Autumn of the Patriarchs

Politics of Azerbaijan and Georgia in Flux

Azerbaijan and Georgia are inching closer to the day when the parliamentary and presidential elections would end the presidency of two patriarchs of the South Caucasian politics – Heydar Aliev and Eduard Shevardnadze. This would be an important step to the political maturity of the two countries, but whether the stability could be retained during and after the succession, remains doubtful.

After a brief advent of the nationalist leaders that followed demise of the Soviet Union, the two leaders have resumed their leadership over Georgia and Azerbaijan that started in 1970s. Eduard Shevardnadze and Heydar Aliyev, two persons with almost similar background, communist leaders that turned elected presidents, managed to stabilize their crisis ridden countries and introduced some incentives for development.

But with 21st century downing, analysts say the shortfalls of their rule are indeed also similar, and may still hold some bad news for their countries’ future development.

There is a growing discontent with the existing regimes both in Azerbaijan and Georgia, and the opposition forces are rallying stronger popular support. Notably, domestic political forces have different interests and even hold different foreign policy views, but opposition to the aging presidents is their landmark feature.

Similar huge problems exist in these countries that impede the potential of development and obscure their future perspective. Rampant corruption and the weak state institutions, appalling share of the population living in the poverty and numerous internally displaced persons, stagnant economic growth raises fears that a fragile system of checks-and-balances built around the personalities of the leaders, would collapse after they would leave the political scene.

Against this background, upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections gain paramount importance for assessing the prospects of the regional development. It is also apparent that redistribution of the power in the parliament will be the crucial factor during the presidential elections.

Parliamentary elections’ results are of utmost importance to both presidents. For many, their names are associated with to the clan system and huge properties accumulated by their cronies. Thus, the analysts say, the two presidents have two related goals: to ensure peaceful transition of power and to give helm to the persons, able to guarantee their personal and their supporter’s physical security. The new leaders should also be acceptable to both people and the international community. 

In addressing this problem, Shevardnadze and Aliev have chosen different strategies. Eduard Shevardnadze chose to leave the issue of successor open, bidding on several persons at the same time, allowing for a type of “natural selection” – the political haggling for the president’s favor that leaves him in relative, but sustained control of the events.

Raise and fall of the parliamentary chairperson Zurab Zhvania, as president’s favorite is exemplary to the style of Shevardnadze’s favorite game of political balancing. Seemingly chosen as a successor, moderate Zhvania diverted the venom of the opposition from the president. But when chairperson chose to criticize Shevardnadze, the opposition forces allegedly covertly supported by the president’s chancellery have rendered several painful blows and have Zhvania struggle not to fall into a political oblivion [for the details see Majority, Reinvented].

Aliev chose a strategy absolutely different from Shevardnadze and is clearly aiming at the dynastic model of power-transition. Aliev’s son, Ilham has been appointed to several positions, including that of a vice-president of the State Oil Company, Chairman of Azerbaijan’s National Olympic Committee and head of the country’s Council of Europe delegation. Ilham was also appointed as the deputy chairman of the ruling party 21 November 2001. “We will be in power forever”, announced Ilham Aliyev at the party congress.

Analysts consider Ilham is politically too inexperienced to be able to overcome rivalries inside the party. At the same time, president Aliyev has stated several times that he intends to participate in the presidential elections in 2003. Though, most observers say it is more to be a political maneuver that aims at lessening opposition pressure on Ilham.

In parallel of this process, opposition parties in Azerbaijan are uniting in a frenzy of activity. Two opposition blocks have taken shape this spring. The United Opposition Movement, which consists of the nationalist Musavat party, one wing of the Popular Front, the Democratic Party and numerous smaller parties. Experts say their chances for success are quite real. The other group includes the reformist wing of the Popular Front’s reformists with the Party of National Independence. 

Despite the strength in numbers, the opposition forces in Azerbaijan lack serious financial backing as most businessmen are associated with the ruling party in one way or another. Secondly, a rift and personal ambitions within the opposition parties prevent them from standing united together against the incumbents.

Shevardnadze has a bit of a different problem. His party, Citizens Union of Georgia seems to have sustained terminal hit after most of its brightest leaders, known as “reformers” have turned into opposition. Shevardnadze is currently attempting to patch a loose coalition of supporters from the State Chancellery, some of his loyalists from the Georgian regions and former opposition parties.

This patchwork of supporters may win him some time, but the opposition formed by the New National Movement – Democratic Front seems quite formidable. Ideally, in 2003 general elections Shevardnadze would have a Parliament with mixed political forces, where he would be able to continue with usual balancing. But such juggling has already led to paralysis of the legislature and the voices on the need for lessening presidential influence and increasing that of the parliament are growing stronger.

In brief, the politics of both Azerbaijan and Georgia are in flux, with ambiguity remaining dominant feature. At first sight, Azeri picture seems much more consolidated, while Georgian political spectrum too scattered even by Georgia’s own standards.

But if democracy has to become a rule of the day, Georgian system paradoxically has more chances for stability. It is exactly because it has more political parties feeling they have the chance for success. Also, there is no single enemy to fight against. Shevardnadze’s popularity has been falling sharp, but his style of balancing has prevented portraying the president as the enemy number one to the public opinion.

In Azerbaijan, dynastic blueprint of transition leaves most of the political parties nothing to hope for. Contradicting interests are tearing the ruling party apart and strong opposition is uniting against common political enemy. Thus the threats of stability to Azeri politics are also quite significant.
Whether of not Azerbaijan and Georgia would prove capable of finding the path to development, or indeed of maintaining relative stability, would very much depend on their leaders’ ability to fight an urge of clinging to power at any cost.

Building an image of the enemy from outgoing presidents, with highly mixed, if not dubious records, is quite easy.  But the picture of uniting against an ultimate evil can be misleading for the citizenry both in Azerbaijan and Georgia. Without addressing the vital economic problems, reforming the bureaucracies and finding compromise with diverse population, inevitable departure of Aliev and Shevardnadze would simply launch a new spring in a downward spiral of the regional politics.

By Revaz Bakhtadze, Civil Georgia