I would like to begin by thanking the Helsinki Commission for inviting me to this briefing today.
I want to begin my remarks by stating my commitment to balance and objectivity. I have the mixed fortune of having a fairly high profile in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia and I try to use that status to be constructively critical. Governments in particular can react badly to this, but I hope they are gradually learning that constructive criticism from Western experts is a fact of life as they aspire to join Euro-Atlantic structures.
My views are generally in line with the consensus view you get from reports by Freedom House (represented here by Chris Walker), the State Department Human Rights Report, European Union progress reports, OSCE, Transparency International, Human Rights Watch, and other organizations monitoring this region.
I would summarize this view as being that in terms of democracy all three South Caucasus countries are, to a greater or lesser degree, closer to the Russian model of a one-party state with “managed democracy” than to the European democratic model. Within the spectrum, Azerbaijan is the most authoritarian and Georgia the most democratic, with Armenia somewhere in between. I would argue this has been the case since the mid-1990s.
I think it is important to stress that at home none of the three governments make a strong pitch to be democratic. If they talk up their achievements to their own electorate it is generally in terms of successful state-building, service provision, law and order, and so on. Conversations about democracy are more likely to take place with foreign interlocutors or in foreign capitals at events like this one.
A system has developed which you could call a “one-party system by consent” whereby the ruling party strives to govern with the consent of the governed, but it is hard to conceive of a scenario in which the governing party gives up power willingly. It is still hard to imagine even Georgia holding an election as free as the one we saw in Serbia last weekend where the favorite candidate and incumbent was unseated by an opposition challenge.
In fact, since independence we have not seen a single election in Armenia, Azerbaijan, or Georgia in the last 20 years in which an incumbent has lost power or the governing party has lost its majority. Ironically, the freest elections in these countries in recent times happened right at the end of the Soviet era in 1990 and 1991.
Elections are important and they provide a kind of health check on the state of democracy in these countries. The coming elections in Georgia are an especially big test for that country—they are the most important elections since 2003 and how they go will in many ways define the next phase of Georgia’s development.
But I also want to argue here that we should not focus too exclusively on elections. We are seeing a phenomenon whereby electoral campaigns are being conducted much more cleanly, but this masks the fact that we are seeing a brief democratic improvement for a couple of months after several years of a much more restrictive environment.
There is a bigger systemic issue here about creating a more pluralistic environment, where different parts of society feel they have a stake in the political process. The issue is not about hoping to see government replaced with opposition—if they were able to take power, many opposition parties would replicate the same system with themselves at the center. It is about widening the whole political space.
In the brief time remaining I want to highlight two systemic issues which I think it is worth outsiders focusing on.
The first is that in all three countries there is a big gap between the capital and the rest of the country. In Azerbaijan there is a huge difference between the situation in Baku, where it is possible to hold meetings on controversial issues and publish opposition newspapers, and a place like Nakhichevan where almost no civic activity is tolerated at all. In Armenia again, there is a fairly lively political culture in Yerevan, but a much more oppressive environment in the regions. The sharpest differences may be in Georgia. Tbilisi is in many ways comparable to a free and democratic Central European capital, but there is a very different situation in the provinces. Opposition activists complain of harassment and there is strong pressure to vote for the governing party at election time. You see this in visual terms: if you go out to the villages you see everywhere the number ‘5’ painted as a graffito on walls and public buildings. This is the number on the ballot that the governing party, the United National Movement, had in the last election and is entitled to have again.
So I would argue as outsiders who want to promote democratic standards, we need different strategies for the capital and the regions.
The other issue I want to draw attention to is the state of the media which I think is by any measure a long way short of European standards. The media and in particular television, which is the overwhelmingly dominant medium of news coverage, shape the political narrative in favor of the governing administration.
This is a subject dear to me, as I worked for many years for an NGO, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, supporting independent journalists in the region and on my visits to the region I see my former colleagues and the huge problems they face.
Suffice it to say that in Freedom House’s recent Global Press Freedom table for 2012 out of 197 countries, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia all came in the bottom half of the rankings. Armenia was in 149th place, a rank above Angola and one below Pakistan. Azerbaijan was in 172nd place, alongside Russia and Zimbabwe, Georgia improved on its position from last year but was still in 111th place, on an equal footing with Bangladesh, Kenya, and Mauritania.
In Armenia it is a case of “one step forward, one step back.” The OSCE gave a fairly positive verdict on political parties’ access to television coverage in the recent election. But pro-government TV channels still dominate the airwaves. The independent channel A1+ is still off the air and another independent channel, Gala in Gyumri, has faced persistent problems.
There appear to be fewer cases of physical violence against journalists but there has been a big increase in lawsuits by politicians against opposition newspapers or news agencies. There were 37 libel cases in 2011, 30 of them are ongoing. The investigative news website Hetq is the subject of several of these cases. Given the state of the Armenian judiciary, there is reason to be concerned that this has become an instrument of government pressure on critical reporting.
In Azerbaijan, the media situation is particularly bad. Again, pro-government television dominates the airwaves. Foreign radio stations, such as Radio Liberty, lost their FM frequencies in 2008.
It is a very difficult environment to be an independent journalist. There have been a number of disturbing cases this year. Two journalists from the regional television station Xayal TV, Vugar Gonagov and Zaur Guliev, were detained in March in the town of Quba and have not yet been released.
Also in March, the investigative journalist Khadija Ismail, who has been researching government corruption, was targeted with a blackmail attempt in connection with her private life. In April my former colleague Idrak Abbasov was savagely beaten by security guards when investigating a story about property rights and deportations.
Obviously we hope all these cases will get properly investigated.
Finally, in Georgia, the situation is definitely better, but there are still many problems. Again television dominates the news market. There are television channels with an opposition slant, such as Maestro which broadcasts in Tbilisi and the new Channel 9, funded by opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili. But two pro-government channels, Rustavi-2 and Imedi, are by far the richest, most watched, and most influential media outlets. They get around 90 per cent of the advertising market. And every night they provide the government with extremely favorable coverage.
A law was passed last year by the Georgian parliament which has thrown light on the ownership of these two channels. That is useful but it has not thus far resulted in any changes in the ownership structure of the channels.
But do we really know that the television news coverage is coordinated from above? Well, in March this year, Transparency International Georgia published an interesting little piece of research on a news story about the death in police custody in the town of Khashuri of a man named Solomon Kimeridze. Opposition activists alleged foul play but the authorities denied it. On the evening news on March 2, the three main channels in Georgia, all broadcast news reports saying that the family of the dead man, Mr. Kimeridze, were irritated with the behavior of opposition activists of Mr. Ivanishvili’s coalition.
Transparency International showed that all three channels used almost identical language and the same pictures in their news reports. The conclusion from this is fairly clear.
I don’t way to be a complete doomsayer about Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. There are positive developments. But I do believe that if we want to see more than just incremental change and a bigger change in their political culture, we need to look at more than just the election campaigns and focus on some of the more fundamental issues in the political culture.