Category Archives: Caucasus

Georgia – The 2018 presidential election: Political Parties and Candidates 

Presidential elections will be held in Georgia in October 2018. This will be the last election when the president will be directly elected and for 6 years. From 2020, the country is moving to a parliamentary system. the presidential election is a rehearsal for the 2020 parliamentary elections. Although the power of the president is significantly weakened as a result of constitutional reform, the president will still play an important role in the country’s politics. This was confirmed by President Margvelashvili’s activities. Margvelashvili with the right of the veto, public speeches, appointments, cooperation with opposition parties, civil sector and other mechanisms was able to influence the ruling Georgian Dream party, which provoked serious criticism from them. For the 2018 elections, the ruling majority will try to field a presidential candidate who will be loyal to the ruling party and will be able to fully manage the country’s move to the parliamentary system by 2024.

The presidential election is important for opposition political parties. The opposition, which has lost several elections since the change of government in 2012, will try to win the presidential election in 2018. If we look at the political landscape, the Georgian opposition is weak. Political parties can be divided mainly into two camps. The first are the pro-Western parties that support Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration. The second are Pro-Russian parties that openly support cooperation with Russia. Political parties are very fragmented on both sides, but these divisions also reflect the public attitudes.[1] There are also other small political groups. The vast majority of the population supports Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration. In general, though, trust in political parties is very low in Georgia.

Significant changes were made to political parties after the 2016 parliamentary elections. The ruling Georgian Dream coalition has been dissolved. There was a split in the United National Movement, which ruled the country until 2012. One part of this party supports former president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and the other created a new party, the “European Democrats”. In addition, one of the other pro-Western parties, the Free Democrats” also disintegrated when many leaders left the party, some of them moving to Georgian Dream, while others left politics altogether. In addition, another pro-Western party, the Republican Party, which is the oldest party, also disintegrated when the party leader and former parliamentary speaker, Davit Usupashvili, and his supporters left. They later formed a new party called the Development Movement.  The National Forum was also divided, with some leaders moving to Usupashvili’s movement and others joining Nino Burjanadze’s United Democratic Movement. After the 2016 parliamentary elections, Paata Burchuladze, another leader of the Movement for the People, which won 3rd place in the 2016 elections, also left the politics. Later a criminal case was started against Burchuladze in connection with financial violations regarding charitable activity. At the same time, new parties have been formed by the former members of the National Movement: there is New Georgia under the leadership of Giorgi Vashadze and Zurab Japaridze’s political union “Girchy”. The Labor Party of Georgia is also represented in the pro-Western wing under leadership of Shalva Natelashvili. The Labor Party often participates independently as a single party in the parliamentary elections. The party leader contested the presidential election twice and received  6,49% in 2008 and 2,88% in 2013. The Labor Party received 3.45% of local self-government elections in 2014. [2]

The most aggressive defender of cooperation with Russia is the United Democratic Movement led by former parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze. Burjanadze has twice carried out the duties of the President of Georgia. Once in 2003 during the Rose Revolution and again in 2008 when early presidential elections were held. He also participated in the 2013 presidential election and received 10.18% of the votes. In the same political space, there is also the Alliance of Patriots of Georgia. This party won 5,01% of the votes in the 2016 parliamentary elections just over the election threshold. The Alliance of Georgian Patriots is support by the ruling party in many aspects of domestic and foreign policy of the country.

The 2018 presidential election is interesting in many ways. First, how will the opposition will take part in the election? Theoretically, the opposition is in a competitive position. If we look at recent surveys, distrust to the government is increasing in society. According to the NDI survey, only 13% of respondents consider the government to be performing well. According to the survey, 27% will vote for the Georgian Dream, 10% for the UNM, and 3% for European Georgia. 24% said that they would not vote for any party, 15% did not know, and 13% refused to answer. [3]

The opposition has some well-known candidates. Labor Party leader, Shalva Natelashvili, first officially expressed his desire to participate in the elections in December 2017. According to the survey, Shalva Natelashvili’s rating is 39%. The leader of the Development Movement, Davit Usupashvili, has also not ruled out standing in the presidential election. According to the survey, his rating is 50%.[4]

Former president Mikheil Saakashvili, who currently does not have Georgian citizenship, called supporters from Amsterdam to prepare for the presidential campaign and the opposition parties have jointly selected one candidate for the primary election.[5]  It is also widely believed that Mikheil Saakashvili’s wife, Sandra Roelofs, who lives in Georgia, is running for the election from the National Movement, but her candidacy has been excluded from the party at this stage.[6]

The ruling party has not officially nominated a presidential candidate. However, some names have been widely discussed. Including former Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili. He was personally welcomed in 2016 by Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of the Georgian Dream. The current Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili was also mentioned in the press, but he has not confirmed his participation in the election. Given the low rating of the government, Bidzina Ivanishvili himself may be the only successful candidate for Georgian Dream. For example, the Chairman of the Parliament said that Ivanishvili would be the best candidate for the election. [7] It should also be noted that after the amendment of the constitution there has been a lot of talk about a non-partisan president and it is possible that a well-known person in Georgian society may be nominated. The media have also covers talked about the nomination of a female candidate from the Georgian Dream, including the Minister of Justice, Tea Tsulukiani, and the independent MP Salome Zourabichvili.

Whether or not the current president, Giorgi Margvelashvili, decides to run again is also important. According to the survey, President Giorgi Margvelashvili is in top place with 65% trusting him. During his presidency, Margvelashvili has actively cooperated with the opposition parties on various issues and he may be jointly nominated by the opposition.

Apart from the political parties, there is discussion of other non-partisan candidates. In this regard, former Tbilisi mayoral candidate Aleko Elisashvili said that he might participate in the presidential election. Elisashvili received 17.48% in the local self-government elections in 2017 as an independent candidate, which was the best result after the ruling party. However, Elisashvili will not be able to win a presidential election without the support of a political team. It is true that he has promised to create a political movement, but it has not yet been established.

To sum up, the best way to defeat any candidate of the government is the unification of the opposition parties and the nomination of a joint candidate. This is not a simple task when the opposition is very fragmented. However, there is a 14-member council of leaders who say that they are discussing a common candidate. That said, the UNM thinks that the candidate must be chosen by primaries, and the European Democrats consider that parties should participate individually in the first round of the election and then all must unite around the common candidate in the second round. It is difficult to se how the opposition will be able to unite, and who will be able to defeat the ruling party, which is equipped with government resources and backed by a billionaire.

Notes

[1] Public attitudes in Georgia Results of December 2017 survey carried out for NDI by CRRC Georgia, https://www.ndi.org/sites/default/files/NDI%20poll_December%202017_ISSUES_ENG_vf.pdf

[2] Results of the local self-government election 2017, Central Election Commission, https://results20171021.cec.gov.ge

[3] Public attitudes in Georgia Results of December 2017 survey carried out for NDI by CRRC Georgia, https://www.ndi.org/sites/default/files/NDI%20poll_December_2017_POLITICAL_ENG_final.pdf

[4] Survey of Public Opinion in Georgia, Center for Insights in Survey Research, February 22 – March 8, 2017, http://www.iri.org/sites/default/files/iri_poll_presentation_georgia_2017.03-general.pdf

[5] Mikheil Saakashvili – We should win presidential elections and dismantle Ivanishvili’s government, https://1tv.ge/news/mikheil-saakashvili-chven-unda-movigot-saprezidento-archevnebi-da-chamovshalot-ivanishvilis-mtavroba/

[6] By this time, I will rule out Sandra Roelof’s presidential candidate – Nika Melia, http://fortuna.ge/am-droistvis-sandra-rulovsis-saprezidento-kandidatobas-gamovrickhav-nika-melia/

[7] Kobakhidze at the presidential election: Bidzina Ivanishvili would be the best candidate for us, http://netgazeti.ge/news/259921/

Armenia – The election of a ceremonial president, but what about the ‘new’ Prime Minister?

On March 2, the Armenian parliament elected the next president of the country. The ‘winner’ (and only candidate) was Dr Armen Sarkissian[1], formerly an academic, Armenian prime minister, and  Armenian ambassador to the UK. However, Dr Sarkissian’s prerogatives will be mostly ceremonial, as the 2015 constitutional reform transferred most of the president’s governing powers to the prime minister. While the current President Serzh Sargsyan has not openly expressed his intention to run as prime minister[2] (to be selected in April), he played a crucial role in the nomination of president-elect Armen Sarkissian, fuelling rumours about him becoming prime minister. This triggered not only unhappiness from the opposition, but also protest rallies.

A new (ceremonial) president

In January, President Serzh Sargsyan asked Armen Sarkissian to stand as president. This was not an obvious choice, as Dr Sarkissian has been living abroad (mostly in the UK) for the past decades, holding first academic fellowships and then diplomatic posts. He is known for being a close friend of Prince Charles, who in 2016 hosted a gala dinner to support “Yerevan My Love”, a charity set up by Sarkissian. Additionally, he has been a senior advisor for companies such as British Petroleum, Alcatel and Telefonia. On occasions, doubts have been raised about the transparency of his business activities.

