Category Archives: Caucasus

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.

Presidential Profile – Giorgi Margvelashvili, Georgia’s non-partisan President

Giorgi Margvelashvili, 47, the fourth president of Georgia was elected in 2013 with 62 percent in direct popular vote. Prior to his presidential nomination, he served as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education and Science in the government of PM Bidzina Ivanishvili. Although viewed as a non-partisan President right now, Margvelashvili was picked and nominated by Bidzina Ivanishvili himself for the ruling Georgian Dream Coalition in May 2013. With the victory of the Georgian Dream candidate in the presidential race, cohabitation, tense relations between the executive government (Georgian Dream) and the President Mikheil Saakashvili (United National Movement), came to an end. However, Giorgi Margvelashvili began a new era in the history of Georgian Presidency with the country moving from a president-centric system to a more parliamentary system. This transformation has caused dramatic changes in the intra-executive conflicts.

Background

Giorgi Margvelashvili joined the Georgian Dream government in 2012 when the coalition won the parliamentary elections. Before that, he was known as a philosopher, political commentator and an academician, who used to be the rector of the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs (GIPA). Mr. Margvelashvili graduated from Tbilisi State University in 1992 with a degree in Philosophy. Later he earned degrees from the Central European University in Prague, Czech Republic (1994) and the Institute of Philosophy of the Georgian Academy of Sciences (1996). Margvelashvili holds a PhD degree in Philosophy from Tbilisi State University.

However, 2012 was not his first attempt in Georgian politics. Margvelashvili was a member of the opposition party led by the Chairman of the Parliament, Zurab Zhvania, in 2003. Before joining the government, he advised Bidzina Ivanishvili during the 2012 parliamentary election campaign.

Constitutional Reform

The constitutional reform that was finalised in 2010 and enacted in 2013 changed the form of government in the country. Some politicians viewed the reform as shift from a presidential to a parliamentary model, while others claimed that Georgia was moving to semi-presidential system.

After the 2012 Parliamentary elections, for the first time in the history of independent Georgia, power was peacefully transferred from the ruling party to the opposition. However, this historic transition appeared to be painful for the political system. Cohabitation, or the change in the balance of power between the two branches of government, has led to confrontation between the executive government and the president.

Although cohabitation ended with Mikheil Saakashvili (2004-2013) stepping down from the office and Giorgi Margvelashvili commencing his term, intra-executive conflict has not ended.

Power of President

According to the constitution of Georgia and the amendments enacted in 2013, the President lost nearly all power over the executive government. At the same time, with the legacy set by the previous president, public perception of the institute of president was of a powerful leader and a head of the government.

Currently, the President of Georgia, Giorgi Margvelashvili is the head of state and guarantor of the country’s integrity and national independence; furthermore, he is the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and represents Georgia in foreign relations; the President leads the National Security Council, decides the issues of granting citizenship, and has the power of pardon. The President also presents the candidate for a Chairman of the government of the Autonomous Republic of Adjara  and Abkhazia to the Supreme Council for approval;

Transformation into the non-partisan president

Margvelashvili expressed his disobedience to the master, Bidzina Ivanishvili, soon after his inauguration. First, he openly disagreed with the possible relocation of the Administration of the President from the Presidential Palace. The Presidential Palace, which was built during Saakashvili’s term, was strongly disliked by Ivanishvili as a symbol of UNM’s rule in the country. Instead, the PM commissioned the renovation of a new building for the President’s residence. Despite the fact that more than 10 million USD of public funds were spent on the refurbishment, Margvelashvili refused to relocate and continues to work in the Avlabari Presidential Palace to this day.

When Bidzina Ivanishvili stepped down as Prime Minister a major intra-executive conflict unfolded between the President and a new PM, Irakli Gharibashvili.

Constitutional ambiguity was demonstrated in several occasions:

In 2014, Georgia signed an Association Agreement (AA) with the European Union. The Agreement acknowledged Georgia’s progress on the path to European integration, promised a deep and comprehensive free trade with the EU, and visa-free travel.

As the highest representative in foreign relations, Margvelashvili’s administration considered that the President was the right person to sign the AA for Georgia. However, PM Gharibashvili viewed the head of the executive government as the right person to sign the document. Finally, PM Gharibashvili won the battle and on June 24, he 2014 signed the agreement on behalf of Georgia.

In 2014, participation in the UN General Assembly in New York caused another conflict between the President and the Prime Minister. As usual, Georgian delegations were headed by Presidents (Shevardnadze, Saakashvili), who also addressed the GA. However, the government decided that PM should head the delegation instead of Margvelashvili. Both offices began to plan the visit independently, without any coordination, until former PM, Bidzina Ivanishvili, accused the president of acting as a competitor to the prime minister. Soon, Margvelashvili cancelled the visit and accused the government of ignoring the constitution. (Tabula, 2014)

On Georgia’s Independence Day on May 26, President Margvelashvili sent out copies of the constitution to the prime minister, MPs, and the Supreme and Constitutional courts as a symbolic gesture calling the state institutions to respect the constitution. (A.Tsurtsumia-Zurabashvili for Presidential Power. 2015)

The intra-executive conflict faded when Irakli Gharibashvili resigned without explanation and the new Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili took office.

Gharibashvili’s successor, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, has gone out of his way to present a united front with Margvelashvili. He made a point of attending a session of the National Security Council that Margvelashvili convened in late January, whereas Gharibashvili had participated in only one of three such sessions under Margvelashvili’s chairmanship. (Radio Free Europe, Liz Fuller 2016)

New Constitutional Reform without the President

President Margvelashvili’s administration is widely engaged in the legislative process. The President has vetoed several bills. However, the ruling Georgian Dream, which enjoys supermajority in the Parliament, does not fear presidential vetoes.

Most recently, the Chairman of the Parliament, Irakli Kobakhidze, inaugurated a new constitutional commission consisting of 73 members, tasked with producing amendments to the Constitution.

As reported by Civil Georgia, the President refrained from participating in the work of the state constitutional commission because the format offered by the Parliament “obviously lacks political trust and political legitimization”.

