Tag Archives: Public diplomacy

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.

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.

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

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