Sarkissian’s nomination was widely supported by the ruling block. Other than being the candidate of the ruling Republican Party (HHK), Dr Sarkissian was also backed by the junior coalition partner Dashnaktsutyun. Additionally, the Tsarukian’s alliance, which is officially in the opposition, neither openly opposed Armen Sarkissian’s nomination nor proposed an alternative candidate. In brief, the Yelk bloc, which holds 9 out of 105 parliamentary seats, was the only coalition to oppose Sarkissian as the (sole) candidate president[3]. Against this background, it was no surprise when he was elected by a landslide in the first round. He is due to take office on April 9. In the immediate aftermath of his election, Armen Sarkissian expressed gratitude to his predecessor for his support and guidance in the past months, and made clear that his mandate will be in full continuity with Serzh Sargsyan’s work and vision. In Dr Sarkissian’s words: “I am ready to completely devote myself (…) to a cause which is actually also a continuation of the first, second and third of your presidencies.[4]

His election was marked by some controversy over his eligibility, as a dozen leading NGOs suspected that he did not meet the citizenship requirements. As per the 2015 constitution, presidential candidates must have been solely Armenian citizens for the previous six years. While Armen Sarkissian vehemently declared that he has renounced his British citizenship (acquired in 2002) in 2011, some evidence seems to suggest that he did so only in 2014. Furthermore, he never presented any UK-issued formal document about his citizenship status. However, despite the concerns of the opposition and civil society, members of cabinet dismissed these allegations as groundless.

Other than that, the close relationship between the President and President-elect cast some doubts on the legitimacy of the latter. According to the independent Armenian analyst Saro Saroyan, these dynamics are remarkably worrisome: “Will he [Armen Sarkissian] act as a puppet constrained by the lack of legitimacy or as a person with amorphous powers? If the import of such a president to Armenia is to the “credit” of Serzh Sargsyan, there can by default be no other decision in determining the personality of the prime minister. Serzh Sargsyan will be making this decision too”[5]. From this statement, two points can be inferred. The first one concerns the genuine political capital enjoyed by president-elect Armen Sarkissian. The second one is the extraordinary engagement of Serzh Sargsyan in this presidential election, as it seems to confirm his alleged willingness to become premier.

Who wants to be a prime minister?

In 2015, when a constitutional referendum was announced, rumours started to circulate about President Serzh Sargsyan’s political ambitions. As he was serving his second presidential mandate and was barred from seeking election for a third time, it was suspected that transitioning from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary system was a way for President Sargsyan to retain his power, in the guise of prime minister. In recent times, such suspicion has been reinforced by the further enhancement of the premier’s prerogatives. For instance, the National Security Service and Police will be reporting directly to the premier. Additionally, the prime minister will reside in Bagramyan 26, which is the current presidential residence, and the presidential staff will be considerably downsized (while the prime minister’s team will be enlarged)[6]. These changes, which add up to the (dramatic) constitutional empowerment of the prime minister’s powers, further reinforced the opposition’s firm belief that Serzh Sargsyan will be nominated by the HHK as the next premier. As observed by analysts and members of the opposition, Serzh Sargsyan “Would not have vested such broad powers in anyone except for himself”.

The HHK party, supported by the junior partner Dashnaktsutyun, enjoys a parliamentary majority solid enough to install any candidate of its choice.  Remarkably, even though President Serzh Sargsyan has not announced his plans yet, senior members of his party (HHK) have indicated that he is the ideal prime minister. Eduard Sharmazanov, the deputy speaker of parliament, said that the HHK party will formally discuss it after April 9, as a final choice is not due to until April 16. However, in his opinion, President Sargsyan would be the most qualified candidate. Similarly, Vahram Baghdasarian, the head of the HHK parliamentary faction, said that Serzh Sargsyan is the most suitable person for the job, also due to the tensions with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. By contrast, the opposition considers the handling of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as one of the reasons why Serzh Sargsyan should step down. According to Nikol Pashinyan, the head of the Yelk faction, the 4-days-war with Azerbaijan in April 2016 exposed the poor conditions of the Armenian army, which was still equipped with weapons from the 1980s. In spite of this evidence, Sargsyan did not take any concrete action to improve the situation[7].

Last weekend, rallies started to take place in the city centre. As noted by Mr Pashinyan, at this point, only massive grassroots protests can prevent Serzh Sargsyan from becoming prime minister. In Pashinyan’s words: “If the people are decisive, and as many go onto the streets as on March 1, 2008, I guarantee that we will prevent the next reproduction of Sargsyan[8].” In this regard, a newly-formed group called “Front for the State of Armenia”, aims at becoming a key platform for protest and change, uniting both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition. The next rally is already scheduled for March 16.

Notes

[1] Some sources transliterate his last name as Sargsyan. However, ‘Sarkissian’ is the most widely used version.

[2] In 2015, as a result of a constitutional referendum, the powers of the President were drastically reduced and, conversely, those of the Prime Minister were dramatically enhanced. Even if President Serzh Sargsyan never gave unequivocal statements about his long-term political ambitions, from the beginning this reform was widely suspected to be a tool to extend his power after his second, and last, presidential mandate. This blog gave extended coverage to this topic, analysing the details of the reformthe processes before the vote and the pertinent debate in 2016 and 2017.

[3] This post, previously published on this blog, deals with the 2017 parliamentary election, explaining in detail which parties and coalitions were elected.

[4] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2018. ‘Armenian president-elect vows to continue incumbent’s policies’, March 3 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[5] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2018. ‘Karabakh issue ‘resolved’, no need in talks with Baku – Armenian pundit’, March 5 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[6] ARMINFO News Agency. 2018. ‘In parallel with the reduction of the powers of the president of the country, his apparatus will be reduced’, March 7 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[7] Ani Mshetsyan. 2018. ‘Nikol Pashinyan: The only thing that can force Serzh Sargsyan to abandon the post of prime minister is the will of the people’. Arminfo News Agency, March 5 (retrieved through LexisNexis).

[8] Ibidem.

Azerbaijan – The New Year Eve presidential speech: External legitimacy & economic issues

Year 2017 is drawing to a close. All the goals we set ourselves at the beginning of this year have been achieved. Stability has been established in Azerbaijan“. With these words, the Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev started his last New Year’s Eve speech. First, the speech emphasised the growing international ties of the country and the commitment to “multiculturalism”. Second, the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh was mentioned at length, specifying how Azerbaijan enjoyed both a diplomatic and military advantage over Armenia. In this regard, it was proudly said that, as a result of the warfare operations in April 2016, Azerbaijan had recovered some villages previously under the control of the enemy. Finally, the economic situation was tackled, arguing that, despite the low oil prices, the country successfully had managed its currency reserves and promoted its non-oil sector.

The emphasis on multiculturalism and international ties seems to reveal a willingness to boost the external legitimacy of the country. As already discussed in this blog, Azerbaijan has recently adopted a much less confrontation attitude vis-à-vis the international community. Political discourse now consistently portrays Azerbaijan as an internationally-oriented and multicultural country. For instance, in addition to including the multicultural nature[1] of the country in the aforementioned New Year’s speech, President Aliyev raised this theme again while giving his Christmas congratulations to the Azerbaijani Orthodox Christian community. In President Aliyev’s words: “‘The atmosphere of intercivilizational and intercultural dialogue (…)  day played an exceptional role in building rich traditions of multiculturalism and tolerance, national moral and public values, establishing civil solidarity in our multinational and multiconfessional society[2]”.

Nevertheless, this type of rhetoric does not shield Azerbaijan from international criticism. Notably, in September 2017 the European Parliament called for an investigation into Azerbaijan’s alleged attempts to corrupt influential Europeans, paying them money in exchange for a favourable representation of the country. In the same month, MEP Daniele Viotti formally asked the Commission Vice-President (and High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) Federica Mogherini to specify the Commission’s position about Azerbaijan’s repressive approach to the LGBT community[3]. The head of the Council of Europe Thorbjørn Jagland also voiced his concern over political prisoners in Azerbaijan and suggested legal actions that could lead Azerbaijan being ejected from the Council of Europe.

Along with its (only partially successful) search for international legitimacy, the president’s speech also addressed economic issues. However, it is worth noting the relatively limited emphasis placed on these issues. This is in sharp contrast to past declarations, especially those given in the happy years of the oil bonanza (i.e. when the oil price was extraordinarily high). For instance, in his presidential inauguration speech in 2013, President Aliyev declared that: “We conduct an independent policy. Our independent policy is underpinned by economic independence”.

Azerbaijan has tried to foster its economy partly to offset the drop in oil prices (as already discussed in this blog). While the New Year’s Eve speech did not provide too many details, there have recently been attempts to increase tourism and foreign investments. However, there are limits to their implementation and effectiveness.