The chief of president’s administration explained that the President wanted the commission to be co-chaired by him, Prime Minister and Parliamentary Chairman, but the ruling Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia party rejected this proposal. (Civil.ge)

One of the issues that the constitutional commission will touch upon will be the indirect election of future presidents of Georgia.

The next Presidential elections in Georgia are due to take place in 2018. However, it is uncertain if Margvelashvili intends to participate in the race for the second term, or if he has any intention of remaining in politics.

www.president.gov.ge – official website of the Georgian President.

Official Facebook Page of Giorgi Margvelashvili

Armenia – Is International Goodwill a Form of Soft Power? Some Insights from the South Caucasus

In September 2016, referring to the parliamentary elections due to be held in the spring of 2017, President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia declared that: “I am sure that all these measures will contribute to raising public confidence in electoral process and ensure that we meet international standards for free and fair elections. Parliamentary elections will be held in our country in several months. The Republic of Armenia will send invitations to all partners for their participation in international monitoring missions[1]”. Even though political leaders do not always implement this kind of declaration, the recent Armenian record gives some backing to the credibility of the statement.

Armenia is not a consolidated democracy, as clearly stated by “Freedom House-Nations in Transit” 2016 report. In 2016 (like in the previous years) Armenia is classed as a semi-consolidated authoritarian regime. In particular, with reference to electoral processes, it is considered that the level of local self-governance remains insufficient. Looking at the executive level, some observers and members of the opposition have criticised the recent constitutional reform[2]. According to them, rather than being aimed at the greater good of the country, the reform represents a tool to extend President Sargsyan position in power. Additionally, corruption remains pervasive. In spite of these and other shortcomings, in recent times Armenia has often searched for international advice and approval before implementing major reforms. Relevant examples of that are the forthcoming parliamentary elections, as hinted at the beginning of the post, and the recent constitutional reform (approved by referendum on December 2015).

International observers have been formally invited to monitor the forthcoming parliamentary election, scheduled for April 2, 2017. More precisely, on January 19, Arsen Babayan, Head of the Information Department of the Armenian National Assembly, declared that four international organisations have been invited: the Council of Europe, PACE, OSCE, and CIS Inter-Parliamentary Assembly[3]. Such a move was widely expected. Remarkably, in anticipation of a formal invitation from the Armenian authorities, in the past months, the OSCE/ODIHR conducted a “Need Assessment Mission report”, which involved consultations with both institutional and civic actors. As a result, the deployment of 24 long-term observers and 250 short-term observers has been recommended. Additionally, the Armenian government has been cooperating with international donors towards the enhancement of electoral capabilities and transparency. For example, after some talks, the Government and the EU delegation in Armenia agreed on the funding and purchasing of cameras to be placed in the polling stations. Additionally, a program for the timely acquisition of voter identification technologies has been coordinated by UNDP and funded by the EU, the USA, Germany, and Great Britain[4].

This search for the cooperation and, more indirectly, the approval of the international community (especially EU and the US) is not new. As already dealt with in this blog, in July 2015, before submitting the text of the new constitution to the voters, the Armenian authorities asked the Venice Commission (the advisory body of the Council of Europe specialised in constitutional law matters) for an advisory legal opinion. Following the opinion, the draft of the constitutional reform was amended accordingly. This cooperative attitude is diametrically opposed to the hyper-assertive behaviour of neighbouring (and arch-enemy) Azerbaijan. Notably, in November 2016, the Azerbaijani Constitution was modified by referendum. On that occasion, the government in Baku, despite of severe criticism from the opposition, refrained from asking for any external advisory opinion on the draft. Notwithstanding the lack of a formal invitation, but in response to a request from several human rights defenders, the Venice Commission issued an urgent preliminary opinion on the draft (which was not formally discussed by the Azerbaijani authorities), highlighting concerns on matters like civil liberties and over-empowerment of the presidency.

Armenia has nothing specific to gain from being a “good international citizen”. In spite of its membership in the Russian-sponsored Collective Security Treaty Organizations (CSTO) and the Eurasian Union (EEU), Armenia seems to be on remarkably good terms with the EU. Notably, even though no specific dates have been announced yet, Yerevan and Brussels are concluding the negotiation of an agreement to deepen economic and political ties. This is happening roughly three years after a Armenian u-turn. More precisely, in September 2013, after the sudden withdrawal of Yerevan from Association Agreement (AA) talks with the EU, it was made clear that Armenia was not eligible for any alternative form of association. This did not prevent Armenian officials, including the President, from making frequent comments about the desire for cooperation with Brussels[5]. The ongoing search for another form of association seems to have helped the Armenian cause, as shown by the current ongoing negotiations.

In short, Armenia is making successful use of its soft power (i.e. persuading others to do something without resorting to coercion). Notably Yerevan, in spite of its binding ties with Russia, has convinced the EU of the importance of not abandoning its “willing child”. Even though it would be superficial and dismissive to ascribe this outcome solely to Armenia’s “good international attitude”, it is safe to say that it has played some role.

If this hypothesis is correct, it can allow us to make sense of soft-power strategies implemented by extra-European states[6]. In particular, it can help us to understand why mega-events, such as sporting competitions, have limited power in seducing an external (Western) audience. As Nye points out, “The best propaganda is not propaganda”. This refers to the mediocre outcomes of Russian and Chinese soft-power strategies, which project a government-crafted message that, ultimately, is not credible[7]. A similar point can be made about neighbouring Azerbaijan, which for years has implemented an (expensive) state-sponsored public diplomacy strategy, involving both grand events and a carefully planned official narrative. In spite of the effort, during the “European Games” of 2015 the international spotlight was on political prisoners rather than on the brand-new stadiums[8].  At things stand, Baku seems to have acknowledged the limited effectivity of the strategy.

In summary, Armenia, notwithstanding its binding ties with Russia, has been successful in portraying itself as an eager partner of the EU. In addition, both before the recent constitutional reform and the forthcoming parliamentary election, external advice and approval have been proactively sought. This is in sharp contrast to the Azerbaijani strategy, which until recently was more focused on grand events rather than on initiatives and reforms that were geared towards external observers[9].  Going beyond these cases, these observations may be relevant to the broader understanding of soft-power tools. While the limits of building stadiums seems have been realised now, more attention should be paid to “international goodwill”.

