Understanding the Region: The Caucasus and Beyond
Understanding the Region: The Caucasus and Beyond is a ten-part series of special reports that provides credible, fact-based information and awareness about a wide range of regional topics and issues impacting the South Caucasus. The purpose of this series is to provide clarity and understanding of regional dynamics and interrelations.
The three states of the South Caucasus – Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, gained their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, seemingly to embrace new freedoms and democratization. Currently, both Armenia and Georgia seek to consolidate their respective democratic transitions. Frustration with corruption, the lack of rule of law, and poor living standards – all hallmarks of nondemocratic societies, led to popular protest movements that brought younger, reformist leaders to power in Georgia in 2003 and in Armenia in 2018. Georgia’s democratic institutions, having had a longer time to consolidate, are more stable, even as its democratic record has stalled and, in some areas, regressed in recent years. Armenia’s democratic transition still faces formidable challenges, despite efforts by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s government to strengthen democratic institutions. Armenia’s recent revolution and Georgia’s slow, if lurching, democratic consolidation go against prevailing views that globally, democracy is being rolled back. Armenia’s challenge is to make sure its reforms stick. Georgia’s next challenge is to conduct free and fair parliamentary elections in 2020.
While Armenia and Georgia are democratic bright spots in the region, Azerbaijan is not. Over the last decade in particular, Azerbaijan’s civil society has been decimated by increasing repression; elections have become increasingly uncompetitive; detentions of journalists and bloggers is the norm. In 2009, the Azerbaijani Constitution was changed to eliminate limits for two consecutive presidential terms, potentially allowing for a life-long presidency for Ilham Aliyev. The government is increasingly unresponsive to international criticism of the country’s democratic performance.
For a better picture of the democratic trajectories of the three states of the South Caucasus, Freedom House’s Nations in Transit project, which began publishing democracy scores for Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia in 2003, provides the most comprehensive data on democratic performance across the region.
Armenia is currently in democratic transition following mass anti-government protests in 2018 that forced out the ruling regime led by former President Serzh Sargsyan. The new government is popular and is pursuing its mandate to deal with systemic corruption, policymaking that was unresponsive to the public’s needs, a flawed electoral system, and weak rule of law.
The Armenian National Movement, led by Levon Ter-Petrosyan, continues to subdue its political rivals. In February, activities of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation are prohibited and opposition newspapers are closed. Presidential elections that see Ter-Petrosyan win are characterized by international observers as featuring major irregularities. International observers claim most of the fraud is carried out by Ter-Petrosyan supporters (Reuters, 1996).
In an abrupt U-turn in the autumn of 1997, President Ter-Petrosyan announces that he is ready to give territorial concessions to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The declaration causes splits in the government and Ter-Petrosyan is forced to resign – a move that instigates the departure of his political allies and parliament’s leadership and brings Robert Kocharian to the role of acting president (Bransten, 1998).
On October 27, a group of five armed men enter parliament and shoot and kill eight people, including Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsyan and Speaker of Parliament Karen Demirchyan.
In 2002, Armenia is eleven years on from gaining independence and is undergoing a series of significant reforms. At the same time, it is burdened with enormous socioeconomic hardship, major security issues, and a deeply flawed political system. Democratic transition has not improved the material lives of Armenians and most elections since 1995 have fallen short of international standards. A number of factors are hampering the country's development, including the backsliding of political reforms begun in the early 1990s and the failure of Armenia's political elite to establish the rule of law.
In April 2002, Armenia's main independent television station, A1+, is shut down by the authorities. This closure of A1+, the only television channel to have regularly criticized then-president Robert Kocharian, is a considerable setback to media freedom in Armenia.
Presidential elections are held and after a second round of voting, Robert Kocharyan is re-elected with just over 67 percent of the vote.