In December 2016, the setting up of a national Tourism Council was approved by presidential decree. According to Abulfas Garayev, Minister of Culture and Tourism, in its first year of existence, the Council has already taken important decisions[4]. Remarkably, in 2017, the number of visitors increased by 20% to almost 2.5m tourists, who it is estimated spent around 1.3 billion in the country[5].  Muzaffar Agakarimov, the adviser of the Chairman of the Azerbaijani Tourism Association, recently declared to local media that: “Incoming tourism is becoming more popular in Azerbaijan, [which] is the most important part of the overall tourism sector as it brings foreign currency and creates new workplaces for local people,”. Additionally, he pointed out the abolition of licenses for tourism companies and the plans to construct more hotels, including budget ones[6].

Notwithstanding this optimism, the full development of the tourism sector faces some challenges. For instance, high taxes and fees make it particularly expensive to fly to and from Baku (reportedly, many Azerbaijani citizens chose to save money by using Tbilisi airport, in neighbouring Georgia). These costs have discouraged some foreign low-cost companies, such as the Russian ‘Pobeda’, which decided to discontinue their Baku route[7].

Similar considerations can be made about the attempts to attract foreign investors. However, foreign investments are hindered by bureaucratic obstacles, such as the slow privatisation process and unfair advantages to state enterprises[8]. These considerations are fully in line with a report of the German-Azerbaijani Chamber of Commerce about Azerbaijan’s business climate, based on a survey conducted among 300 companies from 19 EU countries. According to more than half of the respondents, the business and investment climate is negatively affected by custom scontrol and corruption, and by the ineffective measures to tackle these problems[9]. These issues were also lamented by some Azerbaijani experts. As the local expert Nemat Aliyev noted, foreign bankers and investors are discouraged not only by the economic crisis but also by “monopolism, corruption and bribery[10].

The contradiction between Azerbaijan’s craving for foreign investments and the endurance of such obstacles is not easily explicable. However, it can be partially understood in light of Dr Farid Guliyev’s research. According to him, in the years of the oil boom the state channelled oil profits into the construction of extravagant infrastructure projects. These empowered a small elite of private entrepreneurs, whose success is rooted in political support and oil earnings. Considering the potential risks related to a radical shift of the status quo, this elite is not likely to support a genuine diversification of the economic structure, regardless of the benefits for the country as a whole[11].

In conclusion, the tone of the recent New Year’s Eve speech by President Ilham Aliyev is entirely in line with the challenges Azerbaijan is currently facing. The drop in oil prices, and the related economic consequences, are making Baku not only reform its economic structure but also its attitude in international forums. Azerbaijan needs to make economic and foreign policy adjustments to combat its diminished leverage vis-a-vis the rest of the world.

Notes

[1] Additionally, 2016 was proclaimed the year of multiculturalism.

[2] Azerbaijan News Gazette. 2018. ‘President Ilham Aliyev extends Christmas congratulations to Azerbaijan`s Orthodox Christian community’, January 5 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[3] Also Western newspapers, such as “The Guardian”, covered this issue.

[4] TendersInfo. 2017. ‘Azerbaijan: The board meeting devoted to the results of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in 2017 has been held’, December 28 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[5] Turan Information Agency. 2017. ‘This Year Tourists Spent 1.3 Billion Dollars in Azerbaijan – Deputy Minister’, December 18 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[6] Azer News. 2018. ‘Association: New types of tourism develop in Azerbaijan’, January 4 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[7] Guliyev, E. 2017. ‘Azerbaijani Citizens Prefer to Fly through Georgia, AZAL Prefers to Remain Silent’, Turan Information Agency, October 2 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[8] CountryWatch Reviews. 2018. ‘Investment Climate Azerbaijan’, January 6 (retrieved through LexisNexis).

[9] Turan Information Agency. 2017. ‘EU-companies about the business climate in Azerbaijan’, January 16 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[10] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2016. ‘Azeri opposition daily says foreign companies flee Azerbaijan’, January 29(Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[11] Guliyev, F. 2017. ‘Azerbaijan’s Uneasy Transition to a Post-Oil Era. Domestic and International Constraints’, PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 475, May.

Georgia – Changes to the government

Structural changes to the government of Georgia were announced on November 13, 2017. The changes are not directly related to the recent constitutional reform. Instead, according to a statement by the Prime Minister of Georgia, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, the changes will play a major role in the development of a modern country with a more flexible administrative body. One of the main goals is to reduce the administrative costs of government.[1]

The changes were announced shortly after a local government election in which the ruling Georgian Dream gained a majority on all local councils and won almost all mayorships. Most citizens and experts think that economy has worsened over the last few years. The Georgian national currency, Lari (GEL), continues to depreciate against the U.S. Dollar, Euro and life is getting more expensive. In this context, more people believe that the government must cut spending on the bureaucracy, but there are questions as to whether the changes will really create a more flexible and effective government.

The government plans to make two types of changes: first, in the structure of the Government and second in the composition of the Government. The changes will modify the Cabinet’s organisation in the following way: 1. The Ministry of Energy and Natural Resource Management component of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resource Protection will be incorporated into the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development; 2. The integration and reorganization of the Emergency Management Agency, currently under the Interior Ministry, and the State Security and Crisis Management Council will result in the creation of the Emergency Management Center; 3. The youth affairs management component of the Ministry of Sport and Youth Affairs will be incorporated into the Ministry of Education; 4. The sports component of the Ministry of Sport and Youth Affairs will be incorporated into the Ministry of Culture and Monument Protection; 5. The Ministry of Agriculture will merge with the Ministry of Environment; 6. The State Ministry for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration will be incorporated into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; 7. The foreign Intelligence Service will become part of the State Security Service.

Georgian Dream has already submitted the draft changes in the Parliament. After the completion of the legislative process, the new composition of the Cabinet will require a vote of renewed confidence in parliament. However, there has already been criticism of the changes from different political parties, non-governmental organisations, and experts. The main opposition parties said that the changes were linked to ex-PM Bidzina Ivanishvili. Some party representatives think that the reforms show that Bidzina Ivanishvili is trying to exercise control over all major state institutions. President Giorgi Margvelashvili’s administration also commented on planned changes. Giorgi Abashishvili, the head of the administration, expressed hope that the changes would reflect positively on every member of the Georgian society.[2]

Different non-governmental organizations and experts have also commented on the structural changes, saying that they have not been well prepared. The Caucasus Environmental NGO Network (CENN) issued a statement on the planned structural changes, asking for a detailed analysis of them.[3] Twenty-five Tbilisi-based civil society organizations released a joint statement on the proposed merger of the Office of the State Minister of Georgia on European and Euro-Atlantic Integration into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They noted that the existence of the Office of the State Minister of Georgia on European and Euro-Atlantic Integration demonstrates that European integration is a national priority and that a decision on the structural changes was made behind closed doors without wide public participation and was unacceptable.[4] One of the problematic issues with the changes is the merger of the State Security (SSS) and the Intelligence Services. Twelve civil society organizations released a joint statement on the planned merger.[5] The changes were also criticized by the monitoring co-rapporteurs for Georgia of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). The mission noted that “in the context of the need to strengthen the system of checks and balances, we expressly call upon the authorities to ensure proper parliamentary oversight and control over the national security services. This is especially important given the reportedly increasing prominence of the security services in the governance of the country, as shown by the planned merger of the Foreign Intelligence and the State Security Services in Georgia”.[6]

In addition to this kind of criticism, it seems as if there is some dissent within the parliamentary majority. The Speaker of Parliament announced that the structural changes will be considered during next parliamentary session. He noted that there are different opinions about environmental protection, as well as some questions about the intelligence services. For this reason, additional consultations will be made before any parliamentary consideration.[7]

In conclusion, it should be argued that structural changes that lead to more flexible administrative bodies and that reduce administrative costs are welcome. However, whether they will lead to this outcome depends upon the deliberative process in parliament as well as external consultations with experts and interested organizations in the relevant areas. It should also be noted that Georgia needs structural changes not only at the level of ministries, but also in relation to the many state agencies that have been created since 2012 in Georgia and whose functions are not completely clear in many cases.

Notes

[1] Special Statement by the Prime Minister of Georgia, 2017-11-13,  http://gov.ge/index.php?lang_id=ENG&sec_id=463&info_id=62772

[2] Political Parties, President on PM’s Cabinet Reshuffle Plans, Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 14 Nov.’17 / 13:25, http://civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=30630

[3] Environmental NGO Calls for ‘In-Depth Analysis’ of Proposed Government Changes, Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 16 Nov.’17 / 12:32, http://civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=30638

[4] http://eap-csf.ge/images/doc/gancxadeba/statement-%20structural%20changes_geo.pdf

[5] Legislative Amendments to Reinstate and Strengthen the Soviet-Style Practice of Planting Security Officers on an Unprecedented Scale, 29 November, 2017http://www.transparency.ge/en/post/legislative-amendments-reinstate-and-strengthen-soviet-style-practice-planting-security

[6] Georgia: call for stronger system of checks and balances, including for security services, 28/11/2017, http://assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/News/News-View-EN.asp?newsid=6882&lang=2&cat=

[7] According to Irakli Kobakhidze, structural changes need to be consulted on intelligence service and environmental protection, December 01, 2017, http://geonews.ge/geo/news/story/81961-irakli-kobakhidzis-gantskhadebit-dazvervis-samsakhursa-da-garemos-datsvastan-dakavshirebit-struqturuli-tsvlilebebi-konsultatsiebs-sachiroebs

Azerbaijan – Economic crisis and international attitude

Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan, seems increasingly concerned about international criticism of his country. In Aliyve’s words: [International circles] are trying to present Azerbaijan as a totalitarian and authoritarian country where rights and freedoms are violated. This trend started the day I was elected President” [1].Despite the aggressive tone, this reveals that Azerbaijan is worried about its reputation. This is a change from before and results from the global drop in energy prices, which has severely hit the Azerbaijani economy and, more broadly, the Azerbaijani sense of self-reliance.