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

Notes

[1] ARMINFO News Agency. 2016. “Armenia’s President: Armenia’s new government’s task is to give new impetus to development of economy”, September 17 (retrieved through LexisNexis).

[2] This blog has analysed the Armenian constitutional reform, including the public debate around it, in the following dates: November 30, 2016; December 9, 2015; September 13, 2015.

[3] ARMINFO News Agency. 2017. “Arsen Babayan: 4 international organizations invited to observe parliamentary elections in Armenia”, January 19.

[4] ARMINFO News Agency. 2017. “Negotiations continue on installing video cameras in polling stations in Armenia, Switalski says”, January 24.

[5] 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? (pp. 131-152). Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft mbH & Co. KG.

[6] Providing a detailed account of the Armenian geopolitical membership may be daunting. Even though the country is geographically much closer to Teheran than to Brussels, the Armenian political narrative has consistently emphasised the belonging of the country to the European-Christian civilisation.

[7] Nye, J.S. 2013. “What China and Russia Don’t Get About Soft Power”, National Herald Tribune, May 2 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[8] Loda, C. 2016. “Azerbaijan, Foreign Policy and Public Diplomacy”. Irish Studies in International Affairs, 1-17. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3318/isia.2016.27.7.

[9] Also in the case of Azerbaijan, the targeted audience is the western one. For a more detailed analysis, see: Loda, Azerbaijan, Foreign Policy and Public Diplomacy.

Georgia – Political Landscape After Parliamentary Elections

On November 16, the Central Election Commission (CEC) of Georgia published its final summary protocol for October 2016 Parliamentary elections. The CEC confirmed that three electoral subjects: Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia (GDDG), United National Movement (UNM) and the Alliance of Patriots would enter the Parliament of Georgia. Following the announcement of final election results, the President of Georgia, Giorgi Margvelashvili, convened the inaugural session of the newly elected parliament on November 18.

The ruling GDDG received 115 seats in the parliament (both majoritarian and party list results), followed by its major opponent the United National Movement with 27 MPs and the Alliance of Patriots with six seats; additionally, one majoritarian MP from Industrialists and an independent candidate Salome Zurabishvili managed to enter the 150-seat-strong legislative assembly.

This parliamentary election was remarkable. Although, only one majoritarian candidate nominated by the Industry Will Save Georgia (Industrialists) party won the seat in Khashuri constituency of Eastern Georgia, the party itself did not clear the three percent threshold necessary for qualifying for public funding. However, the Central Election Commission made a judgement and took a decision to grant public funding to the Industrialists for being represented by one majoritarian MP in the parliament. The CEC judgement has received harsh criticism from major watchdog organisations (GYLA, ISFED, Transparency Georgia), who accused the CEC of putting one political party in a privileged position without it meeting the criteria for additional public funding. It is worth noting that the CEC decision will also affect the composition of the Central Election Commission, whereby the more GDDG-friendly Industrials will replace the Free Democrats, the more outspoken opponents to the ruling party.

Apart from that, the recent research findings published by Transparency International Georgia note that the use of administrative resources by the ruling party in some instances, notably public servants were mobilized for electoral events in many cases. However, Transparency Georgia does not view the observed cases as influential for the e-day outcome.

Confidence vote for Georgian Dream Government

Following the inaugural session, the Georgian parliament voted for a new cabinet of ministers headed by the same prime-minister, Giorgi Kvirikashvili. Kvirikashvili himself led the Georgian Dream Democratic Georgia party list for parliamentary elections. The cabinet, where 18 ministers have remained after the portfolio of the State Minister for Diaspora Issues was subsumed by the Foreign Ministry, was reshuffled only slightly.

A four-year program of the government entitled “Freedom, Rapid Development, Welfare” was approved, as expected. Equipped with the supermajority in the parliament (115 seats), GDDG will be able to pass any initiative during the four-year term.

Elections over – political landscape still reshaping

The election had far-reaching for the rest of political spectrum. Before the run-offs, the leader of the Free Democrats, Irakli Alasania, left politics and withdrew from the second round race in the Gori constituency. Apart from Alasania, several leaders and former Free Democrats MPs left the party and spoke of the possibility of cooperating with their former political opponent – GDDG. Just recently, one of the former leader’s of Alasania’s political party was appointed as a minister in the GDDG cabinet.

David Usupashvili, the Parliamentary Chairman (2012-2016) and the leader the Republican Party, has left the party as well. The Republican Party, the oldest political party in Georgia and prominent for its liberal values, was represented in the previous parliament (2012-2016) as part of the ruling coalition. Parting from the coalition just months before elections, the Republicans received less than two per cent of the vote in the elections and none of its majoritarian candidates succeeded. Several leaders and tens of party members followed Usupashvili’s decision. Although he made it clear he has no intention of leaving the political scene, Usupashvili’s political future is uncertain.

The post-electoral period has also revealed significant divisions in the United National Movement as well, where Mikheil Saakashvili, broadcasting live from Odessa inUkraine, called on the party not to recognise the election result, to reject any participation in the run-offs, and to refuse to take up any parliamentary seats. Part of the UNM leadership went against Saakashvili by accepting the parliamentary seats and running in the second round. Only Sandra Roelofs, who is Saakashvili’s wife and who was number two on the party list, withdrew from the runoff race and asked the Central Election Commission to annul her parliamentary mandate.

The internal feud in the United National Movement continued even after the decision to enter the Parliament. At this point, two major opposing groups have emerged. President Mikheil Saakashvili, who was stripped of Georgian citizenship when he accepted a Ukrainian passport, automatically lost his position as a party chairman and his seat remains vacant. Saakashvili’s opposition in the party – Giga Bokeria, Gigi Ugulava (former Mayor of Tbilisi, currently in prison) and their supporters – are advocating for a renewal of the party, which among other things includes election of a new chair.

Ghia Nodia, a Georgian political analyst, views the internal conflict in United National Movement as deep and multidimensional. According to Nodia, by becoming a Ukrainian politician and being away from Georgia, Saakashvili lost his leadership and influence in the party. It is obvious for Ghia Nodia that fractioning will weaken the UNM more.