Widespread corruption and weak governance endure as defining features of Armenia's political system. Little progress is made in efforts to reduce the powers of the presidency and to ensure a more even distribution of power among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, despite pressure from international sources. There is a rise in the number of assaults on journalists, political actors, and human rights activists critical of the government. In a positive development, civil society activism grew in 2004.
Close relations between the country's political and business elites further entrenches corruption and weak governance, impeding the development of a more transparent political system. The flawed conduct of the constitutional referendum in November 2005 – aimed at redistributing power between Armenia’s executive, legislative, and judicial branches – casts a shadow over the positive aspects of the amendments.
Little progress is made in balancing of power across Armenia’s three branches of government. Further consolidation of power among Armenia’s business and political elite raise concerns about the decline of political pluralism. The number of violent attacks against journalists increases. Activists continue to identify corruption as a serious obstacle to Armenia’s democratic development.
Parliamentary elections are held in May, the conduct of which improved compared with earlier votes. Other voting transparency issues concerns remain, such as vote counting. Treatment of witnesses in police custody and attacks on journalists continue to cause concern. Delays in approving of a new anticorruption strategy lead to concerns about the authorities' commitment to addressing corruption.
Presidential elections held on February 19, 2008 devolve into a major political crisis polarizing and stunning the country. On March 1, ten people are killed and up to 200 injured when the authorities used excessive force to disperse an opposition demonstration in the capital. Outgoing President Robert Kocharian declares a 20-day state of emergency. Over 100 arrests are made, and many are either convicted or are still awaiting trial by the end of 2008. By autumn, society recedes into apathy and the opposition becomes marginalized. The crisis exposes the undeveloped nature of Armenia’s democratic institutions and the lack of political alternatives. The authorities attempt to improve their popularity following the crisis by introducing new measures to combat corruption and increase transparency.
In May 2012, Armenia conducts its first nationwide elections since the tumult of 2008. The elections are also the first to take place under the new electoral code, which put an end to administrative restrictions on campaigning and ensure balanced media coverage of all parties during the campaigns. Nonetheless, vote-buying and voter intimidation remain widespread. All major political forces win seats in the new parliament, improving the legitimacy of the legislature as a representative body. However, the decision of the two main opposition parties not to field candidates for the 2013 presidential race frustrates hopes for a genuinely competitive political environment.
From 2012 to 2013, the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) wins a series of elections which include the presidential elections in February 2013, and Yerevan City Council elections in May 2013. Public trust in the RPA is extremely low, while at the same time, the opposition is weak and incapable of creating a viable political contest. In the presidential elections, the Heritage Party’s Raffi Hovhannisyan wins almost 40 percent of the vote. Yet less than three months later, the “Barev Yerevan” bloc established by Heritage wins only 8.5 percent in the Yerevan City Council elections. In this environment, social protest is expressed chiefly by means of civic activism that does not necessarily impact the political system. These circumstances contribute to media plurality and the development of civil society, but not to viable political forces active outside election cycles.
Municipal elections in 2014 continue the dominance of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), the legitimacy of which remains low. The opposition continues to suffer from weakness and is unable to exploit the lack of trust in Sargsyan’s regime. The authorities take steps to mitigate societal discontent, implementing reforms that have improved the functioning and services of the state but prevent any real competition for power. Armenian foreign policy, focused on preserving security in the unsettled conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, takes the country toward the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), and Armenia signs an accession treaty in October.
Cursory efforts to combat corruption remain ineffective. Incumbents, using administrative resources and clientelism continue to win elections at all levels. The control of media ownership in the hands of the business elite with ties to the political establishment, even as media are diverse, impedes the circulation of information and ideas. Checks and balances are impaired with the judiciary strongly tied to the executive branch.
The government initiates constitutional reforms to shift Armenia from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary system. The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission positively appraise the draft constitution, but civil society actors criticize it, arguing that in the absence of a competitive party system, the RPA would continue to dominate. The new constitution is approved in a national referendum in December amid allegations of weak public discourse about the reform and voting day irregularities.