On August 24, Mehman Aliyev, head of the independent news agency ‘Turan’, was arrested by the Azerbaijani authorities. However, on September 11, he was released from pretrial custody. According to the analyst Liz Fuller, various developments may have influenced this outcome. One is pressure from international organizations, such as the ‘Council of Europe’ and ‘Reporters without Boarders’, as well as powerful countries. Notably, the US State department called for the immediate release of Mr. Aliyev. Concern was also voiced by the UK and France, while the Norwegian Foreign ministry Tweeted: “We are deeply concerned about the situation around the news agency and, in general, freedom of the press in Azerbaijan[2]“. This apparent responsiveness to international pressures represents a clear departure from the past. For instance, during the ‘European Games’ hosted by Baku in 2015, the Azerbaijani political establishment ignored international pledges to free political prisoners, and dismissed negative press reports as merely the expression of a global anti-Azerbaijani bias.

This departure does not result from a weakening of the ruling authorities. On the contrary, as analyzed in this blog, in 2016 a constitutional reform led to the massive empowerment of the presidency. The presidential mandate was extended from five to seven years, and the president acquired the right to dissolve the Parliament under certain circumstances, and to appoint a vice-President (who is, de facto, an unelected second-in-command). With reference to this latter point, in February 2016 President Aliyev chose his wife, Mrs Mehriban Aliyeva, as the vice president of Azerbaijan[3]. This move can be interpreted as an attempt to further consolidate the continuity in power of the whole Aliyev family. In this regard, it is worth mentioning that the current president, Ilham Aliyev, is the son of late president Heydar Aliyev, who ruled the country from 1993 to 2003[4].

A more convincing interpretation suggests that this more conciliatory attitude on human rights issues could be related to the unfortunate effects of the drop of energy prices. In the past decade, lucrative oil exports fuelled the economic growth of Azerbaijan. For years, the profitability of the energy sector provided few incentives to the systematic promotion of other industries. Thus, despite the president’s emphasis on the importance of the non-oil sector, actual investments in that direction remained modest. In November 2016, the Turan information agency complained about the lack of a coherent strategy to support small and medium-sized business[5]. However, the economic crisis required some proper moves in that direction, such as the promotion of tourism.  At the beginning of September 2017, President Aliyev attended the inauguration of the Khazar Palace hotel complex in the coastal city of Lankaran, which is located relatively near the Iranian border. The complex, equipped with all modern comforts, is openly targeting foreign tourists[6].

In addition, Azerbaijan has also relaxed its visa policy. In mid-2015 President Aliyev declared that: “Everyone who wants to come to Baku should be able to receive an e-visa and not have to go to the embassy or elsewhere”. The introduction of e-visas, effective as of summer 2017, is a minor revolution for a country that “was a stalwart on the ‘Hardest-visa-to-get’ list”[7]. The simplification was welcomed with enthusiasm by Arab visitors, especially from the Gulf, and contributed to the enhancement of the tourism sector. Their increasing presence is starting a debate about the appropriateness of building hotels that are compliant with Halal requirements, as a way of further attracting Muslim visitors. Additionally, the quick increase of affordable travel options is a crucial component of the national strategy of tourism promotion[8]. Since the summer of 2017, low-cost flights have operated between Baku and Moscow three times per week. Furthermore, since the end of October 2017, an equivalent air-link has been in place between Saint Petersburg and Baku.

In brief, whether these mechanisms are effective or not[9], the drop in energy prices is posing a remarkable challenge to Azerbaijan. Other than being a crucial economic issue, this situation affects the way Baku perceives itself and its relative weight in the international system. “There can be no talk of political independence without economic independence. (…) [Our guiding principles are] non-interference in each other’s affairs and mutual respect”. These words, pronounced by President Aliyev in his last inauguration speech  (October 2013), seemed to imply that, by virtue of its oil-related wealth, Azerbaijan deserved immunity from international criticism. Since then, things have dramatically changed. The recent receptiveness of Baku to international pressures can be interpreted as the acknowledgement, for the time being, of the inappropriateness of a daring international attitude.

Notes

[1] Turan Information Agency. 2017. ‘Azerbaijan Not to Lose Anything from Leaving Council of Europe – Ilham Aliyev’, October 5 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[2] Turan Information Agency. 2017.‘Foreign Ministry of Norway Concerned about Situation around Turan News Agency’, August 30 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[3] Notwithstanding the empowerment of the presidential figure, journalistic investigations shed light on the presidential family offshore investments.

[4] President Ilham Aliyev was elected a few weeks after the death of his father.

[5] Turan Information Agency considers that over-dependency from the oil sector is the main feature of Azerbaijan’s macro-economic structure. That makes extremely difficult to bring about radical changes in the short-run [Turan Information Agency. 2016. ‘Unjustified tariffs and rates’, November 30 (Retrieved through LexisNexis)].

[6] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2017. ‘Azerbaijan: Southern region media highlights 28 Aug – 10 Sep 17’, October 3 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[7] MENA English (Middle East and North Africa Financial Network). 2017. ‘Time for obtaining evisas to Azerbaijan reduced to three hours’, September 4 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[8] Global English (Middle East and North Africa Financial Network). 2017. ‘Land of Fire to take new steps for tourism development’, October 25 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[9] Turan Information Agency. 2017. ‘Economy Does Not Come Out of Crisis’, October 14 (Retrieved through LexiNexis).

Georgia – The president’s veto of the constitutional reform is overridden

On September 26, 2017, the Parliament of Georgia approved a set of constitutional amendments on their third and final reading with 117 lawmakers voting in favor and two against.[1] On October 9, the President of Georgia, Giorgi Margvelashvili, vetoed the constitutional amendments and returned the draft bill to Parliament together with his objections. The president noted six points, four of which reflected commitments made by the governing Georgian Dream party before the Venice Commission. These were: the issue of the electoral bonus for the winning party at legislative elections, the creation of electoral blocks, and issues relating to the constitutional court and religious freedom. The president also noted Georgian Dream’s initiative relating to the introduction of a fully proportional electoral system in 2020. Finally, the president suggested the introduction of an indirect presidential elections at some time in the future rather than after the 2018 election.[2]

President Margvelashvili suggested that if Georgian Dream were to accept these proposals, then it would demonstrate that Georgia had a “European” political culture and that the government would be acting in accordance with the Venice Commission.

On October 13, the parliament of Georgia overturned the president’s objections with 117 votes and approved the initial version of the document. [3] The ruling party announced several days before the plenary session that they would support president’s objections if the president suggested only two changes: allowing the parties to form electoral blocs for the next parliamentary elections in 2020, and allowing the so-called bonus system.

The next step in the constitutional reform was the signing of the constitutional amendment. As the presidential veto had been overturned, many experts believed that the president would not sign the bill into law. According the Georgian constitution, if President fails to promulgate a law within the specified timeframe, the Chairperson of Parliament shall sign and promulgate it.[4] However, one week after the president had vetoed the bill, President Margvelashvili signed the amendments into law. The president made a special statement before signing the amendments. He said that it was extremely difficult for him to sign the Constitution. However, he said that he would do so to avoid any destabilization.[5]

The new constitution will enter into force following the next presidential elections in 2018. This means that the 2018 presidential election will still be held directly. More generally, the president remains the head of state, the commander-in-chief and the country’s representative in foreign relations, but no longer ensures “the functioning of state bodies within the scope of his/her powers granted by the Constitution.” At the following presidential election, the president will be elected by way of an electoral college composed of 300 members, including MPs, members of two Autonomous Republics and local government representatives. Thus, semi-presidentialism will be remain in Georgia until after the 2018 presidential election. Next year will show how successful the amendments turn out to be.