Internal developments in the UNM have attracted public attention for several reasons: firstly, it is the only former ruling party in Georgia which managed to avoid dissolution after the defeat in  the election; secondly, it continued functioning while its leader had to flee Georgia and while a number of other leaders are in prison (Former Prime Minister Ivane Merabishvili, former Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, former Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaia); thirdly, the UNM has remained a vocal parliamentary opposition against the government.

On November 30, Civil.ge reported that the UNM leadership held a meeting of its political council, the highest governing body of the party. The council decided in favor of the decision to hold a congress with the participation of 7,000 delegates, as ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili wanted. Twenty-four members voted against and two members abstained.

Saakashvili’s wing in the party has called for the election of a new chairperson as deciding otherwise would mean that the party distances itself from Mikheil Saakashvili, hence what they consider a “political suicide”.

Mikheil Saakashvili has just recently resigned as governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region and has become a leader of the opposition movement in Ukraine. He welcomed “the correct decision” taken by his party in favor of holding a large-scale congress.

For the UNM, unity is of critical importance at the moment. However, the depth of the conflict demonstrates the lack of resources in the party. At the same time, the need for renewal and change, or the confirmation of the fact that there is life after Saakashvili is absolutely obvious.

Armenia – One year after the Constitutional Reform: Future perspectives for the President and his party

In 2015, after a referendum, Armenia voted to switch from a semi-presidential political system to a parliamentarian one. As a consequence of that, most governing prerogatives are due to shift from the president to the prime minister. This change has been accompanied by discussions about the implications of the change. Notably, both before and after the vote, the public debate has focused on the consequences on the tenure in power of President Serzh Sargsyan, who has been ambiguous as to whether he will run for Prime Minister after the end of his second and last presidential mandate. Almost one year after the constitutional amendment, the debate has not ceased.

The debate about the constitutional reform has centred on the personal gains of politicians (especially the serving President) rather than on the institutional implication. This is nothing new in either an Armenian or the South Caucasian context. More than a decade ago, in the months preceding the Armenian Constitutional Reform in 2005, the public debate in Yerevan focused on how the new legislative provisions would give substantial immunity to the president[1]. Similarly, in 2010, when neighbouring Georgia approved a similar reform to the 2015 Armenian constitutional change, critics observed that it would secure then then President Mikheil Saakashvili’s position in power. In the end, the electoral defeat of Mr Saakashvili’s party (UNM) in the 2012 parliamentary election was followed by a smooth transfer of power, often saluted by external observers as a crucial moment in the Georgian path towards democratisation.

Back in Armenia, the debate has been recently revitalised after the public declarations of the President. At the end of October 2016, when asked by Al Jazeera about his intention to run for Prime Minister in 2017, President Sargsyan answered evasively: “You know, I find it too early for these conversations.” While, for roughly one month, Mr Sargsyan refrained from further comments, in the following days and weeks different comments came from the ruling majority, the opposition and the press. Tatevik Shahunyan, who is Vice Speaker of the Armenian Parliament and Spokesman for the ruling “Republican Party” (RP), declared that it was premature to talk about the political future of the President before knowing the results of the Parliamentary elections in 2017; this statement neither confirmed nor denied the scenario of Mr Sargsyan becoming Prime Minister at the end of his presidential mandate[2].

As expected, the opposition commented on these developments in a much more decisive way. Levon Zurabian, a parliamentary leader of Armenian National Congress (HAK), interpreted President Sarksyan’s statement as an admission of political ambitions beyond his presidential mandate. This opinion was promptly reiterated by Mr Zaruhi Postanjian, the leader of Heritage party. The press enriched the debate by pointing out the potential intra-party implications of this “tandem”. The pro-opposition paper Zhamanak reported that an exceptional electoral result by the ruling Republican Party might be interpreted as stemming from the work of the current Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan. In that case, his resignation in favour of Serzh Sargsyan would seem illogical. President Sargsyan might benefit more from a “moderately good” result which, without jeopardising the ruling majority, would not be interpreted as the personal success of Mr Karapetyan[3].

After roughly a month of silence, President Sargsyan finally spoke both about the Prime Ministership and party unity, denying any conflict between his personal ambitions and the future of his faction. On November 26, in occasion of a speech given at the “16th Convention of the Republican Party of Armenia[4]”, he ruled out the immediate substitution of the Prime Minister, saying that:  “[I]n case we receive the vote of trust in the coming elections, our government will again be headed by Prime Minister Karen Karapetian who will continue to implement the current programs.”. In spite of this declaration, which in any case did not clarify President Sargsyan’s intention after the end of his presidential mandate in 2018, some members of the opposition maintained their comments. For example, Levon Zurabyan (HAK) declared: “Karen Karapetyan is being used by the PR to secure their success in the parliamentary election. That will later pave Serzh Sargsyan’s way to the prime minister’s office”.

In relation to intra-party dynamics, President Sargsyan’s speech placed the emphasis on the need for the Republican Party to unite[5] and promote the modernization of the country. Notably, significant space was devoted to the economic results obtained in the last eight years in the face of the global financial crisis. He pointed out the need for Armenia to undergo a broad process of reforms, both in relation to the economic development of the country and in the face of external challenges. In the words of President Sargsyan: “We need to reduce and eliminate the negative [spill-over of the hostile external environment]. Any successful reform will bring also new success in other areas”. This insistence on change seems to refer not only to future targets but also to measures adopted in the recent months. Notably, a reduction in the gas price, effective as of July 2017, was approved in October. In the same month, an anticorruption bill was voted.

The lengthy speech by President Sargsyan at the annual party convention suggests that the forthcoming parliamentary campaign will be mostly centred on economic themes rather than on strong personalities. That is in line with one of the declared goals of the constitutional reform, namely the replacement of a people-based political culture with the consolidation of ideological platforms. Pertinently, the President’s rhetoric reveals the attempt to minimise intra-party divisions and shift the attention to a programmatic platform. In this perspective, the opposition, which is hardly unified, has already expressed its interest in joining forces to prevent a landslide victory of the Republican Party. The next months will be crucial in understanding whether the soon-to-be introduced parliamentary system can indeed foster democratisation as claimed by its proponents, rather than being the vehicle for personal political ambitions.

