Democracy Lab

Political Tremors in the Caucasus

There’s a distinct whiff of desire for political change wafting through the Caucasus.

How do you renovate a house when people are shaking the foundations? This is the question facing Vladimir Putin's Russia as well as the three countries of the South Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. In each place, apparently secure governing regimes have faced or are facing revived forms of public protest.

Each of these countries experienced mass political turbulence in the 1990s, but for years it looked as though people had lost faith in public engagement and were content to tolerate any ruler who guaranteed a modicum of stability. That is no longer the case: After a period of dormancy, politics is back.

In Georgia, President Mikheil Saakashvili surrendered most of his powers when last October's election unexpectedly went against him -- although he is continuing the political fight within the system. Now the country under the spotlight is tiny Armenia. The country held a presidential election on February 18 in which serving president Serzh Sargsyan was elected to a new five-year term. An easy victory for Sargsyan appeared pre-ordained as two other presumed rivals dropped out of the race. But in the last two weeks of the campaign, opposition candidate Raffi Hovannisian, independent Armenia's first foreign minister, surged forward.

On polling day, Sargsyan was declared the winner with 59 percent of the vote. Hovannisian was given an official vote of around 37 percent and declared to have won the poll in the country's second and third cities, Gyumri and Vanadzor.

In effect, the country's many discontented have woken up -- but too late to make a difference on the election itself. Had the campaign lasted two weeks longer it is quite possible that Hovannisian's momentum would have carried him into a second round run-off.

As it is, world leaders, including President Obama, have now congratulated Sargsyan on his victory. The State Department characterized the election as "generally well-administered and characterized by a respect for fundamental freedoms, including those of assembly and expression."

Armenia's problem was not so much election day as the playing field itself: A media heavily controlled by the government, local officials serving the narrow ruling elite rather than the state as such. The head of the OSCE election observer mission, Heidi Tagliavini, picked up on this when she commented on "the blurring of the distinction between the state and the ruling party."

Raffi Hovannisian is a decent man, unsullied by the corrupt practices of post-Soviet politics. But he is also a California-born outsider whom few imagined could be president of Armenia. Evidently, he has mobilized a protest vote that is bigger than himself.

Hovannisian himself has not recognized the result, and he has been surprisingly effective at organizing mass rallies across the country. But it is hard to see how he can prevail in the short term against a president who now has international legitimacy and controls all the levers of power in Armenia.

Over the longer term, however, the president has a problem. Opinion surveys show high levels of discontent in Armenia about corruption, poverty, and abuse of power. This manifests itself in mediocre economic performance and a continuing brain-drain from emigration. Sargsyan is a man of consensus who likes at least to listen to his opponents. If he does not want a very long and bumpy second term, he must now think about what steps he can take that will meet the population's discontents half-way -- while he knows that tinkering with the system may end up undermining his own authority.

As president of a nation whose compatriots are scattered across the world, Sargsyan also faces the challenge of continued competition with the Armenian diaspora. The websites of the two main diaspora organizations in the United States, the Armenian Assembly and the ANCA, are conspicuously silent about the once-in-five-years election in their homeland. A popular U.S. Armenian singer, Serj Tankian, wrote a public letter to Sargsyan in which he said that "the avalanche of people suffering under your rule due to corruption and injustice is tipping the scale for us all."

If there is a lesson from Caucasian politics over the past year, it is that public opinion is not a monolith but a wave. A mood of discontent can build momentum suddenly, as if from nowhere. An incumbent commands loyalty by default, but once his power trembles, he can be swept away. This is what happened in Georgia last fall, but did not quite happen in Russia or in Armenia (where a month before polling day Hovannisian was scoring only 10 percent in the polls).

Azerbaijan is by far the wealthiest of the three South Caucasus states. It has increased international standing and is currently a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. It is also the least democratic of the three countries: Systemic opposition to President Ilham Aliev has all but disappeared in the past decade.