Notes

[1] http://parliament.ge/en/saparlamento-saqmianoba/plenaruli-sxdomebi/plenaruli-sxdomebi_news/saqartvelos-parlamentma-konstituciuri-kanonis-proeqti-mesame-mosmenit-miigo.page

[2] President Margvelashvili Sends Six-Point Motivated Remarks to Parliament, https://www.president.gov.ge/en-US/pressamsakhuri/siakhleebi/saqartvelos-prezidentma-parlaments-6-punqtiani-mot.aspx

[3] The Parliament overrode the Presidential veto on the Constitutional Changes, 13 Oct 2017,  http://parliament.ge/en/saparlamento-saqmianoba/plenaruli-sxdomebi/plenaruli-sxdomebi_news/parlamentma-sakonstitucio-cvlilebebze-prezidentis-veto-dadzlia.page

[4] Constitution of Georgia, August 24, 1995, http://www.parliament.ge/uploads/other/28/28803.pdf

[5] President Margvelashvili: It Is Extremely Difficult for Me to Sign This Constitution, but We Should Take All Steps to Avoid Possible Causes of Destabilization, https://www.president.gov.ge/en-US/pressamsakhuri/siakhleebi/giorgi-margvelashvili-chemtvis-uagresad-dznelia-am.aspx

Georgia – Constitutional reform: From semi-presidentialism to parliamentarism

More than 20 years since the adoption of the constitution of Georgia, governments are still thinking about constitutional reform. Typically, authorities have done so as a way of strengthening their powers.

Thorough constitutional reform has already been carried out twice. First, fundamental changes were adopted in 2004 after the Rose Revolution. A semi-presidential model was introduced, but in fact, it was a super-presidential system where the president’s powers were further strengthened by the presidential majority in parliament. Second, in 2010 the direct election of the president was maintained, but the powers of the president were significantly weakened, bringing Georgia closer to the parliamentary model. President Saakashvili, who was term-limited, wanted to remain in the power as prime minister, and this constitutional amendment was designed to serve this purpose. However, Saakashvili’s party lost the 2012 parliamentary elections and an electoral coalition of six parties led by Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili came to power. After a year of tense cohabitation, power was fully transferred to the Georgian Dream coalition after the 2013 presidential election.

Today, Georgia faces a third major constitutional revision. Prior to the 2012 election, the Georgian Dream coalition promised to amend the constitution and move to a parliamentary system. Not all parties in the coalition shared this opinion at the time, but in 2016 the coalition was dissolved in the run up to the parliamentary elections. At the 2016 election, Georgian Dream participated independently, winning 48.67% of the proportional vote and 44 seats in the legislature, and 70 of the 73 seats in the majoritarian constituencies. So, with less than 50% of the vote, the party won a super majority in the parliament. To change the constitution, a party currently needs more than 115 of the 150 seats in the legislature.

On December 15, 2016, parliament created the State Constitutional Commission to revise the constitution[1]. The main goal of the Commission was to draw up the draft law on the revision of the Constitution of Georgia[2]. On April 22, 2017, the State Constitutional Commission adopted the Draft of Revision of the Constitution.[3]

The State Constitutional Commission comprised 72 members, including representatives of both the parliamentary majority and the minority, constitutional bodies, experts, NGOs, and representatives of political parties who received at least 3% of the vote in the last parliamentary elections. The ruling party held a majority on the commission. The presidential administration refused to work with the Commission, because in the president’s opinion, the procedure for setting up the Commission lacked political legitimacy and was not based on a wide consensus.[4]

Two days before the vote on the constitutional draft, the opposition parties left the Commission. Fifteen opposition parties announced that the ruling majority had not considered any of their proposals and accsued the ruling party of amending the constitution to suit themselves. The Commission’s work was criticized and was not supported by the Public Defender’s Office and representatives of leading NGOs. The ruling party commented that the Commission’s legitimacy was not endangered by the boycott of the opposition, as the people would legitimize the draft constitution during public hearings. Although the constitution of Georgia does not require the adoption of the constitution by a referendum, public discussions are important, but previous practice shows that such discussions are not very effective.

As to the transparency of the Commission, it should be noted that no social networks were used in the process. In terms of inclusiveness, it was almost the same process as when the United National Movement had previously used its constitutional majority to adopt constitutional amendments without considering the opposition’s opinions. It should also be noted that these fundamental constitutional amendments were prepared within a period of only 3 months. No international experts were invited to be part of the process of preparing the amendments. The president of the Venice Commission, Gianni Buquicchio, said during his visit to Georgia in 2013 that a good Constitution should be based on the widest consensus possible between all the political parties and society.[5]

On May 8, 2017, the draft of the constitutional amendments was submitted to the Venice Commission. Georgian Dream expected to receive a positive report. The government announced that it would not accept any constitutional amendments which were negatively evaluated by the Venice Commission and would unconditionally share all the legal recommendations expressed by the Commission. In fact, the ruling party did accept some of the Venice Commission’s recommendations, but the issue of introducing a fully proportional electoral system for the 2020 parliamentary election was not accepted.

As noted above, the main goal of the reform is to introduce a parliamentary republic. The commonly heard argument of those behind the reform is that parliamentarism is more democratic, that it better represents the interests of the people, and that it is present in a majority of European countries. However, there are no clear reasons to suggest either that presidential or semi-presidential systems are less democratic or that they do not fit the situation in Georgia. The main issue for both the Commission and the ruling party is the ending of direct presidential elections.

According to the draft, the president of Georgia will be elected by an electoral college without a debate for a 5-year term. The Electoral College will comprise 300 members, including all Members of Parliament and all members of Supreme Councils of the Autonomous Republics of Abkhazia and Adjara. The other members will be named by political parties from representatives of local councils. It must be noted that the ruling party has a majority In the Supreme Council of the Autonomous Republic of Adjara and in local government. These governments do not have independent financial and economic means and are completely depended on government support. Georgia does not have a decentralised territorial state structure and the country still operates like the Soviet system. Governors (representatives of executive) in the regions are appointed by the executive[6]. They are loyal to the parliamentary majority.

The majority of citizens and political parties do not favour the cancellation of direct presidential elections. Significant parts of society consider the direct election of the president as a way of exercising their voice and as the only mechanism for balancing the executive[7].

According to the draft constitution, the president’s powers will also be restricted. The president will carry out a number of powers in agreement with the government or at the government’s proposal. The ruling party thinks that the president should not be an active, charismatic leader and should be more of an experienced academic person. The President cannot be a member of a party and the age of candidates will be increased from 35 to 40. The National Security Council will be abolished and a Council of Defense will be created, which will operate only during martial law. The National Security Council was the subject of controversy between the presidency and the government after the 2012 parliamentary elections. The Prime Minister did not attend Security Council meetings convened by the President. Later, Parliament adopted a special law on the State Security and Crisis Management Council and created such a council in the executive. According to the draft constitution, the President of Georgia will remain the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, but he will appoint and dismiss the Head of the Military Forces on the recommendation of the Government.

One of the significant issues of this constitutional reform is an electoral system which has become a source of disagreement between the ruling party, the opposition and the President of Georgia. The opposition demanded a fully proportional parliamentary election during last elections. At the start of the work of Constitutional Commission, the ruling party suported this proposal, but then proposed a 5 percent threshold with undistributed votes below the threshold being allocated to the winning party. At the same time, the draft banned electoral blocs. With weak party structures and financial resources, the opposition fear that the election process will not be equal, given they will have to compete against the Georgian Dream, which is backed by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. The percentage of undistributed votes could range from 20% to 60%, meaning that the first-place party is likely to receive a bonus of 30 or more seats in parliament. It seems that after abolition of the majoritarian system, the ruling party still hopes to create a majority in the parliament using these amendments. This is indisputably an unfair electoral system and will most likely create a strong one-party majority in the future.

The amendments relating to the electoral system were strongly criticized by international organizations, Georgian NGOs and the Venice Commission. The Venice Commission noted that “The replacement of the current proportional/majoritarian election system by a proportional election system is, without doubt, a positive step forward aiming at increasing pluralism in Parliament. However, this positive step forward is limited by three mechanisms: the 5% threshold rule in legislative elections is maintained; the undistributed votes below the 5% threshold are allocated to the winning party and, electoral coalitions (party blocks) are abolished. While the 5% threshold is perfectly in line with European standards and does not as such expose itself to criticism, taken together, these three mechanisms limit the effects of the proportional system to the detriment of smaller parties and pluralism and deviate from the principles of fair representation and electoral equality to a larger extent than seems justified by the need to ensure stability”.[8]

Parliament adopted the constitutional amendments at its second reading in an extraordinary session on June 23. Only the Georgian Dream supported them. The President, the opposition and the NGO sector called on the ruling party to resume the dialogue on constitutional change, sending their remarks to the Venice Commission. On September 26, 2017, Parliament approved the amendments to the Constitution at the third reading supported by 117 votes, while 2 MPs voted against.

The amendments will come into force after the 2018 presidential election. In 2018 the president will be directly elected for a six-year term. The proportional electoral system will begin in 2024, while the 2020 elections will still be held under the existing mixed electoral system and with a one-time 3% election barrier. Thus, the reform process ended with the rejection of a fully proportional electoral system for 2020 parliamentary election, which was the main demand of the opposition political parties.

On the second day after the final adoption of the constitutional amendments in parliament, the speaker of the parliament suggested that the president use his veto power in relation to the bonus system and the abolition of electoral blocs. This is the first that the parliamentary majority has asked to the president to veto constitutional amendments. It must be noted that parliamentary majority did not consider these changes during earlier stages of the parliamentary process, despite strong criticism from all political groups, president and international organizations.

