure following a peaceful and more procedurally sound 2012 parliamentary election and 2013 presidential election, however, that ruling and opposition elites seem to be in agreement on the rules of the game. When the Georgian Dream’s coalition forces were voted into power, Saakashvili immediately conceded his loss and acknowledged his new role as the opposition underdog. The reins of power had been transferred peacefully for the first time in Georgian history and violent conflict was largely out of the picture. Having outlined the ways in which political power manifests itself through ruling elites, oppositions and elections in Azerbaijan and Georgia, it is clear that despite a shared colonial


history, geographic proximity, and ongoing experience with ethnic separatism, these two countries are situated very differently along a spectrum of democratic and authoritarian tendencies: a natural next question is “Why?”. One possible explanation is each country’s unique experience with armed conflict. Beginning around the same time of Azerbaijani independence, ethnic Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh began to demand separation from the Azerbaijani state with the hope of eventually joining Armenia proper. The conflict that followed – and continues to this day – has had a profound impact on Azerbaijani identity formation, but more importantly, has empowered the Aliyev regime to tighten its grip over internal matters in the name of national defense. While Georgia has also experienced protracted conflict with Russia over the potential breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, flare-ups around that conflict have not had the impact on the Georgian sense of self in the way that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has had on Azerbaijanis. Azerbaijani schoolrooms are plastered with odes to fallen heroes and murals of weeping mothers, grieving over the loss of their sons to the Armenian enemy. In the context of the Georgian-Russian antagonism, the most flagrant overture on behalf of Russians occurred in 2008 but by then, Georgia had already experienced its first taste of (largely) nonviolent transfer of political power vis-à-vis the Rose Revolution, and opposition parties were beginning to gather strength and momentum in such a way that the ruling elite had no choice but to take notice. Azerbaijan’s experience with conflict, however, occurred just as the nascent state began to experiment with democracy. In sum, it is very possible that this early and intense brush-up against armed conflict worked to stymie fledgling democratic tendencies in place during the illfated presidencies of Mutalibov and Elchibey in the early 1990s in Azerbaijan.


That Azerbaijan is the 20th largest oil-producing nation on earth could certainly help explain the efficacy of authoritarian undercurrents of present day. 46 Up until recently, Azerbaijan’s oil export margin vastly outpaced profits accrued from the sale of non-oil goods and services. At peak production in 2010, Azerbaijan’s Oil Fund hit 30.8% of GDP and has fallen over the past 3 years to 25.3% of GDP. Accordingly, budget dependence on oil revenues has increased markedly in a short amount of time.47 Despite this country’s decades-long experience with oil-based windfalls, 42% of the rural population lives below the poverty line and approximately 13% of the population lives in extreme poverty. The International Fund for Agricultural Development attributes these abysmal figures to the Dutch Disease, otherwise described as “massive influx of imports of competitive products as a result of the availability of foreign exchange from oil revenue”. 48 But beyond the impact of Dutch Disease on quality of life in Azerbaijan, Michael Ross shows that oil can embolden authoritarian regimes to pursue extraordinary means to stay in power. The rentier effect, which is actualized through a state’s ability to finance state functions without relying on a tax base, and the repression effect, which is actualized when a state is able to beef up security forces through oil or mineral profits, are two single export-driven patterns that are statistically linked to more robust rates of authoritarianism. Azerbaijan relies heavily on oil and gas exports, and Georgia does not. Simply point, it is very likely that oil production plays a role in keeping authoritarianism in Azerbaijan squarely on track.

46 Joanna Zelman. “Top 20 Oil-Producing Countries,” The Huffington Post, February 22, 2011. Accessed online at 47 World Bank Group. “Azerbaijan Partnership Program Snapshot”. October 2013. Accessed online at 48 International Fund for Agricultural Development. “Rural poverty in Azerbaijan.” Accessed online at


Conclusion: Emphasizing “Like-Like” Comparisons over (Sub)Regional Association It should now be clear that Azerbaijan and Georgia have very different experiences with both the authoritarian and democratic threads woven throughout their post-Soviet history. Financed by oil, legitimated by ongoing conflict and led by a second-generation Aliyev, Azerbaijan is poised to further pursue authoritarian and sultanistic tendencies. Georgia, however, seems positioned to make a departure from its quasi-authoritarian past as evidenced by recent elections in which a legitimate and powerful opposition peacefully assumed power through democratic procedural methods. These two countries share a 322km-long border49, a colonial history under Soviet leadership, and residence in the sub-category of the South Caucuses yet the trajectories of regime development diverge on a number of levels. In Azerbaijan, a dynastic succession from a Politburo higher-up to his son occurred without significant backlash – one family has been in power for almost four cumulative decades. In Georgia, the 8-year Shevardnadze leadership came to an end on the shoulders of a largely non-violent, opposition-led revolution. Since then, opposition groups have continued to grow in strength and organizational capacity and elections are increasingly more transparent and increasingly more competitive. These countries are moving in different directions yet they are often lumped together because of their geographic proximity. In the sense that Georgia is moving closer to democracy, it makes sense to compare it to the likes of Serbia and Ukraine, much in the way that McFaul does in his look at transitions to democracy in Eastern Europe. 50 Azerbaijan, on the other hand, bears closer resemblance to the Middle Eastern countries led by clan-based families and dependent on single commodity exportation. Yet these two countries are often spoken of as 49 CIA World Factbook. “Land Boundaries.” Accessed online at 50 See McFaul.


interchangeable parts of the Caucuses sub-region. In other words, “like-like� comparisons predicated on variables that include regime type, political reality, the presence/absence of oil and the presence/absence of armed conflict are much stronger than setting up comparisons on a regional or even sub-regional basis. If two out of three South Caucuses states (the third being Armenia) share so little in terms of regime-type and hopes for a democratic future and yet they are constitutive of an aggregated sub-region, the following question must be asked: under what conditions does it makes sense to compare entire regions with each other, much in the way that Eastern Europe and Central Europe are compared to South America and Southern Europe. At minimum, this study highlights the care that should be taken in cross regional studies, particularly when the nuance that makes comparison a worthwhile endeavor is often the first element that gets lost in the milieu of inter-regional analysis.


Problematizing Cross (Sub)Regional Comparisons: The Cases of Post-Soviet Azerbaijan and Georgia  

This study seeks to highlight how a more granular analysis of political trends within states can gift to observers a clearer picture of stat...

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