Notes

[1] Arminfo News Agency. 2005. “Those Who State that the Bill of Constitutional Reform will lead to Impunity of the President are Unaware of the Bill”, November 26 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[2] ARMINFO News Agency. 2016. “Sharmazanov in the footsteps of Serzh Sargsyan’s interview to Al Jazeera: It is tactless to speak of President’s plans after 2017 elections until election results are known”, November 4 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[3] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2016. “Armenian press discuss president’s interview with Al-Jazeera”, October 29 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[4] In occasion of the 16th Convention of the Republican Party of Armenia, Prime Minister Karapetyan has formally joined the Republican party.

[5] In spite of this pledge for unity, analysts suspect that the inclusion of Mr Karapetyan in the Republican Party has not been received with unanimous enthusiasm [ARMINFO News Agency. 2016. “Expert: with Karapetyan’s assignment the old guard turned the most vulnerable point of Republicans”, November 28 (Retrieved through LexisNexis)].

 

Georgia – Ruling Party Wins A Big Majority In Parliamentary Elections

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On October 8, 2016 Georgia held a parliamentary elections to elect 150 MPs using a mixed electoral system. According to this system voters elected 73 MPs in majoritarian, single-seat constituencies, while the remaining 77 seats were distributed proportionally in a closed party-list contest, whereby the party must clear a 5% threshold to win representation. In total, 25 parties and 816 majoritarian candidates contested the election.

Pre-election atmosphere

Despite the high number of parties, the United National Movement (which was the ruling party from 2004-2012) and the Georgian Dream (the ruling party since 2012) remained the front-runners according to all pre-election opinion polls (NDI & IRI polls).

The UNM emphasized renewal and attempted to come out of the shadow of Mikheil Saakashvili. Saakashvili, who is currently serving as governor of Odessa in Ukraine, was the founder of the party and president from 2004-2012.

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The founder of the Georgian Dream, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is now self-described as ‘just a citizen’ , but who for many remains the leader behind the scenes, was closely involved in campaigning through lengthy media appearances.

Until very recently, the electoral campaign was mostly peaceful, save for a few isolated incidents. But as the elections approached, the violence spiked, including the shootout at a campaign event in Gori and the explosion of a UNM MP’s car in the center of Tbilisi.

The “State for the People” party, which was launched by the renowned Georgian opera singer, Paata Burchuladze, just a few months before the elections, was a surprise challenger to the UNM-GD duo. Burchuladze united with several parties in an electoral bloc, including Girchi-New Political Center and Giorgi Vashadze (both of whom had recently split from the UNM). However, the unity vanished just weeks before the election day, leaving many of State for the People candidates out of the elections.

The Free Democrats and The Republicans, so called pro-western and anti-Russian factions of former Georgian Dream coalition decided to run independently.

Lastly, the pro-Russian Democratic Movement led by Nino Burjanadze and the Alliance of Patriots also actively campaigned in the pre-electoral period.

E-day

All 3,702 precincts opened at 8am on polling day, including the polling stations abroad. Georgians residing abroad could cast a ballot only if they were registered at a consulate before September 17, 2016 and attending to vote in person on October 8.

Early exit poll results commissioned jointly by public broadcaster, Imedi TV, Maestro TV, and GDS TV showed that the ruling party had won 53.8%, followed by the UNM with 19.5%, with the pro-Russian Alliance of Patriots winning just over the 5% necessary to clear the threshold. The same exit polls showed Free Democrats at 4%; Labor Party at 3.1%; Paata Burchuladze’s State for People at 2.7%; and Republican Party at only 2.7%.

An alternative exit poll was commissioned by the major opposition channel Rustavi 2 TV.  Conducted by GfK and fielded by Tbilisi-based pollster BCG Research, this poll returned a better results for the UNM at 32.74%, less for GD at 39.9%, and the Alliance of Patriots at 5.76%. According to Rustavi 2 exit polls, the Labor Party won 4.21%, Paata Burchuladze’s State for People won 3.25%, the Free Democrats won 3.21%, and Nino Burjanadze’s Democratic Movement won 2.81%.

With the exit polls proving controversial, on October 9 the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), Georgia’s largest election monitoring non-governmental organization, released the results of its parallel vote tabulation (PVT) of proportional, party-list vote. This poll largely coincided with the early official results.

According to its PVT results, the ruling Georgian Dream party won 49.1% of the vote and UNM 26.8%. PVT’s margin of error was calculated at +/- 0.9%. ISFED was not able to determine conclusively whether or not the Alliance of Patriots had cleared the 5% threshold.  They returned the party at 4.9% of the vote, but the margin of error was +/- 0.3%.

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Several irregularities and violations were reported and complaints were filed by local and international observer organizations. In a number of precincts the electoral process and counting were interrupted due to the mob raids. Due to these incidents, several district-level results may be annulled.

Official Results

By October 10, Central Election Commission of Georgia has published the following results from all 3,702 precincts for the party-list vote:

Turnout: 51 %

Georgian Dream – 48.65%
UNM – 27.12%
Alliance of Patriots – 5%
Free Democrats – 4.62%

The process was particularly tense for Alliance of Patriots, as the CEC changed the result from 4.99% to 5% several times.

Of the 73 majoritarian constituencies only 22 candidates cleared the 50% threshold necessary for election at the first round, all of them from Georgian Dream. A second round will therefore be held in 51 constituencies, where in most cases Georgian Dream and United National Movement candidates will compete against each other. One of the exceptions is the Gori seat, where the GD and Free Democrats leader, Irakli Alasania, were to be the two main candidates. However, the leader of the Free Democrats has withdrawn from the race and announced that he is leaving politics.

These results will leave most parties outside parliament. The leader of the Democratic Movement, Nino Burjanadze, has said that he does not recognise the results of elections, while the leader of Republicans, David Usupashvili, accepted defeat.

Assesment of the International Observation Missions

The statement released by EU High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini and Commissioner Johannes Hahn assessed the elections as “competitive, well-administered” and said that fundamental freedoms were “generally respected”.

According to the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission, “the calm and open campaign atmosphere was, however, impacted by allegations of unlawful campaigning and some incidents of violence. Election Day generally proceeded in an orderly manner, but tensions increased during the day and several violent altercations took place near and in polling stations. However, voting was assessed positively in almost all polling stations”.