The amendment of the electoral system is the cornerstone of this constitutional refom. The Georgian experience shows that a mixed electoral system has returned a strong single party majority in parliament since the adoption of constitution in 1995. Keeping the mixed system for the 2020 parliamentary election could be considered a strategic goal of the ruling party in its attempt to maintain power. Allowing party blocks and reducing the election threshold to 3% was a last-minute change in the face of strong criticism from the international and domestic community. Nonetheless, the Venice commission noted that the postponement of the adoption of a proportional election system to October 2024 is both highly regrettable and a major obstacle to reaching consensus.[9] The ruling party announced that they could not make any fundamental changes to the constitution during its third hearing and that a new draft of the constitutional amendment will be initiated during next parliamentary session. The Venice Commission noted that they expect this step not only to be considered, but immediately adopted.[10]

The draft also changed the constitutional amendment rules. The amendments will be adopted by a two-thirds rather than a three-quarters majority in Parliament. Although amendments will be submitted to the President after their adoption by Parliament, if they are supported by three-quarters of the total number of MPs the president will not have the right to veto them. According the Georgian constitution and legislation, the constitutional court of Georgia is not entitled to consider the constitutionality of constitutional amendments.

In conclusion, it should be noted that there are some positive aspects to the draft constitution. These relate to government formation and accountability, human rights and freedoms, and other technical changes, but the most important aspects are the mechanisms for the democratic functioning of power. Without a democratic political system, any improvements will be a fiction. The constitutional reform confirmed the perils of a single party holding supermajority powers. The unilateral adoption of such important amendments is a threat to the long-term democratic development of the country. No matter how good some of them may be, an acknowledgement of the Georgian context is very important. The draft will most likely establish a one-party majority without the necessary checks and balances.

Notes

[1]  The Resolution of the Parliament of Georgia on Creation of the State Constitutional Commission and Approval of the Charter of the State Constitutional Commission http://constitution.parliament.ge/en-54

[2] The Charter of the State Constitutional Commission, http://constitution.parliament.ge/en-52

[3] The State Constitutional Commission supported the Draft of Revision of the Constitution, http://constitution.parliament.ge/en-88

[4] President’s Administration Boycotts Planned Constitutional Reform Commission, Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 12 Dec.’16 http://civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=29687

[5] Gianni Buquicchio – Constitution Should not be the Result of Consensus between the Party or Current Majority, http://www.interpressnews.ge/en/politicss/44180-gianni-buquicchio–constitution-should-not-be-the-result-of-consensus-between-the-party-or-current-majority.html?ar=A

[6] Constitution of Georgia, 24 August 1995 https://matsne.gov.ge/en/document/view/30346

[7] Political Ratings and Public Attitudes in IRI-commissioned Poll, Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 5 Apr.’17, http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=29995

[8] CDL-AD(2017)013-e Georgia – Opinion on the draft revised Constitution, http://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/?pdf=CDL-AD(2017)013-e

[9] Draft opinion on the draft Constitution of Georgia as adopted in the second reading in June 2017, Strasbourg, 22 September 2017, Opinion 876 / 2017, CDL-PI(2017)006, http://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/default.aspx?pdffile=CDL-PI(2017)006-e

[10] Draft opinion on the draft Constitution of Georgia as adopted in the second reading in June 2017, Strasbourg, 22 September 2017, Opinion 876 / 2017, CDL-PI(2017)006, http://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/default.aspx?pdffile=CDL-PI(2017)006-e

Armenia – The others and Russia: Walking the complementarity tightrope

In the last months, Armenia has been remarkably active in developing and enhancing its international ties. However, Russia has not stopped keeping in check its “small brother”. Armenia’s sudden withdrawal from NATO’s Agile Spirit exercise in Georgia is illustrative of the pressures and challenges it faces. Rather than being confined to the foreign policy realm, these developments have some domestic implications.

Over the summer, Armenia was working towards the strengthening of the relationship with a plurality of actors. Such diplomatic activism can be interpreted as being in line with its main foreign policy guideline, namely complementarity. That means cultivating ties with as many international partners as possible, within the leeway consented by Russia. Concerning the relationship with the EU, Yerevan and Brussels are expected to sign the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA), whose details were finalized in March. Both Piotr Switalski, the head of the EU Delegation in Yerevan, and the Armenian president, Serzh Sargsyan, are confident about a successful outcome. In the words of Mr Sargsyan: “We have no reason to not sign that document”. A similar statement was also made by Prime Minister Karen Karapetian. Other than interacting with the EU, Armenian officials had discussions with their Iranian counterparts about the implementation of a free-trade zone. Additionally, Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan and the Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov pledged to reinforce their bilateral ties. These developments, and some prior diplomatic moves, have domestic implications. Thus, they can be understood as being linked to the September 2016 Government reshuffle, and to the need to promote foreign investments and sustainable developmen[1].

Focusing on the relationship with the EU, CEPA can be interpreted as the last episode of a complex interaction. In addition to being an upgrade in bilateral relations, the signature of CEPA is relevant since at the last minute, in September 2013, Armenia withdrew from the Association Agreement (AA) talks with Brussels and announced instead its decision to join the Russian-led Eurasian Union. Even though most analysts suspect this U-turn to be the result of Kremlin pressure, Armenian political elites have never publicly admitted that this was the case. For instance, in recent times President Sargsyan denied any such external interference, saying that: “We negotiated with both the EEU and the EU, since initially both sides said that one does not interfere with one another. But, what should we do when the European Union said that it hinders?”[2] In other words, it was hinted that the EU, rather than Armenia, suddenly departed from what had been previously agreed. However, in spite of this official rhetoric, the influence of Russia seems clear[3].

The withdrawal from the Association Agreement shows that Russia can be an unpredictable and capricious “big brother”. Thus, while there should be no objection to signing CEPA[4], the Kremlin still keeps a close eye on its South Caucasian ally. In this regard, notwithstanding the diplomatic activism of the past months, the last-minute withdrawal from the NATO’s Agile Spirit exercise in Georgia, which took place between September 3 and September 11 was remarkable.

Armenia is a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). However, the country has been developing ties with NATO, as per the Individual Partnership Action Plan and the Partnership for Peace program. Within this framework, some Armenian troops took part in NATO’s peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo[5]. Aware of the possible tensions and misunderstandings arising from this situation, Armenian cadres often specified that cooperation with NATO neither interfered with the CSTO’s commitments nor involved any future plan of membership. For instance, during an interview in July 2017, President Sargsyan ruled out any ambition to join NATO[6].However, in spite of these precautions, the withdrawal from the NATO drill seems indicative of some misunderstanding between Moscow and Yerevan.

Armenian policymakers said that their participation was never confirmed. Notably, Armenian Deputy Speaker Eduard Sharmazanov also remarked that, notwithstanding cooperation with NATO, CSTO plays a crucial role for the security of Armenia[7]. However, that does not mean cutting ties with NATO. In this regard, presidential spokesperson Vladimir Akopyan stated that missing the military exercise did not prelude a reconsideration of the relationship with NATO (i.e. cooperation without membership)[8]. It must be added that it is not the first episode of this kind. In 2009 Armenia, after confirming its involvement in a NATO exercise, also pulled out at the last moment[9].

Despite the aforementioned declarations, some doubts are in order. Georgi Kajarava, the Georgian Defense Ministry spokesman, said that this decision was highly unexpected[10]. Even more explicitly, the Armenian expert Ruben Mehrabyan bluntly said that: “A simple comparison of realities that have taken shape in the region and Armenian-Russian relations simply rule out any theories for the exception of Russia resorting to brazen blackmail and the Armenian leadership back-pedalling.” Mr Mehrabyan also ruled out that the withdrawal of Armenia could be attributed to the participation of Azerbaijan. First, Baku announced its involvement at the very last minute. Second, both Armenia and Azerbaijan participated in games organized and hosted by Russia[11].

The hypotheses about Russian pressure= are reinforced by an analysis of the Russian press. The pro-government newspaper “Pravda” used the expression “common sense prevailed” when commenting on Armenia’s sudden refusal to participate in the NATO drill. In the same article, which also hinted at the unhappiness of Russia with the cooperation between NATO and Armenia, it was plainly stated that: “We would also like to remind our Armenian friends that it was Vladimir Putin (not Angela Merkel) who stopped the offensive of Azerbaijani troops in Nagorno-Karabakh in April [2016][12]”.

While these dynamics relate to the international sphere, they are also relevant to the understanding of domestic developments, first and foremost the future of Serzh Sargsyan[13]. As reported in this blog, Mr Sargsyan declared that in the future he would like to be involved in security affairs. However, he prudently refrained from commenting on the NATO issue. Due to the constitutional reform of 2015[14], Mr Sargsyan could extend his position in power by becoming premier. Given that, his silence could be interpreted as a way to avoid tensions with a crucial partner.

In addition to this prudence in international affairs, an analysis of domestic dynamics also seems to confirm the unwillingness of Mr Sargsyan to quietly retire. While he refrains from declarations about his future, Galust Sahakian, a deputy chairman of President Sargsyan’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), declared that the President should stay in power after the end of his second presidential mandate (i.e. should become Prime Minister), since no other leader could take up such a responsibility.

