The Georgian and Azerbaijani Elections: A Postmortem

It’s a fair question to ask: what was all the fuss about last October? The elections in Georgia and Azerbaijan came and went and the results were no surprise. Azerbaijani incumbent Ilham Aliyev won and Georgia’s Mikhail Saakashvilli did not. The Azerbaijani elections were bogus; the Georgian elections were not. So what? Life goes on.

But perhaps it is not that simple. Most outside observers saw these elections as a barometer of democratic progress in a region where the West — and the U.S. in particular — has invested time, resources and effort over more than 20 years to help these countries to build a better future for themselves. As stakeholders in the democratic process in the South Caucasus since Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia gained their independence in 1991, Europe and the U.S. must fuss over the outcomes of the Azerbaijani and Georgian elections. 

Beyond Election Day

Evaluating these elections and their impact on the domestic social and political landscape as well as foreign relations requires, however, a focus on more than just election day. The excellent report from the European Stability Inititive on the election observation mission to Azerbaijan makes a strong case for not judging democratic progress based only on how the elections may appear to be conducted on election day.

The Georgian elections proved that post-Soviet governments could change, politicians could change and a European path be chosen. The Azerbaijani elections proved that a regime could “buy” favorable reports from short-term observers imported for election day, carry on with election rigging, continue human rights violations and ignore international criticism, whether from the Department of State or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s long-term observer mission.

Why the difference between the two neighboring countries? There are several reasons. First, Georgia’s generally free and fair 2012 parliamentary elections set a strong example for the 2013 presidential elections, and Georgia welcomed outside involvement and observation. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, prevented the visit of U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Democracy and Human Rights Tom Melia before its elections. Second, Georgian political parties, including the opposition, agreed on electoral ground rules. Third, the Georgian population demanded leadership change. Fourth, the outcome of elections in Georgia was accepted as a transparent way to — for the first time in modern Georgian history — transfer political legitimacy.

Test of Democratic Evolution

The real test of democratic evolution has to do with actions — over a period of months before and after election day — as well as rhetoric that affect the integrity of the elections. The pre- and post-election environments in Azerbaijan consist of continuing intimidation of the political opposition and independent NGO leadership, suppression of freedom of expression and official dismissal of any need to change. While Georgia had a pretty good pre-election period, the post-election period remains fraught with challenges to the effectiveness of Parliament and other fragile institutions, and whether the current government will pursue criminal charges against former President Saakashvili.

Is it Our Business?

There are different views regarding whether democratic evolution — in its broadest sense — is our (e.g. the West, U.S.) business at all. Who are we — despite our support for democratic change — with all our defects to establish standards for others to follow? At least for the short-term the Maidan events in Ukraine put this point into practical focus. If a country wants to be part of the West there are certain standards of economic and political reform that must be met as part of that association. In other words values matter. The traditional excuses of geopolitical importance or interests of energy security for failure to accept even the minimal international norms for treatment of a country’s own citizens are gone.

A major issue for the post-election period has become the choice between closer association with the EU or Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian Union. This choice really is about values that countries choose to be identified by. Armenia and Georgia made clear choices at Vilnius summit for the Eastern Partnership: Georgia and Moldova for the EU; Armenia for Eurasian Union. Ukraine was asked to make a decision but chose to walk the line between short-run financial expediency and a long-term commitment to a European future. Azerbaijan decided to choose none of the above; “neutrality” the regime called it. All the while proclaiming — along with its apologists in the West — the strategic importance of Azerbaijani energy for Europe’s future.

These countries can no longer talk their way around this or employ foreign surrogates to do this for them. Arguments for overlooking bogus elections, corruption and human rights abuses based on overriding strategic importance to the U.S. (e.g. war against terror, Northern Distribution Network, energy security) are excuses for inaction on the fundamental values that must be at the core of our relationships in the 21st century.

When countries like Azerbaijan fail to live up to these standards we do not walk away. Rather we continue to insist on solid, value-based behavior by those who profess they are partners with us. That means economic and political reforms to complete the transition from post-Soviet to 21st Century status. This requires observance of human rights, respect for freedom of expression, and release of political prisoners. It also requires a pattern of increasingly democratic elections. That’s why we need to care about elections in the south Caucasus.

We must congratulate Tbilisi on its accomplishments in the October electoral process. At the same time we must encourage the Georgian government to move along with strengthening institutions like Parliament and the judiciary so Georgia can avoid a political justice system.