Parallel to the deterioration of party politics in Armenia, civil society gains momentum. In 2015, two grassroots protest movements have an impact on policymaking: in the first case, the domestic trial of a Russian soldier charged with murdering an Armenian family in the city of Gyumri, and in the other, revocation of a hike in energy prices.
In April, Azerbaijan launches an attack of unexpected intensity on the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Although the most intense fighting lasted only four days, Azerbaijan’s assault had major political repercussions in Armenia, generating a public outcry around corruption in the military and damaging trust in the Armenian government’s ability to ensure security. Within a few months, the “four-day war,” as the escalation came to be called, created serious political aftershocks. On July 17th, a small group of veterans of the 1992–94 war in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Sasna Tsrer, seized a police station in Yerevan, killing two police officers and taking hostages. A small group of nonviolent protesters gathered in the streets in support of the gunmen only to be subjected to a violent crackdown by police, which in turn brought thousands more into the streets. Protests only subsided after a large-scale violent police operation in a Yerevan neighborhood on July 28th that resulted dozens of injured protesters. The hostage takers surrender on July 31.
Parliamentary elections held in April see the RPA win the vote by a wide margin amid widespread reports of major violations. To many Armenians, the lack of protests was a sign of the electorate’s low faith in the possibility of enacting change through elections. Yerevan City Council elections in May, also featured low voter turnout as well as reports of voting irregularities and abuse of administrative resources. The RPA sweeps this election as well, while the Yelq bloc comes in second with 14 out of 65 seats—a strong presence for a new opposition group. Media outlets and journalists continue to experience harassment and physical attacks. In one example, 30 defamation lawsuits are brought against a fact-checking platform and its owner after the publishing of investigative reports about the RPA’s use of administrative resources. Additionally, in the run up to the parliamentary elections, Internet rights watchdogs reported coordinated efforts to manipulate Armenia’s online information space. Journalists and civil society actors report attempts to hack their email and social media accounts. In addition, suspected Twitter bots put out disinformation about U.S. attempts to influence the election.
Thirty-two individuals alleged participants in the Sasna Tsrer hostage crisis stand trial. The trial, heavily politicized by the media and government officials, was fraught with reports of due process violations, including rejections of visitation rights and physical abuse of defendants, as well as harassment of the lawyers representing them. The trials put the failings of the judicial system, which lacks independence from the executive and is one of the country’s least trusted institutions, into sharp relief.
Armenia signs a Comprehensive and Enhanced Policy Agreement with the European Union (EU), which will be the basis of Armenia’s closer links with EU policies and programs in the future. The agreement sparks speculation about Armenia’s relationship with Russia—Armenia is a member of the Russia-led European Economic Union (EEU), and Russian pressure to join the EEU was suspected to be the cause of Sargsyan’s turn away from a closer relationship with the EU, in the form of an Association Agreement, in 2013.
President Serzh Sargsyan attempts to extend his rule in April by becoming prime minister under the new parliamentary system, sparking large protests across the country that rapidly led to his resignation and the rise to power of protest leader Nikol Pashinyan in May.
In Azerbaijan’s autocratic government, Ilham Aliyev, who has served as president since 2003, holds virtually all political power. Corruption is widespread, and after years of suppression, formal political opposition is weak. More recently, the regime has enacted an intense crackdown on civil liberties, leaving little room for dissent or independent activism.
Eleven years after independence, Azerbaijan is slowly moving toward the establishment of a liberal democratic society. Vestiges of the past remain strong in a strictly presidential system of government, a powerful executive body, and an economy that has not yet completed the transition to a market economy. Azerbaijan's main problem is the unresolved conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh which results in significant social problems among refugees and internally displaced persons.
Azerbaijan’s domestic political scene 2002 is characterized by an increase in speculation about succession scenarios. President Aliyev, who is 80 years old, was in good health throughout the year, but speculation that he is planning to groom his son Ilham, currently the Vice President of the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR), intensifies as the latter was given increased exposure and a heightened international role.