Fear of Constitutional Majority

Georgian Dream is eyeing a constitutional majority in the new parliament if it can win most of the run-off elections. It could win 113 seats in the parliament. A constitutional majority requires the support of three-quarters of the total number of MPs.

Georgian Dream has said that it wishes to initiate several constitutional amendments. Firstly, it wishes to define marriage as the union of a man and woman. Secondly, it has openly declared that the President should be elected by parliament instead of by a popular vote. They also wish to change the procedures for impeaching the president, as well as power to change the electoral system.

With only three parties likely to be represented in parliament, Georgia’s young democracy is about to enter a new cycle that will test its political and democratic stability.

Azerbaijan – A New Constitutional Reform: Towards a Monarchical Presidency?

On 26 September, citizens of Azerbaijan were called to vote in a constitutional referendum. The constitution, approved in 1995, was already amended in 2002 and 2009. While the current amendments concern numerous topics (including civic liberties and right of assembly), some of them specifically concern the President’s role. It is proposed:

  • To amend Article 101.1 of the current constitution, which would extend the presidential term from 5 to 7 years.
  • To introduce a “First Vice President” and a “Vice President”, chosen and appointed by the president. In the case of the president’s inability to perform his role, the First Vice President would take over. Currently, this “second-in-charge” function is a prerogative of the prime minister
  • To remove the minimum age limit to run for President (currently, it is 35). Similarly, the minimum age for parliamentarian is lowered from 25 to 18.
  • To introduce the right for the President to dissolve the parliament. This is in the event that the parliament votes no confidence to the government twice in a year or refuses the suggested appointees to the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court or the Central Bank’s main board.

In order to maximise the inclusivity of the voting process, polling stations have been established in Azerbaijani embassies. Remarkably, everything is ready in Ankara, Teheran and Riyadh.  However, notwithstanding the vocal support of the ruling party, the opposition has expressed its grave concern over the proposed changes.

While President Ilham Aliyev has not personally commented on the proposed amendments, pro-government voices have openly endorsed them. MP Siyavus Novruzov, who is the deputy executive secretary of the ruling ‘New Azerbaijan Party’, has defined the proposed amendments as necessary to enhance national security and reform of the state administration[1]. Emil Huseynli, head of the ‘Support for Youth Development – Dushunje’, declared that the various changes, including the strengthening of the presidential office, will foster the sustainable development of the country. Referring to the relaxation of the age limits, he commented that: this “will create an opportunity for the political activity of literate, prospective young people.” However, the opposition thinks that this amendment is specifically designed to favour a semi-monarchical transfer of power and, henceforth, that the children of the president would likely be the main beneficiaries of this “political opportunity”. Notably, it has been observed that Heydar Aliyev, the only son[2] of the presidential couple, will be 27 in 2025 (the most likely year for a presidential election). If his father decides to run for the presidential office in 2018 and to step down after that, the young Heydar would be an extremely probable “new” candidate. Other possible scenarios are the election of Heydar to parliament or the appointment of a member of the presidential family as vice-president[3]

In addition to being concerned about the future implication of these changes for the Aliyev family, the opposition is worried about the immediate effects of a “reinforced presidency”. Arif Hajili, the leader of Musavat party, bluntly declared that: “They [the state authorities] are not even able to explain to their citizens why we need these changes to the Constitution. They believe they can create a second North Korea here and rule in the same style[4]. Similarly, the prominent lawyer, Fuad Agayev, commented that: “An analysis of the document indicates that, if adopted, it will have an adverse impact on human rights, civil rights and freedoms, as well as power-sharing”.  This kind of apprehension is also shared by some international observers. Chris Smith, Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, sent a concerned letter to Ilham Aliyev. At one point, it stated clearly that: “By lengthening presidential terms and expanding presidential authorities, the proposed constitutional changes are susceptible to abuse that would entrench political authority, making it less responsive to the will of the Azerbaijani people.” Lastly, some observers expect the referendum to be rigged.

In September various well attended protest rallies took place in Baku. The main argument is that the only aim of the referendum is to reinforce Aliev’s rule. “No to monarchy!” and “No robbery!” were the main slogans chanted[5]. Additionally, in the attempt to generate an international response, some Human Right Defenders asked to Thorbjørn Jagland, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, to submit the proposed amendments to the Venice Commission[6]. The main points of concern they raised were: the massive empowerment of the presidential office, the authoritarian climate the referendum takes place in, the non-consultation of the parliament, and the absence of public debate[7]. In addition to the Azerbaijani Human Right Defenders, on 5 September the PACE Bureau also asked the Venice Commission to give an urgent opinion.

In response, on 20 September the Venice Commission issued a “Preliminary Opinion on the Draft Modifications to the Constitution”. In the context of widespread concern on different matters, including the repression of dissident opinions, the Venice Commission expressed clear worries about the amendments in relation to the presidency. More specifically, it noted that, back in 2009, the removal of the two-term limit to re-election had already strengthened the power of the president. In the light of that, it said that: “the modification to Article 101 which extends the Presidential mandate for longer than is the European practice, coupled with the previous removal of the two-term limit, concentrates power in the hands of a single person in a manner not compatible with the separation of powers”. In addition, the Venice Commission expressed its concern about the president’s powers to dissolve the parliament, to call early elections, and to appoint a vice-president who, in practical terms, would be an unelected second-in-command.

Even though the voting has yet to be finalised, the rejection of the proposed amendments seems highly unlikely in contemporary Azerbaijan. Henceforth, in the face of domestic and international concern, the presidential office, which is already remarkably strong, will be further reinforced. Unfortunately, this seems to be a prelude to a further consolidation of the authoritarian tendencies in the country.

Notes

[1] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2016. ‘Azeri court approves referendum on constitutional change’, 26 July (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[2] In addition to him, the president has two daughters, Leyla and Arzu.

[3]Turan Information Agency. 2016. ‘It’s time for the United States to act on Azerbaijan’, September 9 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[4] Turan Information Agency. 2016. ‘Arif Hajili: Usurpation of Power Will Not Save Aliyev’. 18 September (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[5] Turan Information Agency. 2016. ‘Jamil Hasanli: Aliyev does not get tired to pervert the Constitution’. September 17 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[6] The role of the Venice Commission, with reference to the constitutional referendum in Armenia, has already been discussed in this blog.