Azerbaijan is also insecure. In part that is because of an unenviable geopolitical situation. Iran to the south is an intensely unfriendly neighbor. Relations with Russia have fluctuated since the end of the USSR and are now in a new downturn, following a row over the Russian-operated Gabala radar station, where Aliev has essentially evicted the Russians after Moscow refused to meet his demands for higher rent. To the west is the unresolved conflict with Armenia, which has left one seventh of the country's de jure territory under Armenian enemy control for almost 20 years.

Its newfound wealth also comes almost exclusively from oil and gas. This is leading to a problem that Putin encounters in Russia, as some segments of the population no longer seem prepared to accept the bargain of "we give you higher standards of living, you let us rule the country unchallenged."

The last few months in Azerbaijan have seen a series of protests by shopkeepers, the families of conscript soldiers, and citizens in the town of Ismayili, who are angry at their mayor. An exiled university rector released sensational tapes alleging corruption and the selling of parliamentary seats. Two opposition leaders, Tofiq Yaqublu and Ilgar Mammadov, were arrested. A venerable writer, Akram Aylisli, who had dared to publish a novel in Russia that described the sufferings of Armenians, was publicly vilified, threatened, and stripped of his state awards.

Azerbaijani opposition websites talk all this up this in dramatic terms, as though the ruling elite is in agony. That seems rather premature. The protests were fragmented and the mainstream opposition parties remain quite marginal. President Aliev sacked some of the officials under fire.

The trouble does, however, suggest that Aliev cannot expect a fully smooth ride to a third term in office in October's presidential election. He faces the challenge of Sargysan writ large: Can he tinker with the existing power structure and curb its most abusive elements without weakening the very structure itself.

As they look at Georgia, many Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Russians see a bad advertisement for democracy. Last October, the Georgians held a historic election in which for the first time a governing party lost and handed over peacefully to the opposition, the Georgian Dream coalition led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. Since then the country has been enduring a painful "cohabitation" between Ivanishvili's government and President Mikheil Saakashvili until the latter steps down in October. Every day brings political melodrama of some kind: mutual recrimination, constitutional haggling, demarches to foreign visitors, arrests of former officials, and even a fight on the street as the president was preparing to give a speech.

On the inside, the mood in the country is not as turbulent as that would suggest. There is a lot of continuity in lower levels of government. The impressive new justice minister, Tea Tsulukiani, told me that she has retained 98 percent of the staff she inherited from her predecessor. Besides, Saakashvili's United National Movement elite had become aloof, unaccountable, and increasingly abusive, and Georgians were ready for a change. The new government has not got a good grip on many issues and the economy has been performing badly. But a change of power is enabling it to correct many unaddressed problems, such as a very punitive judicial system, hidden monopolies, or the state of agriculture.

Georgia has the same structural deficiency as its post-Soviet neighbors: a chronic lack of checks and balances. Here Ivanishvili has been dealt a weak hand. But if his government avoids some major pitfalls, Georgia can still be a success story.

On some issues, Ivanishvili can do well by doing nothing. For example, it will be positive if his government does not interfere in Georgia's television channels, which have been offering a much more diverse diet of news since the elections. If Ivanishvili follows through on his plans to overhaul local government, create 300 municipalities, and establish genuine regional democracy in Georgia, that will strike a heavy blow against patriarchal government from Tbilisi.

The biggest test of Georgia's fragile democracy will come in October with the presidential election. The new president will still be head of state but with diminished powers. Nonetheless, he (or, less likely, she) will be a counterweight to the prime minister. Ivanishvili's choice of candidate -- a strong, independent individual or a less prominent figure -- will be another indicator of the health of Georgian democracy. Ivanishvili has already rebuked an early favorite (especially in Western capitals), Defense Minister Irakli Alasania, by stripping him of his other job as deputy prime minister, after he showed signs of excessive independence. Some of Ivanishvili's supporters are also suggesting a retrograde step, a system in which the president is elected not by the public but by parliament.