In August, a referendum is carried out on constitutional amendments intended to align Azerbaijan with Council of Europe (COE) standards. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and opposition leaders consider some of the amendments as positive but criticize others as intended to limit political competition and get ready for a managed succession. At the same time, membership in the Council of Europe begins to bring about dialogue between council representatives and the Azerbaijani government. Azerbaijan also joins the European Convention on Human Rights, and agrees to its obligation on the abolition of the death penalty.
President Aliyev's health problems end his tenure as president. The political field radicalizes in the run up to the October 15 presidential elections. Internal splits in the government are subdued as President Aliyev's son Ilham is appointed prime minister and becomes the ruling party's candidate. The opposition's claims of voting irregularities and its refusal to accept the official election outcome result in violent clashes between opposition members and the police and army. Hundreds of opposition activists are detained by the authorities.
The president maintains political and economic stability in the country, while failing to push forward a genuine democratization program or a credible anti-corruption drive. Parliamentary elections fail to meet a number of international standards.
The presidential elections of October 2008 fail to meet international standards and mark another step back in democracy for Azerbaijan.
A March referendum eliminates the constitutional limits for two consecutive presidential terms, paving the way for a potential life-long presidency for Aliyev. New detentions of journalists mark further backsliding of freedom of expression norms. Along with rights and watchdog groups, youth activists are under governmental pressure, with two young bloggers sentenced to prison terms on charges believed to be politically motivated. These developments are accompanied by the government’s increasing readiness to ignore the international community’s criticisms of its democratic performance.
Under President Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan has become more authoritarian. In November, parliamentary elections that reinforced the power of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party (YAP) take place amid intimidation and repression and the routine allegations of fraud. Preelection opposition rallies in May, June, and July are quashed and dozens of participants detained.
The regime begins more systematically suppressing youth and opposition activism and enforces increasingly restrictive policies around religious freedom. The government also violates property rights, especially in Baku, where residents are evicted by force and their homes illegally demolished.
Azerbaijan’s regime continues to deny citizens their civil liberties and political rights. Significant oil revenues fuel presidential clientelism, strengthen the state’s security apparatus, and suppress domestic and foreign criticism of the regime.
The widely known Eurovision Song Contest, which Baku hosts in May, gives civil society actors an opportunity to draw attention to their government’s disregard for basic democratic and human rights. Independent civil society actors organize protests and awareness raising campaigns ahead of the event. The state responds with widespread arrests and new infringement of due process, despite demands by human rights organizations, European institutions, and international media that these stop. The government detains political opponents, activists, and journalists all year, mostly on bogus or overblown criminal charges. It also increases fines and jail terms for taking part in unauthorized public events.
This was all made possible by a judiciary dependent on the executive branch and a legislature in which the President’s New Azerbaijan Party (YAP) is the only one with more than three seats. Policymaking does not account for the public’s needs and facilitates the further consolidation of the ruling regime. Trial proceedings target dissenters and violate their legal rights. Only perfunctory intentions are made to include opposition parties in the political field. New legislation limits access to information, worsening corruption.
In October, President Aliyev secures a third term in office through deeply flawed elections. The incumbent’s landslide victory was widely anticipated due to the administration’s monopoly over state resources and its ruthless intimidation tactics. However, unlike in previous elections, a wide spectrum of opposition groups—including political parties, youth movements, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—manage to unite under the umbrella of the National Council of Democratic Forces.
The year is also marked by a series of protests in the capital and in the regions. Some of these demonstrations are organized by the opposition; others appear spontaneous, most notably the riots in the town of Ismayilli at the end of January and rallies in Baku protesting violence in the military in March. Throughout the year, the regime arrested and detained political opponents, activists, and journalists and used bogus charges against its critics.
