This post was amended on 6/30/11; the report does not cover the May 26, 2011 clash between police and protesters in Tbilisi.
In keeping with a persistent trend, the state of democracy in the South Caucasus ranges from so-so (Georgia) to bad (Armenia) to really bad (Azerbaijan), according to the recently released "Nations in Transit," an annual democracy health test for the former Soviet Union, Central and Eastern Europe, prepared by the Washington, DC-based Freedom House. First case: Azerbaijan. The country was diagnosed with a “Consolidated Authoritarian Regime,” a chronic and “severe disregard of basic freedoms” and of “due democratic process.” The richest in resources and the poorest in democracy of the three South Caucasus countries, energy-rich Azerbaijan saw its 2011 score slip by a seventh of a point to 6.46, a notch above the absolute-failure score of 7. Last year’s parliamentary vote, widely seen as a state-managed show to lend a whiff of legitimacy to Azerbaijan's ruling Aliyev dynasty, contributed to the decline. The report holds that the ruling elite continues to bathe in the country’s natural resources -- oil and gas -- and allows no leeway for opposition, media or civil oversight; in effect, leaving Azerbaijan vulnerable to the same pressures that led to the Arab uprisings.
Meanwhile, next door in Armenia, the government this year ranked as “Semi-Consolidated Authoritarian.” Armenian media are more proactive and civil society groups enjoy respect, the report argues. The government, too, has shown itself to be relatively flexible, by striking some compromises this year with the opposition.
But freedoms only go so far in Armenia, with President Serzh Sargsyan’s government enjoying disproportionate de-facto privileges over its opponents. A deep economic crisis, now on the mend, and failure to revise electoral legislation properly are among the setbacks that pulled Armenia's democracy score down by a hair to 5.43, the rough equivalent of a grade of "D" (or "poor").
And last, but not least, we have Georgia, again a teacher’s pet by comparison. It ranked as the only South Caucasus country that saw its Freedom House score improve (from 4.93 to 4.86) and the only country east of Ukraine to fall into the “Transitional Government or Hybrid Regime” category.
Freedom House found that Georgia's post-2008 war pressures are subsiding and domestic politics are migrating from the streets into negotiations, as illustrated by a compromise deal this week on electoral law. The report, however, does not address the May 26, 2011 street clashes between police and protesters that left allegedly four people dead and scores more wounded and arrested.
As with any promising pupil, however, there is room for improvement. The judiciary system apparently remains impervious to attempts to bolster its independence, while international organizations are scratching their heads over how to improve media professionalism and civil society’s role in policy formulation.
The post-Saakashvili future also remains a gaping unknown; the report asks whether President Mikheil Saakashvili will pull a Putin once his term ends in 2013; i.e. will he stay in power as prime minister, like Russia’s Vladimir Putin did.