A recent comparative study shows that residents of the three South Caucasus republics have low levels of tolerance for other ethnic groups and people, with a limited understanding of the role of democracy in resolving conflicts.
The study, "Tolerance and Regional Peace Building," written by Anahit Mkrtchian, a Yerevan-based independent scholar, examined perceptions of democracy and tolerance levels in Baku, Tbilisi and Yerevan, based on data culled by public opinion pollsters in 2004. The findings, released in Yerevan on September 20, showed that only 14.6 percent of the Armenian capital's inhabitants and 9.7 percent of Tbilisi's and Baku's residents considered democracy-building to be important for their countries.
The study used data gathered by groups of public opinion pollsters in the three Caucasian capital cities in March 2004 under the direction of the Yerevan-based Caucasus Research Resource Center (CRRC), a non-profit research institution sponsored by the Eurasia Foundation. All three groups used the same questionnaire and the same survey method.
"In all countries, democra[tic]values are not perceived as a guarantee for solving social, economic, cultural problems," the report found. "The population's understanding of the direct relation between establishment of . . .demo[cratic] values and improvement of their own situation and that in the country is a serious problem."
Correspondingly, trust in parliaments, courts, and political parties ranked below 50 percent in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. Of all three cases, Yerevan was distinctive as the city with the lowest trust toward official structures. Only 16 percent of the 1500 Yerevan respondents reported trusting the courts, while in Tbilisi and Baku, the Georgian and Azerbaijani capitals, respectively, the percent recorded was twice that number. Belief in the police's ability to protect city residents was also low: less than 20 percent of Yerevan and Tbilisi respondents said that they trusted law enforcement agents, while in Baku that number reached a mere 41 percent.
The military and executive leaders hold the greatest degree of trust in all three Caucasian capitals, according to the study. Over 70 percent of respondents in Baku, Tbilisi and Yerevan expressed trust in the army. Similarly, 84.8 percent and 86.4 percent of Baku and Tbilisi inhabitants, respectively, expressed belief in their countries' presidents. By March 2005, those ratings had dipped to 62 percent for Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and 76 percent for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
In Yerevan, by contrast, only 30.3 percent of the capital's population trusted President Robert Kocharian. That number had increased by more than 15 percentage points by March 2005, when 45 percent of respondents said they trusted the Armenian leader.
At the same time, while trust in executive leaders was high in Baku and Tbilisi, considerable skepticism existed in all three capitals about the role of non-governmental organizations and other civil society groups and media. Again, Yerevan stood out with comparatively lower trust in media and NGOs.
Anahit Mkrtchian, the author of the study, cited "weak institutional capacities," the challenges encountered in building a strong independent state after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the population's "low level of social activism" as among the reasons for this skepticism. NGOs, in particular, are often seen as a source of additional income for current government officials, while NGOs and media are seen as a safety net for unemployed intelligentsia.
The study looked at tolerance for citizens of foreign countries as another factor to consider in building democratic societies. Tbilisi's 1,472 respondents tended to show a mostly positive attitude toward the eight ethnicities included in the survey, including a 64 percent positive rating for Russians. In Armenia, an overwhelmingly negative attitude was taken only toward Azerbaijanis, with 53.4 percent of respondents saying they distrusted them. Slightly more than 20 percent of Armenians said that they had a positive view of Azerbaijanis. Sociologists performing the survey in Baku did not question that city's 1,489 respondents about their attitude toward ethnic communities outside of Azerbaijan.
However, other data underlined that many Azerbaijanis continue to look on their Armenian neighbors with suspicion. Over 90 percent of respondents in Baku said that they opposed political or economic cooperation with Armenia; in Tbilisi, by contrast, around 80 percent of respondents supported such partnership areas. Meanwhile, in Yerevan, only 47 percent of respondents is to be supported the idea of cooperation with Azerbaijan; in Tbilisi this support ranked above 90 percent.
That attitude appears to change, however, when it concerns ethnic communities who live within the three countries. The level of tolerance towards these communities as well as towards various religious confessions was mostly positive or neutral.
Far less tolerance was shown in all three countries toward such minorities as AIDS victims, drug addicts and homosexuals. Azerbaijan recorded the highest level of distrust toward these groups some 80 percent. Georgia stood out with a much higher level of tolerance; only 27.7 percent of Georgian respondents, for instance, said that they would not like to have a neighbor who suffers from AIDS, while 61.8 percent of Armenians and 70.6 percent of Azerbaijanis made such a statement.
All three countries showed a separate approach on questions of gender. Most respondents disapproved of pre-marital sex and of children living apart from their parents before getting married. This negative attitude was roughly 30 percentage points higher for women than men in all three capitals.
Haroutiun Khachatrian is a Yerevan-based writer specializing in economic and political affairs.