[7] Turan Information Agency. 2016. ‘The report of “Musavat” about the referendum campaign’. 5 September (retrieved through LexisNexis).

Azerbaijan – F1 and the limits of public diplomacy

From 17-19 June, the Formula One Grand Prix took place in Baku. In contrast to the “European Games” in 2015, the race received limited attention from governmental actors and the Azerbaijani media. Two explanations are possible. The first lies in the changed domestic circumstances. Given the global low energy price and its dramatic setback on citizens’ life standards, politicians deemed it inappropriate to focus too much attention on such frivolous spending. The second lies in the disappointing international reception to last year’s “European Games”.

President Ilham Aliyev, who is known for his interest in sports events, kept an unexpectedly low profile before, during and after the F1 race. Even though he and his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, attended the opening ceremony and presented the trophies at the end, in the preceding months, Mr Aliyev almost never mentioned this event[1]. For example, on 16 June, the day before the race, the most high-profile remark to Parliament came from Ali Hasanov, the president’s aide for public and political affairs. This is in contrast with the attention paid the “European Games”. On that occasion, the President personally inaugurated most of the sports facilities and did not miss a chance to voice his enthusiasm. At the award ceremony, he used phrases like: “These Games united our people even more, instilled a sense of pride in us – just look at what we are capable of accomplishing!”. One year on, the quest for attention seems to have been dimmed. We can see this in the media coverage of the event too where studies reveal that the Formula One race received considerably less attention[2]).

The first explanation for this change lies in domestic conditions and the dramatic drop in energy prices. As already analysed in this blog,  Azerbaijan faced a devaluation of its currency at the beginning of the year, which has led to the dissatisfaction of its citizens. In the following months, the local Manat has remained extremely weak and unemployment has risen. This situation does not seem temporary and a mix of recession and high inflation is likely for the next two years[3]. With the exception of those who managed to rent out their balconies to view proceedings, the race, which placed an additional burden on the shrinking state budget, does not seem to have brought any particular benefits to the population. That said, the decline in living standards does not seem to have affected the Aliyev family. In April, the four-day-war in Nagorno-Karabakh caught most the public attention, but at the same time the leaked “Panama Papers” revealed that Leyla and Arzu Aliyeva, daughters of the President, held a 56 per cent stake in the development of a profitable gold mine. Given this situation, any undue emphasis on the F1 race, when most citizens are struggling to make ends meet, could have easily sounded like “let them eat cake”.

The second explanation, which complements the first one, is that, after the European Games, Azerbaijan had an abrupt awakening about the limits of public diplomacy. Even though President Aliyev recently declared that: “The first European Games (…) were very successful”, very few heads of European states (namely Bulgaria, Luxemburg, San Marino and Monaco) flew to Baku to attend them. Most politicians simply declined the invitation. However, a day before the inauguration ceremony, the German Bundestag, on the grounds of human right violations, prohibited high-ranking state officials from attending the event.  Additionally, in spite of some official claims about the influx of tourists (without providing any numbers), international arrivals were probably below expectations. In addition to this disappointing international attendance, few international reporters focused on the competition. Instead, most of the international press wrote about the country’s human rights record, rather than about the brand-new infrastructures. Notably, The Washington Post criticised the pop-singer Lady Gaga for performing at the opening ceremony, while some human rights defenders were held in jail[4]. Even though presidential speeches never mentioned these facts, domestic actors observed the limited PR effect of this initiative. For example, Emil Huseynli, chairperson of the `Support for youth development’, declared that the cold reception to the games was part of a global smear campaign against Azerbaijan. Additionally, some Azerbaijani news sources reported that some Youth Groups protested against the fact that, according to them, the European Parliament politicised the Games “as a way of putting pressure on Azerbaijan”. In short, it soon became apparent that instead of boosting the international reputation of the country, the Games put the spotlight on undesired topics.

In conclusion, a year ago Azerbaijan seemed a confident actor, determined to win over the international community by means of a well-funded public diplomacy campaign. However, the changed economic circumstances, together with the lessons learned about the limited efficacy of this strategy, seem to have brought about a partial reconsideration of this strategy.

Notes

[1] Looking at the English version of the official Website of the President of Azerbaijan, this event has been only mentioned, along with numerous other points, in occasion of the opening of Azerbaijani-German Economic Forum in Berlin.

[2] Translated into English by BBC Monitoring.

[3] BMI Research. 2016. “Stagflation To Persist”, Business Monitor Online, March 10 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[4] “Blinders in Azerbaijan”. 2015. The Washington Post, August 9 (retrieved through Lexis Nexis).ze

Georgia ahead of Parliamentary Elections

Election date misunderstanding

Under the constitution, the Georgian Parliament’s 150 members serve four-year terms, with 77 seats set by proportional representation and 73 in single-seat constituencies. Georgia’s constitution calls for the next parliamentary elections to be held in October, with the country’s president setting the exact date no later than two months before voters go to the polls.

In April, six months ahead of elections, in a televised briefing President of Georgia Giorgi Margvelashvili set the upcoming parliamentary election date for October 8. The timing of the announcement has caused another misunderstanding between the president and the major political parties, which received such an early announcement with little enthusiasm. Some political parties noted that such a long pre-electoral campaign favors the ruling Georgian Dream party, which is in control of administrative resources.

President Margvelashvili, however, defended his decision, saying that a lengthy campaigning season will benefit all of the parties who plan to take part. Later, PM Giorgi Kvirikashvili confirmed the date of parliamentary elections as October 8, however he did not confirm the official launch of the election campaign. It appears that the pre-election campaign dates remain subject to further discussions with the Central Election Commission (CEC).

“We cannot afford to pay an extra 7 or 8 million GEL (approximate USD 3.5 million) for such a lengthy pre-election campaign. We are discussing all of the technical and financial issues with the CEC and we will make a decision on when to formally launch the campaign cycle,” noted Kvirikashvili.

The official pre-election campaign for the next parliamentary elections in Georgia was only launched on June 10, 2016, two months after the President’s initial decision, when Giorgi Margvelashvili issued another decree with regards to his constitutional duty.

