Last time, Georgians did it via revolution. This time, political change came through the ballot box.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s concession of Georgia’s October 1 parliamentary election to his political foes, the Georgian Dream coalition headed by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, is giving two of the country’s neighbors, Armenia and Azerbaijan, a fresh reason to pay attention to Georgia.
Opposition forces in both countries appear to see the election’s outcome as a model for political change, even as their respective governments – neither a civil-rights trendsetter -- stress that the reason for change is minimal.
"Many people here in the National Assembly Hall used to mock Saakashvili for eating his tie,” Vahan Hovhanissian, a member of the opposition Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun, commented in Armenia’s parliament on October 2, “but he has created a country where the opposition can win.” Hovhanissian was referring to an infamous moment involving Saakashvili during the Georgian-Russian war in 2008.
Azerbaijani opposition leaders agree. "These elections are an important event not only for Georgia, but for the whole South Caucaus and even the post-Soviet region,” said Isa Gambar, head of Azerbaijan’s Musavat Party. “It’s the first time in our region when the opposition officially scores a victory in elections and the government accepts it.”
That acceptance, agreed Ali Kerimli, head of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan, "is the biggest victory in the Georgian president's political career."
So far, though, the governments of both Azerbaijan and Armenia have been much more circumspect in responding to the Georgian election results. Neither Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev nor Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan has congratulated the Georgian Dream on its win.
But, then, neither has much personal incentive to do so.
Aliyev, who plans to run for reelection in October 2013, arguably owes his nearly decade in power to the political legacy of his father, the late President Heydar Aliyev, a fixture on Azerbaijan’s political scene since the Soviet era.
Sargsyan, who also plans to run for reelection next year, owes much of his status to his nearly 20 years in the Armenian government – including stints as prime minister and defense minister.
Working with the opposition has not been a critical part of either leader’s political experience.
Perhaps for that reason, what Azerbaijani and Armenian government comments there have been about the Georgian elections have come more in the way of asserting both countries’ own democratic credentials.
In an October 3 interview with the opposition Yeni Musavat newspaper, Ali Hasanov, the influential head of the Azerbaijani presidential administration’s Political and Public Affairs Department, asserted that Azerbaijan’s presidential vote will prove “even better ... than [the parliamentary elections] in Georgia.”
“No one should have any doubts,” Hasanov assured readers.
The remark sparked a steady stream of caustic commentary in the opposition press. "We have doubts, Mr. Hasanov. We have enough reasons to have doubts," responded the opposition Azadlig (Liberty) newspaper the next day. To date, international observers have not recognized Azerbaijan’s elections as free or fair.
Similarly, in Armenia, Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Eduard Sharmazanov, spokesperson for the governing Republican Party of Armenia, maintained that the country has no reason to take its cue from Georgia. "In terms of democracy, Armenia does not take second place to Georgia,” Sharmazanov told EurasiaNet.org. “Moreover, [Armenia] is one of the most democratic countries of the region.”
In 2012, Washington, DC-based democracy-watcher Freedom House gave both Armenia and Azerbaijan similarly low evaluations for political rights and civil liberties, tagging Armenia as “partly free” and Azerbaijan as “not free.”
While scoring better in both categories, Georgia also ranked as only “partly free.”
Nonetheless, that slight degree of difference makes a difference for Azerbaijan’s Kerimli and Gambar. The Aliyev administration would never allow free elections, and then admit defeat, both men said.
The Azerbaijani presidential administration’s Hasanov, though, asserts that the Azerbaijani opposition lacks the skills to duplicate Georgian Dream’s victory at the polls.
“I believe that the Azerbaijani opposition is not capable of running such a campaign [as the Georgian Dream] and winning the elections," he said.
Comparing its finances to those of billionaire Ivanishvili, Azerbaijan’s opposition might well agree, but Aliyev critics still place most of the blame on government repression.
Political analyst Elhan Shahinoglu, head of the Baku research center Atlas, believes Azerbaijan’s opposition can learn from Georgia’s election.
Though not a prominent public figure, Ivanishvili managed to unite the Georgian opposition and voters around his coalition quickly, Shahinoglu noted. “[E]verything is possible if the Azerbaijani opposition has real will and is ready to work hard,” he said.
In Armenia, opposition leaders believe they faces similar stumbling blocks. Naira Zohrabian, parliamentary-faction secretary for the Prosperous Armenia party, a onetime government coalition member, charges that the police-protester clashes and arrests of opposition supporters after Armenia’s 2008 presidential elections do not suggest that the country’s February 2013 presidential vote can follow the Georgian model.
“I hope that one day we will have such elections, but I can clearly state that it would be pointless to dream about it in the upcoming elections, since the Armenian authorities have no political will [for such a vote],” Zohrabian asserted.
Sharamazanov dismissed the criticism. “Is it our fault that the people trust us and vote for us?” he asked.
Independent political analyst Yervand Bozoian said Armenian politicians can “learn from Georgia” – from its aggressive fight against corruption, as well as its maiden attempt at bipartisanship.
“[I]f Armenians consider themselves smarter than Georgians, they should seize the initiative and initiate reforms in Armenia,” Bozoian said. “Learning is not shameful.”
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter based in Baku. Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter in Yerevan and the editor of MediaLab.am.