In conclusion, Armenia needs to find a balance between its desire for investments and modernization, and its need for not displeasing Russia. Turning to the current leadership, prudent decisions seem connected to their permanence in power.

Notes

[1] Refer to Erik Davtyan’s analysis for more insight on Armenia recent diplomatic moves and their implications.

[2] ARMINFO News Agency. 2017. “Kiesler: European Union is ready to sign agreement on extended and comprehensive partnership with Armenia”, September 12 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[3] This author conducted expert interviews in Armenia in Summer 2015 and Summer 2015. All her respondents agreed on Russia having strongly influenced that decision. For further insights, refer to: Loda, C. (2016, May). Perception of the EU in Armenia: A View from the Government and Society. In Caucasus, the EU and Russia-Triangular Cooperation?. Nomos Nomos. Pp 131-152.

[4] BMI Research. 2017. “New EU Deal No Game Changer”, Armenia Country Risk Report, October 1 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[5] Thai News Service. 2017. “Armenia: Armenian presidential spokesman comments on relations with NATO”, September 8 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[6] Thai News Service. 2017. “Armenia: Armenian presidential spokesman comments on relations with NATO”, September 8 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[7] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2017. “Programme summary of Armenian Public TV news 1700 gmt 4 Sep 17”, September 5 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[8] ITAR-TASS. 2017. “Armenian presidential spokesman says no plans to review relations with NATO”, September 07 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[9] ARMINFO News Agency. 2017. “Dashnaktsakan: Armenia is an independent state, and can independently decide in which exercises to take part, and in which there is no”, September 04 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[10] ARMINFO News Agency. 2017. “Armenia to participate in the training “Combat Commonwealth 2017” within the framework of the CIS against the backdrop of refusal to participate in NATO exercises”, September 4 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[11] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2017. “Pundit: Armenia misses US-led drills due to Russia’s “brazen blackmail””, September 6 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[12] Stepushova, Lyubov. 2017. “Russia tells Armenia where to sit”, Pravda.Ru, September 7, http://www.pravdareport.com/world/ussr/07-09-2017/138617-armenia-0/.

[13] BMI Research. 2017. “New EU Deal No Game Changer”, Armenia Country Risk Report, October 1 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[14] In 2015, a constitutional referendum reduced the powers of the President and enhanced those of the Prime Minister. Considering the political implications of this change, it has been observed that it would enable President Sargsyan, who is serving his second and last presidential mandate, to extend his permanence in power by becoming Premier. This blog extensively covered this topic, focusing on the details of the reform, the campaign before the vote and the relevant debate in 2016 and 2017.

Georgia – Proposed constitutional reforms

Draft amendments to the Constitution of Georgia are currently undergoing nationwide public discussions before being voted on in parliament. Among other significant amendments, the proposed draft foresees moving to a parliamentary form of government with the introduction of indirect presidential elections and changing the electoral system to full proportional representation.

On December 9, 2016 the Parliamentary Chairman, Irakli Kobakhidze, announced the setting up of a constitutional commission tasked with drafting a package of constitutional amendments. The commission would report at the end of April 2017.

Soon after the announcement, Giorgi Margvelashvili, the President of Georgia, boycotted the process and his administration (including the Security Council) refrained from taking part in the commission’s discussions. The administration noted that the format offered by the Parliamentary Chairman raised a lot of question marks.

The ruling Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia party had 23 members in the commission; the United National Movement was represented by 8 members; and the Alliance of Patriots by 2 members. The commission also included one representative from each of the parties in the electoral blocs that failed to clear the 5% thresholdin the last parliamentary elections, but that had garnered at least 3% of votes .

Before boycotting the process, the President was supposed to have three representatives in the commission: the Head of the President’s administration; the President’s parliamentary secretary; and the Secretary of the National Security Council.

The government was represented by the Minister of Justice and the government’s parliamentary secretary. The  commission also included the chairpersons of the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court; the heads of the legislative and executive bodies of Adjara and Abkhazian Autonomous Republics; the Georgian Public Defender; the President of the National Bank of Georgia; and the chairperson of the State Audit Office.

Experts and NGOs were included at the Chairman’s invitation.

Despite the broad range of topics that the commission was tasked to discuss, the electoral system, the election of the president, and the definition of marriage generated the most heated debates.

While the Chairman of the Commission aimed to legitimise the process, President Margvelashvili launched a campaign called the “Constitution Belongs to Everyone” and visited a number of towns in different regions of Georgia to discuss the likely amendments before the draft amendments were published on May 1.

Shortly before its final session of the Commission, opposition parties also left the Commission in protest.

Major Draft Amendments

Election of the President

The Georgian Dream-led Constitutional Commission opted for a Parliamentary Republic. In particular, the proposed amendments will abolish the direct election of the president, transferring it to a college of electors composed of 300 MPs, local, and regional government representatives. The scrapping off nearly all the powers of the President was justified by the proposed shift to a parliamentary system.

The college of electors will consist of 150 members of parliament and all members of the Supreme Councils of Adjara and Abkhazia (in-exile). Electors from municipal councils will be nominated by political parties in accordance with quotas assigned “on the basis of the principle of proportional geographic representation and the results of municipal elections.”

The eligibility age for the President of Georgia will increase from 35 to 40. There are changes to residency requirements as well; a potential candidate will have to have lived in Georgia for at least 15 years. He/she, however, is no longer required to have lived in Georgia for the three years before the election.

The president will remain the head of state, the commander-in-chief, and the country’s representative in foreign relations, but will no longer “ensure the functioning of state bodies within the scope of his/her powers granted by the Constitution.” The President will lose the right “to request particular matters to be discussed at the Government session and to participate in the discussion.”

The National Security Council, which “organizes the military development and defense of the country” and is led by the president under the current constitution, will no longer exist. Instead, the draft constitution establishes the National Defense Council, which will function only during martial law to coordinate the work of the constitutional bodies, and will consist of the President, the Prime Minister, Parliamentary Chairman and the Head of the Armed Forces of Georgia.

The proposed indirect election of President was met with the fiercest criticism in Georgian society. In their address to the Venice Commission, local CSOs noted, “the Constitution of a specific country should take into account the local context and experience, and should be responsive to local challenges and needs.” CSOs underlines that Georgia does not have a rich democratic experience, that the political/legal culture of voters is developing, democratic institutions are not strong enough, and there is lack of trust towards public institutions in the country. In this context, CSOs viewed the draft amendments as a step made towards weakening democracy, describing the reforms as “risky and not desirable”.

NDI Opinion Polls 2017

The most recent opinion polls commissioned by NDI confirmed that the citizens of Georgia prefer the direct election of the president (84 %). Furthermore, President Margvelashvili viewed the draft amendment as a personal attack against himself, a non-partisan president, and emphasized this issue during the public discussions of the proposed amendments.

Electoral System

If adopted, Georgia will move to a fully proportional electoral system, replacing the current mixed system, whereby voters elect 73 MPs in majoritarian, single-seat constituencies, while the remaining 77 seats are distributed proportionally in the closed party-list contest with a 5% threshold.

The new constitution will ban the establishment of party blocs ahead of elections, while leaving the 5% threshold intact.

The draft constitution increases the age of eligible candidates from 21 to 25 and sets a ten-year residency requirement in Georgia.

Only parties with members currently in the parliament or those which obtain the signatures of 25000 voters are eligible to participate in parliamentary elections. According to the draft, MPs nominated by one political party can form only one parliamentary faction.

CSOs in Georgia have concerns over the electoral system and, specifically, the allocation of the remaining seats (undistributed mandates). Since the constitutional draft introduces an unlimited bonus for a party that receives the most votes – all undistributed mandates will be allocated a single party. CSOs consider this aspect of the electoral system to be highly unfair and largely undermine the positive gains from the change of the majoritarian system. CSOs believe that the constitution should ensure that the undistributed mandates are allocated proportionally to all parties in the Parliament according to their election results.

Definition of Marriage

The draft constitution introduces the definition of marriage as “the union of a man and a woman.” While the definition of marriage already exists as part of the Civil Code of Georgia, the Georgian Dream party decided to introduce a special provision as part of the constitutional reforms.

CSOs have named the definition of marriage as “a problematic issue”. According to their assessment, this amendment is particularly problematic given widespread homophobia, increasing cases of hate crimes, and the continuous struggle for LGBT groups to exercise their right to freedom of expression and assembly. Furthermore, the assessment states that the constitutional prohibition of marriage equality is particularly concerning given that Georgian legislation does not guarantee civil partnerships for same-sex couples. CSOs believe that in line with ECHR practice, Georgia should introduce the legal recognition of same-sex couples and guarantee similar rights as the opposite-sex couples.

The constitutional commission expects the opinion of the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional and legal matters, to issue its preliminary conclusion before June in time for parliamentary discussions and the final conclusion of the debate on June 15. However, it is uncertain if the Constitutional Commission will reflect the Venice Commission’s conclusions in the final text that will be voted upon.