Although the date was set finally, the electoral environment looks far from being ready for E-day: the ruling Coalition was dissolved and the component parties are expected to run for election independently. Moreover, a number of politicians from the Georgian Dream Party have founded new political organisations for the upcoming elections. In addition to these internal struggles, issues relating to media freedom, a fair electoral environment, and inability to reach the achievement on the new electoral system are the major challenges facing the ruling Georgian Dream group.

Disagreement over the electoral reform

An interparty group was unable to reach a favorable outcome on the major electoral reform with the Georgian government, parliament and the ruling Georgian Dream party. Negotiations lasting for months encompassed changes in the electoral system, the composition of the Central Election Commission, TV advertising during pre-election campaign period, and the ratio of political party representatives in the Central Election Commission. In addition, political parties discussed the possibility of lowering the threshold for representation from 5 to 2 %.

The opposition parties claimed that the ruling coalition (at that time) and the executive government did not demonstrate the political will necessary for implementing major election related changes prior to the next Parliamentary elections.

For its part, Georgian Dream refused to dismiss the majoritarian system for the upcoming elections and expressed its readiness to enact such changes for the parliamentary elections of 2020, but not earlier.

However, it was still able to propose a change in the Electoral Code, according to which 11 electoral subjects will be able to use TV advertising time free of charge. Private TV broadcasters expressed their dissatisfaction towards the amendments that will be financially damaging for the companies.

The dissolved Georgian Dream and the renewed United National Movement

Just before starting the pre-election campaigning the ruling Coalition Georgian Dream was dissolved with its 6 political parties getting ready to participate in the elections independently. The newest of the former coalition member parties, the Georgian Dream Party itself, was founded by the former PM of Georgia, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. Ivanishvili resigned as PM in 2014 but remains as the party leader behind the scenes. The 2016 parliamentary elections will be the first time that Georgian Dream will participate as an independent electoral party. Its former partners (Republicans, Conservatives, National Forum, Industrialists, Free Democrats) have more electoral experience but have little hope of clearing the threshold on their own.

On the other hand, the major opposition and the former ruling party, the United National Movement (UNM), has announced the policy of so-called renewal, or new-blood candidates. The UNM has already announced its top 10 candidates, consisting of former high officials and civil servants in charge of foreign policy, Euroatlantic integration and diplomacy.

Meanwhile, the law enforcement agencies are investigating the events of 22nd May, 2016, when the UNM leaders were attacked in the village of Kortskheli during the by-elections. Six men have been charged, without being arrested, in connection to the Kortskheli violence. Lawmakers from UNM party, who are currently boycotting the Parliament over the Kortskheli incident, accuse the energy minister and general secretary of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Kakha Kaladze, of being behind the group.

The incident was highlighted in a statement issued by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in its pre-election assessment mission. The report, issued on June 17, called the event “a particularly alarming incident, ” adding that civil society and opposition as well as governing political parties lack confidence that the police, prosecutors, or courts can be relied upon to respond – whether to electoral disputes or physical confrontations – in a timely, impartial, and effective manner.

Visa Liberalisation with Europe

Meantime, citizens of Georgia are expecting the lifting visa requirements with the European Union. Although Brussels positively assessed Georgia’s progress in implementing a Visa Liberalisation Action Plan in December 2015, the EU remains hesitant to take the final decision. The EPP party group president, Joseph Daul, was first to link the outcome of parliamentary elections to the visa liberalization. Civil society organizations in Georgia feared that the topic of visa free movement with Europe would be used for political gain by different political groups and asked Daul to support the European aspiration of Georgian citizens.

Later, Mr. Daul, who is closely linked to United National Movement, had to deny any such relation between the elections and the lifting of visa requirements. During his visit to Gorgia in March 2016, he clarified that current challenges of the EU might be the major reasons behind the delaying of the decision on a visa-free regime.

Merabishvili Case

After the 2012 parliamentary elections, when the UNM lost its majority to the Georgian Dream, several leaders of the UNM were arrested and later sentenced. They included the former elected Mayor of Tbilisi, Giorgi Ugulava, as well as secretary general of the UNM and former PM, Ivane Merabishvili, and former Defense Minister Bachana Akhalaia. The UNM has accused Georgian Dream of trying to defeat former ruling party with the arrests.

Recently, in June the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that the detention of Georgia’s ex-interior minister Vano Merabishvili was “used not only for the purpose of bringing” him before the relevant legal authorities on “reasonable suspicion” of various offenses with which he had been charged, “but was also treated by the prosecuting authorities as an additional opportunity to obtain leverage” over investigations into unrelated cases, including the one against ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili.

As a result, the Strasbourg-based court found that there has been a violation of Article 18 (limitation on use of restrictions on rights) of the European Convention on Human Rights taken in conjunction with Article 5 § 1 (right to liberty and security).

The UNM views the decision as a conformation that its leaders are being held as political prisoners in the country and repeatedly accuses Georgian Dream of using undemocratic tactics when dealing with political opposition

Rustavi 2 and press freedom case

One of the major guarantees of free and fair pre-electoral campaigning is the existence of a free media. For almost a year, the major opposition TV channel in Georgia, Rustavi 2 case, has been involved in a court case as the former owner who sold his shares back in 2006 appealed to the court to demand annulation of the sales contracts and over 18 million GEL ($7.5 million) from Rustavi 2’s current owners. As reported by Eurasianet, Khalvashi (the former owner) claimed that he was forced by President Saakashvili to give up the company in 2006 and transfer it to the owners who were chosen by the ex-president.

Rustavi 2 considered the event to be an attempted attack on the free media. Rustavi 2’s current Director, Nika Gvaramia, said he suspected that the judges are under the influence of the government. On the TV Show, “Archevani” Gvaramia stated the government, in his opinion, is interested in the disappearance of a critical media before the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Apart from the Rustavi 2 case, anumber of popular political talk shows have recently been closed down and popular journalists have been dismissed from the Public Broadcast, Imedi TV and Maestro TV.

Three months ahead of parliamentary elections – a major test for Georgia’s democracy – the electoral environment remains fragile due to the suspicions about the existence of political prisoners, attacks on media, and ambiguity about the electoral system.