Washington, 14 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The South Caucasus once again faces the threat of instability as the still-fragile Georgian and the well-entrenched Armenian governments each face escalating internal challenges. There are key differences, however, between the Georgian and Armenian situations that suggest very different trajectories for the two countries.
First, there is a fundamental difference in the nature of the threat faced by each state. The immediate challenge to the Georgian government posed by its ongoing confrontation with the assertive leadership of the autonomous region of Adjaria is only one aspect of a much greater challenge that constitutes a serious test of legitimacy and authority for the struggling Georgian state. That threat is further magnified by the loss of territorial control over the breakaway unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and by the steady erosion of authority from the central government to the regions. Resolving the confrontation with Adjaria is therefore just one step toward the larger task of reversing this devolution of power and strengthening Georgian sovereignty by restoring central-government control over the entire country.
In neighboring Armenia, by contrast, the political opposition is seeking to dislodge a powerful government apparatus. Unlike the threat to the Georgian state, the Armenian crisis is more a competition between elites and less a threat to state authority, although the reaction of the Armenian leadership undoubtedly creates doubt about the durability of its legitimacy.
The second key difference between the two crises lies in the nature of the two regimes. Despite a superficial similarity, the political situation in Armenia today is significantly different from that in Georgia in late 2003, when President Eduard Shevardnadze was forced from power in a peaceful "Rose Revolution." The Georgian transition was unique and holds no real lessons for Armenia. Regime change in Georgia was the result of a complicated combination of factors, very few of which are present in Armenia. Most importantly, the outcome in Georgia was due as much to the weakness of the state as to the strength of civil society. It was, in other words, a combination of a power vacuum and a weakened state that presented the opportunity for the peaceful advent to power of a group of young pro-Western politicians headed by former Justice Minister Mikheil Saakashvili.
In Armenia, however, the reverse is true. A strong and assertive state is exercising, without restraint, its powers of control and intimidation against a traditionally marginalized opposition. The Armenian regime also differs from its Georgian counterpart in its reaction to the confrontation. By resorting swiftly to force and coercion, the Armenian leadership has contributed to a cycle of violence and an "arrogance of power" that can only bolster the opposition in the long run. But even with the potential of Armenian civil society, there is no easy or open avenue to confront the government, despite the illusion of the opposition's demands for impeachment and sporadic demonstrations in the streets.
The fate of democracy in Armenia is, in fact, very much in danger; and the real challenge to Armenian national security comes from within, not from any external threat.
Yet the political situation in Armenia today is more complex than a simple confrontation between the Armenian government and the political opposition. There are a number of internal fault lines running through Armenian society that could determine the course of the opposition-government political standoff.
Politics in Armenia is increasingly expressed in a contest between entrenched elites on the one hand, and a ruling elite happy to rule but hesitant to govern and an opposition whose appeal lies in the personalities of its leaders rather than its platform, on the other. This competition of elites is marked by a struggle for control over the country's limited resource base and economic assets, a struggle in which the political opposition is also a well-established player. The largest and most significant group excluded from this competition for wealth is the majority of the Armenian population, which remains impoverished and disenfranchised from the real political process.
It is this divide between the ruling and aspiring political elite and a frustrated although largely apathetic and weary Armenian population that serves as the one potential advantage for the opposition. By tapping widespread general frustration and mistrust of the incumbent leadership, the opposition hopes to galvanize their campaign against President Robert Kocharian as an avenue to power. There is no guarantee, however, that once in power, the opposition would be any better, or any more honest, than the government it superseded. More unites the authorities and the opposition than divides them, and the real struggle in Armenia is for power, not democracy or social justice.
The fate of democracy in Armenia is, in fact, very much in danger; and the real challenge to Armenian national security comes from within, not from any external threat. And as in the case of much of the Caucasus, the Armenian people remain hostage to the petty politics and shortsighted governance of their so-called leaders. In many ways, both the state and the opposition are seeking to rule out of self-interest, instead of seeking to govern in the national interest. Moreover, the Armenian leadership, through its use of harsh repression, mass detentions, and the arrogant demonstration of its "disdain for democracy," is actually only legitimizing the politics of the opposition while undercutting its own, waning legitimacy and authority.
But the most important point is that the true test of the stability and legitimacy of the Armenian government rests in its handling of the current crisis. The Armenian government might well be the author of its own demise, by overestimating and overreacting to the perceived threat posed by the opposition.