Armenia – Shortcomings in the parliamentary elections and the long shadow of the future

On 2 April 2017, a parliamentary election took place in Armenia. This was a particularly remarkable event in the political life of the country, as it was the first national vote after the approval of the constitutional reform, in December 2015 and the subsequent adoption of a new electoral code. The victory of the Republican Party, which has been in power since 1999, makes it possible for the incumbent, President Serzh Sargsyan, to think of taking on a prominent political role after the end of his second (and last) presidential mandate in 2018. In spite of the emphasis by the ruling political cadres, the president included[1], on the proper management of the electoral process, domestic and international observers have lamented malpractices both during the electoral campaign and the election itself. In spite of these concerns, most international observers have refrained from condemning the overall result.  This post will offer a detailed account of these issues.

RESULTS

On Monday 10 April, the results were published by the Central Committee Election (CEC).

Of the 105 seats in Parliament, 58 were won by the Republican Party, 31 by the Tsaroukyan bloc (led by the businessman Tagik Tsaroukyan), 9 by the Yeld bloc, and 7 by the Dashnaktsutyun Party (ARF) [2]. As prescribed by the new electoral code, four representatives of ethnic minorities were elected under a special quota. Three of them were allied with the Republican party (Assyrian, Kurdish and Yazidi) while the other one, a representative of the Russian community, run with the Tsaroukyan bloc.

The formations which did not meet the 5% threshold, and therefore were not assigned any seat, were: the ANC–PPA Alliance, the Ohanyan-Raffi-Oskanian Alliance, Armenian Renaissance, the Free Democrats Party and the Armenian Communist Party.

While the results could be interpreted as a narrow victory for the Republican party and will mean that the party will probably resort to a coalition, it is undoubtedly a more favourable result than what was predicted by surveys immediately before the election[3].  Notably, the opinion polls released at the end of March by the KOG Institute and the Demokratijos projektai foresaw the “Tsarukyan bloc” as the clear-cut winner, with 40,4% of the vote, and the ruling Republican Party collapsing to 19.4%. Meanwhile, the poll organised by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM) predicted the Tsarkukian’s bloc would gain 41% of preferences, and the Republican Party 39%.

THE CAMPAIGN

This plurality of candidates had an impact on the electoral campaign, which was characterised by an unusual level of activism by candidates. Most of them were campaigned on a similar political platform, based on day-to-day economic issues, such as unemployment, low salaries and rampant emigration rather than macro issues such as any geopolitical confrontation. Citizens reported an unusually high number of visits from party representatives and pamphlets sent to their address. In spite of this genuine electoral competition, some misconduct has been reported. Notably, at the end of March, the Union of Informed Citizens (UIC), an Armenian civic organisation, declared that school principals across the country were urging their staff and their students’ families to cast their vote for the Republican Party. While the ruling party did not deny this allegation tout court, the actions were dismissed as the spontaneous campaign of private citizens in a manner that was perfectly consistent with the provisions of the electoral code. This last point was contradicted by the UIC’s findings, which outlined 136 cases of school directors being given instructions by representatives of the Republican Party[4]. Due to these episodes, the opposition ORO and YELK blocs appealed to the CEC, asking for the disqualification of the Republican Party. Both appeals were rejected.

In addition, some disinformation campaigns seemed having been attempted.

In March, some Russian Twitter accounts posted the above e-mail supposedly leaked from USAID to demonstrate that external forces were actively manipulating the election results. USAID immediately dismissed the e-mail as a fraud, claiming that the staff would not have sent anything like that (in broken English) from a Gmail account.

External actors were concerned about the conduct of the campaign. On 16 March  Piotr Switalski, the head of the EU delegation in Armenia, invited Armenian voters not to get involved in electoral fraud, either by participating actively or by looking the other way. During his speech, he openly mentioned vote-buying, saying: “Don’t be exposed to the temptation of selling your vote. You may be approached by people who will be offering you money, services, promises in exchange for your vote. There is no money in the world that can be worth selling your vote”. This was not an isolated comment, as, in the following weeks, the United States and the EU Mission in Armenia put out a joint statement noting their concern about: “allegations of voter intimidation, attempts to buy votes, and the systemic use of administrative resources to aid certain competing parties.” In other words, in spite of the electronic system of voter identification provided by international donors (already mentioned in this blog), foreign diplomats based in Yerevan voiced their concern about a fraudulent electoral environment.

ASSESSING THE VOTE

Most assessments of the Election Day, except by the CIS monitoring mission[5], mentioned some types of irregularities. However, external observers refrained from labelling the overall process as not free and fair. The International Election Observation Mission (EOM) reported that: “The 2 April parliamentary elections were well administered and fundamental freedoms were generally respected. [However], the elections were tainted by credible information about vote-buying, and pressure on civil servants and employees of private companies”. In other words, while the overall process was not dismissed as fraudulent, the broader electoral climate was described as plagued by illegal practices and petty corruption. A similarly cautious statement was made by an EEAS spokesperson who, while fully endorsing all the shortcomings pointed out by the EOM, commented that: “The election result nevertheless reflects the overall will of the Armenian people”. It also added: “We look forward to working with the democratically elected new Parliament and Government”. This statement was not complemented by any declaration of the EU delegation in Armenia, as ambassador Switalski declined to comment on the electoral result.

Domestic criticism, from both civic and political activists, was much more critical. The Citizen Observer Initiative denounced widespread violations in the conduct of the elections, outlining episodes such as controlled voting, the manipulation of voter lists, pressure and bribes, inefficient commission work, insufficient vigilance at polling stations, and the failure of the technical devices[6]. The unelected ANC-PPA not only complained about fraud, but formally appealed to the CEC for the invalidation of the electoral result. Even though this claim was rejected[7], the parliamentary election results were annulled in a central village in the Aragatsotn province due to widespread fraud. Remarkably, the handing out of vote bribes was admitted even by Eduard Sharmazanov, the spokesperson of the Republic Party, who, however, added that isolated episodes did not affect the overall result. In spite of the shortcomings mentioned above, plus others that had not been included in this post (for reasons of space), people did not take to the streets to demonstrate against the dubious result. That is surprising, considering that, in the past years, elections have almost always triggered widespread demonstrations. Notably, both in 2008 and in 2013, several thousand activists protested against the allegedly rigged presidential election[8].

WHAT ABOUT THE PRESIDENT?

In spite of all the controversies, both during the campaign and the vote, the Republican Party has emerged as the winner of this election. While the current Prime Minister, Karapetyan, will keep his job until May 2018, the scenario after the end of the presidential mandate of Serzh Sargsyan is still to be defined. As reported previously in this blog, the recent constitutional reform will reduce the prerogatives of the president, making this office mainly ceremonial, and increase those of the prime minister. This power-sharing innovation, introduced shortly before the end of the second presidential mandate of Serzh Sargsyan, has been widely interpreted as an attempt by Sargysan to avoid relinquishing power. For his part, Mr Sargsyan has been extremely laconic in declarations about his future plans. For example, a few days after the elections, he declared in an interview: “I have never planned where I will be in the next stage of my life. I always found myself in places where I was of greater help to our security.” Turning to Prime Minister Karapetyan, he is by far one of the most popular figures in the party. Even though he was not a candidate for parliament, since he did not meet the residency requirement, his image dominated the campaign of the Republican Party. However, he does not seem to have a solid support network in Yerevan that would enable him to determine his own political future. In conclusion, while no open declaration about the future of Mr Sargsyan has been made, this electoral success may give him the option of avoiding an early political retirement.

This research was supported by a FP7/Marie Curie ITN action. Grant agreement N°: 316825

Notes

[1] ARMINFO News Agency. 2017. “Serzh Sargsyan: Big work has been done on conducting elections in accordance to international criteria”, April 3 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[2] ARMINFO News Agency. 2017. “Armenian CEC presented the final results of Parliamentary elections”, April 10 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[3] Some speculations are made on the relationship between the Republican party and the Tsarukyan bloc. For example, it has been hypothesised that President Sargsyan covertly supported it, since it subtracted support from other opposition forces. Similarly, before the elections, the analyst Emil Danielyan conjectured about Tsarukyan and Sargsyan having a “tacit understanding” for the future, which could lead either to a formal coalition or a role for the ‘Tsarukyan bloc’ as “constructive opposition”. As of this writing (11/04/2017), a coalition between the two has not been announced.

[4] Some school principals involved have sued the Civic Initiative which brought the scandal up to public attention.

[5] Armenpress News Agency (English). 2017. ‘CIS observer mission assesses Armenia’s parliamentary election as “open and transparent”’, 3 April (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[6] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2017. “Armenia: Observers say polls tainted by vote-buying, pressure”, April 3 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[7] Arminfo News Agency. 2017. “Sharmazanov to Ter-Petrosyan: Parliamentary elections are the best indicator of Armenia’s democratic development”, April 10 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[8] Loda, Chiara. “Perception of the EU in Armenia: A View from the Government and Society.” In Caucasus, the EU and Russia-Triangular Cooperation?, pp. 131-152. Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft mbH & Co. KG, 2016, 146.