The authorities continue to crack down on public protests in 2013, imposing high fines for participation in and organization of unauthorized protests. New legal amendments introduced in March, including NGO registration requirements, restrictions on funding, and higher fines for administrative offenses, make the day-to-day operation of civil organizations critical of the regime increasingly difficult. The free exercise of freedom of religion or belief by followers of a variety of beliefs, including the majority Islamic faith, continued to be targeted by the regime.
The government uses an acquiescent court system to punish and deter criticism and its full control of the media to ensure the domination of the official narrative over alternative framings of the political situation. The government has subdued all opposition parties other than those that are in reality aligned with YAP.
Repression against perceived threats to the regime’s stability become harsher in 2014. Human rights activists, journalists, and other government critics are faced with criminal charges as well as physical and financial harassment. Bank accounts of various NGOs are frozen and many NGOs are forced to shut down operations, further decreasing the space for political discourse. Youth movements and allied bloggers are a main target. Azerbaijan’s civil society is decimated by this wave of purges and arrests. The regime rejects criticism about the repression of civil society by its allies.
President Ilham Aliyev and YAP strengthen their dominance of political life. Condemning an unfair electoral system, all of the main opposition parties boycott the November parliamentary elections. YAP wins 71 seats out of 125, with the remainder of seats going to the ‘fake’ opposition, which includes 41 ‘independents’ who resolutely conform to the YAP party line. A limited number of international observers are present during the voting, as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) abstain from its usual election monitoring after Azerbaijan refuses to allow the needed number of observers in. Local observer groups report ballot stuffing and exaggerated reports of voter turnout.
Azerbaijan’s civil society faces further persecution. Anar Mammadli, the leader of Azerbaijan’s main election monitoring organization, remains imprisoned on politically motivated charges. Opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov also remains in jail, where he was subjected to torture. Some activists placed in pretrial detention in 2014 finally stand trial and receive lengthy prison sentences. Later in the year, Leyla and Arif Yunus are allowed to house arrest from prison on humanitarian grounds, but only after numerous medical emergencies and international criticism. Their guilty sentences for fraud and tax evasion remain in effect. The country’s civil society field is now monopolized by government-organized non-governmental organizations, or GONGOs.
The already dire media situation increasingly deteriorates. By the end of the year, eight journalists remain in jail. Acclaimed Investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova is imprisoned, although she continues to smuggle out messages of resistance from prison and her colleagues outside of Azerbaijan carry on her investigations into high-level corruption in Azerbaijan. Photojournalist Rasim Aliyev is beaten to death in circumstances that suggest a political basis. Self-censorship and a lack of financial resources have become the rule among Azerbaijani media outlets. Outlets critical of the government, such as Meydan TV, are forced to broadcast from outside Azerbaijan and work with anonymous journalists inside Azerbaijan. The relatives of such reporters, as well as civil society activists, are subjected to heavy harassment and persecution within the country.
Amid Azerbaijan’s growing economic problems, President Ilham Aliyev consolidates his rule through a controversial constitutional referendum in September 2016 which increase the powers of an already bloated executive while undermining accountability mechanisms and fundamental rights. Changes to minimum age requirements for political candidates feed speculation that President Aliyev is preparing the way to political tenure for his 19-year-old son, Heydar. The authorities prevent opposition activists from campaigning against the referendum and arrest dozens before and during anti-referendum protests. The legitimacy of the election is further weakened by video recordings of ballot stuffing.
Autocratic rule in Azerbaijan strengthens more than ever, as state institutions take several unprecedented steps to constrain the freedom of expression, silence critics at domestically and outside the country, and repress minority communities for political gain.
President Ilham Aliyev moves to further entrench his family’s control of the state, appointing his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, as First Vice President, thereby putting her first in the line of succession. The ripple effects of this personalization of the state are already becoming apparent: independent media outlets surmise that major attacks on their websites, which eventually led to a complete shutdown of their online presence, were instigated by Aliyeva for their coverage of her appointment.
