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Political Transition Incomplete in South Caucasus


(Washington, DC--May 28, 2004) The political transition in Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan is far from complete, explained Richard Giragosian, a regional expert at a RFE/RL briefing on May 27. This has significantly hindered democratization and solutions for the region's conflicts.

Instability continues to threaten the South Caucasus, Giragosian, said, despite initial optimism after last year's Rose Revolution in Georgia, and a generational change to younger leadership in Azerbaijan. All three states have vulnerable state institutions which have allowed the entrenchment of clans and quasi-legal economic cartels that operate "with the connivance of small ruling political elites" to "plunder state assets" and engage with "impunity in corruption." Giragosian said because power-sharing is "non-existent" and "political compromise rare," political discourse has been "replaced by confrontation as the main means for bringing about governmental change." This means the regimes are unstable and resort to "coercion as the dominant political tool."

The "embattled" Armenian government, Giragosian said, is attempting to stave off an "escalating political challenge" posed by the protest of thousands of citizens in the streets. Armenia has responded to these protests with brutal confrontation and strict punishment, he said. For instance, a 24-year-old named Edgar Arakelian was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment for throwing a plastic bottle at a police officer during demonstrations on April 13 when he and others were tear-gassed.

In Azerbaijan, the government also has responded to protests with "an unprecedented brutality," according to Giragosian. This is best exemplified by the ongoing trial of the seven opposition leaders involved in demonstrations and clashes in October. Giragosian said that Azerbaijan's model of transition was unstable from the beginning due to its "Shakespearean drama of hereditary succession." President Ilham Aliyev inherited power from his father Heidar Aliyev in a flawed election in October and is now attempting to bolster his personal power with influential holdovers from his father's administration.

The new Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili who came to power after mass popular protests, currently grapples with establishing state authority and legitimacy. "State failure," a significant challenge to statehood itself, said Giragosian, still taints Georgia so much that early basic accomplishments are lauded as newsworthy successes, "making it difficult to track true progress." Clans that thrived under the Shevardnadze regime are being replaced and sidelined in the wake of November's "Rose Revolution," but Giragosian asserted that hindsight may reveal that the old clan was simply replaced by a new clan loyal to Saakashvili.

Because the South Caucasus lacks effective avenues for political dissent, said Giragosian, the greatest threat to these regimes is their own closed nature. Yet, there are a few promising signs, Giragosian said, including a new engagement with the EU within its "European Neighborhood Policy" and plans for expanding U.S. and NATO military ties.

RFE/RL's Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian Services broadcast nearly 12 hours of programming a day to the South Caucasus, produced in Prague and in local bureaus in Yerevan, Baku and Tbilisi and transmitted to listeners via satellite, shortwave and AM, FM, UKV and cable signals provided by local affiliate stations. Programming aired by all three services is also available via the Internet, at http://www.rferl.org and at the respective service websites: http://www.armenialiberty.org, http://www.azadses.org, and http://www.tavisupleba.org.

To hear archived audio for this and other RFE/RL briefings and events, please visit our website at www.regionalanalysis.org.
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