As power becomes increasingly concentrated in the hands of the Aliyev’s family, Azerbaijan becomes decreasingly responsive to international pressure and is less occupied with maintaining any outward appearance of democratic freedoms.
After forcing essentially all independent media outlets out of the country in recent years, the government begins blocking access to their websites.
In late May, investigative journalist Afgan Mukhtarli is apparently kidnapped off the streets of Tbilisi by Georgian security services, who then transport him to the Azerbaijani border and hand him over to border guards. Despite widespread international condemnation, an Azerbaijani court sentences Mukhtarli to six years in prison in January 2018.
In September, Baku police systematically round up at least 84 LGBT people in what is mostly a series of late-night raids. The detained individuals are tortured, subjected to forced medical examinations, and compelled to inform on others in the community, or on wealthy or powerful individuals with whom they had had intimate relations. The government argued both that it had simply conducted a clean up of sex workers at the request of residents, and that the purpose of the arrests was to quarantine disease-carrying people.
Aliyev is elected to his fourth term as president in an uncompetitive process amid evidence of electoral irregularities and intense pressure on the media and opposition. While opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov is released by an appeals court after five years imprisonment on politically motivated charges, other opposition actors still face arrest and imprisonment. The government continues to repress the media, blocking independent news websites and detaining and indicting critical journalists.
Georgia features competitive elections and its democratic transition showed signs of improvement during the change in government in 2012–13. Still, progress has slowed in recent years. Georgian oligarchs retain immense power over policy, and the rule of law continues to be hampered by political interests.
Democratization in the Republic of Georgia has been impeded over the last decade by frequent challenges to the viability of the state. The early 1990s in particular were marred by ethnic territorial wars in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, an armed rebellion against the country's first democratically elected government, and a period of warlordism and semi-anarchy. The legacies of this period include the internal displacement of 264,000 people, a general environment of instability in the country, and the rise of two self-proclaimed states that comprise some 15 percent of Georgia's territory and function as centers for violence and organized crime.
The level of democratic freedoms enjoyed in Georgia proper is uneven. The country has made considerable progress in liberalizing its economy and guaranteeing the rights of political parties, civic organizations, and the media to function freely. However, corruption is widespread, and an ongoing fiscal crisis undermines the government's ability to address the most significant problems facing the country. In addition, Georgia lacks an effective system of democratic governance, and the fairness of elections is widely questioned. Electoral violations and infringements on civic freedoms tend to be higher outside the capital city. In the autonomous region of Adjara, for example, leader Aslan Abashidze has consolidated a one-man autocracy that prohibits independent civic and political activities. Violence against religious minorities is also on the rise in Georgia.
Fraudulent parliamentary elections in November and the subsequent political deadlock that ended with President Eduard Shevardnadze's resignation become a turning point in Georgia’s democratic development. The opposition’s strong showing, as well as Georgia’s independent media and civil society, were crucial components of the success of the so-called “Rose Revolution”. The events have brought about an unprecedented level of popular optimism in political affairs, but have also led to unrealistic expectations for quick change. The new government has acted quickly to reestablish public order, working within the limits of the Constitution.
The "Rose Revolution" brought young Western-oriented politicians to government through the charismatic leadership of Mikheil Saakashvili and the coalition of the National Movement and the United Democrats parties. These leaders had previously been members of a reformist faction within the Shevardnadze government. In the first months of 2004, these political groups joined into a single political party, which quickly cemented its power in legitimate elections and launched an ambitious reform program. Early on at least, the new government focused its energies on their own performance and the territorial integrity of the state, rather than on the development of a competitive democratic system.
However, the process of strengthening the state came with some setbacks in democratic freedoms. The opposition’s representation in Parliament is miniscule. The new government, wanting to sustain the momentum of political change and achieve quick results, has at times ignored existing laws and procedures in pursuing its aims. Constitutional changes in February take some power away from the Parliament and move Georgia towards superpresidentialism. A less critical independent media emerges, prosecutors become less inclined to follow due process, and the courts rarely go against the prosecution.
Two years on from the revolution, there is still no formidable opposition to the ruling United National Movement, the party that rose to power after the 2003 Revolution. The government's policy-making process lacks transparent and systematic procedures. Independent media and civil society often openly criticize the government but have become less influential. At the same time, there have been significant steps toward democratic consolidation. Elections, though somewhat less competitive, have become much freer and better organized, human rights abuses by the police have decreased, and key moves are made to begin decentralizing the government.
Local elections in October are carried out without significant violations and further cement the government’s strong mandate as well as the the opposition’s failure to put forward serious competition. Evidence of human rights abuses by the police lead to protests in the spring and summer. Government reforms bring results as the World Bank and International Finance Corporation name Georgia the “best reformer” in the world in creating a friendly business environment. At the end of the year, growing tensions with Russia lead to Russia’s economic blockade of Georgia, creating new obstacles to Georgia’s security and economic development.
Recent years are characterized by success in tackling mass corruption, strengthening public institutions, and promoting strong economic growth.
In September, however, the arrest on corruption charges of Irakli Okruashvili, a former minister of defense who joined the opposition, leads to several protest rallies that reach their peak on November 2, when some 50,000-75,000 people call for snap parliamentary elections and amendments to election laws. As the demonstrations go on, the protesters’ demands escalate into calls for the president’s resignation. On November 7, the government breaks up the demonstrations, closes down two opposition-oriented TV stations, and instigates a state of emergency that lasts nine days. These actions were defended as necessary to avert a coup. On November 8, the president reveals his plan to resign and calls for snap presidential elections on January 5, 2008. Imedi TV, the principal opposition channel, is under suspicion of conspiring to organize a coup, and its broadcasting license is temporarily suspended.
Saakashvili wins reelection for a second term in snap elections in January that the opposition claimed was manipulated. International observers record significant violations both in that vote as well as in the snap parliamentary election in May in which Saakashvili’s United National Movement keeps its absolute majority. Tensions with Russia intensify in April after NATO rejects giving Georgia the hoped-for Membership Action Plan while reassuring that Georgia will join the alliance at an unspecified future date. Isolated exchanges of fire between Georgian forces and Ossetian militias escalate to a military confrontation between Georgian and Russian forces. As many as 500 Georgian civilians and servicemen are killed, while 130,000 Georgians flee their homes. French president Nicolas Sarkozy recommends ceasefire terms on August 12 to which both Russia and Georgia sign on. Several days later Russia formally recognizes Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states and later makes military alliances with both territories.
The political crisis that began in 2007 quiets significantly, and no major political demonstrations take place. Local elections are held without major problems, and campaigns feature an emphasis on public policy issues, rather than in vilification of political opponents. Parliament adopts amendments to the constitution that will enter into effect in 2012–13 and will change Georgia’s political system from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary one. The opposition and the ruling party agree to coordinate efforts to further improve electoral legislation.
Parliamentary elections in October give way to post-independence Georgia’s first peaceful transfer of power through elections. After an strong election campaign, the UNM is beaten by the Georgian Dream Movement, a coalition of opposition parties headed by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. During the campaign, Ivanishvili framed Saakashvili as an authoritarian and promised to create “true” democracy in Georgia while sustaining Georgia’s pro-NATO, western-oriented foreign policy vector and reestablishing links with Russia. The elections were lauded as freer and more competitive than previous ones, despite isolated voting day violations and the excessive use of party finance control instruments to handicap the opposition.
Georgian Dream acts to carry out its campaign promises, passing legislation to strengthen judicial and media independence. A disputed amnesty law results in the release of around half of Georgia’s prisoners, the population of which had grown beyond capacity as a result of the Saakashvili government’s zero-tolerance stance on crime. The parliament changes Georgia’s labor code to align it with international standards.
The contentious investigation and prosecution of former UNM officials on bribery and abuse-of-office charges in late 2012 continues. Anti-Islamic sentiment grows across society and a violent attack by thousands against LGBT rights in May increases concerns about the government’s commitment to protecting minority rights.
The investigation into former UNM officials for bribery and abuse of office climaxes with the July in-absentia charge of former president Saakashvili. Critics of the GD government cast the prosecution as judiciary abuse, while supporters frame them as a move to return the rule of law to Georgia.
Democratic institutions and practices in Georgia develop, slow, and even deteriorate in 2015. In a positive sign, evidence of political pluralism increases and new prosecutions against former officials decelerate, while the independence of the Georgian judicial system is mostly sustained. However, while the Georgian media landscape remains pluralistic, the investigation and prosecution of the leading opposition media outlet, Rustavi 2, suggests the presence of political pressure by the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition.
Parliamentary elections in October 2016 demonstrate improved administration and regulation of the electoral process, and hard-won gains countering both petty and elite-level corruption appear increasingly institutionalized. Yet while monitors describe the elections as mostly free and fair, instances of pre-election and election day violence cast a shadow over the process.
Ivanishvili steps down as prime minister and his longtime business associate, Irakli Gharibashvili, takes up the post. Despite leading several key reforms, Gharibashvili’s harsh style and antagonistic stance towards the UNM make him unpopular, and he resigns ahead of the 2016 parliamentary elections. Current prime minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, also a former Ivanishvili business associate, takes up the premiership. Despite Ivanishvili’s departure from political office, he remains active in Georgia’s political life, arousing allegations that his wealth and influence over GD make him an unaccountable, informal power.
Domestic and international organizations broadly assess the October parliamentary elections as well administered. Still, there was evidence of some irregularities, voter intimidation, as well as violent incidents, most significant of which was the bombing of the car of a senior UNM official two days before the vote. These events did not appear to have a direct impact on the election’s legitimacy, however. GD, which is running as a party, wins 114 out of 150 seats. This gives the GD a “super-majority” with which it can freely pass constitutional amendments. The UNM, still the largest opposition party in Georgia, has its members in parliament fall by more than 50 percent, leading to a split within the party over the role of Saakashvili.
Georgia’s democratic development sees several stumbling blocks. Georgian authorities cannot strike a balance between the consolidating democratization on the one hand and cementing their power on the other. Democratic reforms have slowed in recent years.
Although Georgia’s media field remains diverse and dynamic, the editorial freedom of important media outlets experienced regression in 2017. In January, Vasil Maghlaperidze, a former employee of one of Ivanishvili’s television companies, is appointed the new director general of Georgian Public Broadcasting (GPB). Soon after his designation as the director general, political talk shows are shut down and the GPB’s independence deteriorates.
Georgia’s energetic civil society continues to play a crucial role in advocating for more transparency and accountability in the political landscape of the country. In 2017, assisted by an increase in youth membership, grassroots movements carry out active campaigns for social and political rights, environmental protection, and drug liberalization.
While GD often prioritizes party interests over democratic reforms, the authorities have worked within the constitution’s limits and back off in the majority of cases when facing strong domestic and international resistance.
In June, Giorgi Kvirikashvili steps down as prime minister and Mamuka Bakhtadze, previously the finance minister, takes up the leadership. Ivanishvili currently holds no political office, though he returns to his previous position as chairman of Georgian Dream in May.
Large demonstrations take place in Tbilisi during the year. Protests break out in May in response to raids on two popular nightclubs where police claimed illicit drugs were sold. Far-right groups organize counter-demonstrations.
A two-round presidential election is held in October and November, in which Salome Zourabichvili, an independent allied with Georgian Dream, narrowly wins in the first round. She ultimately beats the opposition UNM candidate in the second round, becoming the first elected female president of Georgia. While the election took place in a generally calm circumstances, there were allegations of vote buying, voter intimidation, and ballot-box stuffing.
* Part II will look at the state of democracy in the statelets of Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh), South Ossetia and Abkhazia.