Georgian politics is certainly chaotic and dramatic, but the alternative is surely worse. It is better to see disputes fought out in parliament or on television than on the streets. The country seems to be struggling to achieve Nassim Taleb's concept of "anti-fragility," adaptability to change. As neighboring leaders look down at the apparently more stable ground beneath their feet, they should consider that most of Georgia's challenges may still be ahead of them.

Photo by TOFIK BABAYEV/AFP/Getty Images


Lean Forward

Why there's finally cause for celebration this International Women's Day

International Women's Day usually feels like a quaint -- or even hypocritical -- 24-hour attempt to try to make up for a year's worth of outrages against women. But this year it feels different. We are nearing a tipping point.

Yes, conditions are still horrific for women in many, if not most, places across the globe. I know because I collect data on violence against women and related issues as part of my ongoing research on the WomanStats Project. Every day I open my inbox to find a new pit of grief, such as the recent story of three little sisters in India, ages 6, 9, and 11, raped and drowned at the bottom of a well. The saying, "What fresh hell is this?" could only have been coined by a woman.

But the case of India is instructive. On most scales of gender-based violence, such as WomanStats' physical security index, India ranks as one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. And the country's highly abnormal sex ratio favoring males indicates that the value placed on the life of a woman in India is one of the lowest worldwide. On broader indices, such as the World Economic Forum's Gender Gap Index examining educational attainment, political representation, health, and the economic status of women, India ranks an embarrassing 105th out of 135 countries.

But lately the stories don't end there. In the case of the three little girls in India, the local police officer in charge has been suspended and replaced because he did not act swiftly enough. This is highly unusual, as local police are typically only removed for acts of commission, not acts of omission. What has clearly tipped the scales was the public reaction to the ghastly gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi this past December -- thousands took to the streets, even shutting down roads -- and a belated realization by public authorities that what was once tolerable is now intolerable. In February, the new political reality solidified, with the Indian government implementing a new set of laws that not only permit the death penalty if a rape victim dies, but also criminalize certain offenses against women that had always occupied a gray area where authorities could effectively overlook them with impunity. What were previously perceived as lesser offenses -- voyeurism, stalking, acid attacks, and even the trafficking of women -- are finally to be considered real crimes against women. (The measures are still awaiting ratification in the Indian Parliament, though they went into effect last month.)

The important change here is that public opinion seems to be shaping a consensus that Indian authorities must be held accountable for condoning impunity for these crimes. A commission established by the Indian government in the aftermath of December's rape has urged that police officers be arrested if they do not investigate crimes against women and that soldiers finally be subject to criminal penalties if they rape women, as they often do in east India. The commission's report concluded, "The nation has to account for the tears of millions of women." The fact that the wink-and-nod collusion between male government representatives and male perpetrators is increasingly seen as unacceptable does not simply mean the Indian government is becoming more enlightened. It means public opinion is tangibly shifting against the impunity and the collusion. The wind has changed.

Indonesia is not India, but there are serious issues concerning women's rights in that country nonetheless. For example, Indonesia does not recognize marital rape as a crime, and the mail-order bride industry thrives in that country. The oil-rich Aceh province in the country's north implemented sharia law in 2009, and seemingly every month some new restriction on women is being put into place. For example, women now are forbidden from "straddling" a motorbike; they must ride side-saddle, which means, in essence, that they cannot drive motorcycles at all. Men are allowed up to four wives under Indonesian law if their first wife agrees, but even without his wife's assent a man knows he can find a religious figure to perform the marriage secretly anyway. Or they can be married for only an hour if they wish. Wink, wink.

But consider this: A few months ago, an Indonesian judge took a second, teenage wife. Unremarkable. The judge then divorced the girl four days later by text message. Nod, nod. But then something extraordinary happened. After public outrage, with thousands of protesters in the streets, the Supreme Court recommended the judge's dismissal and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono formally dismissed him in a rare move, saying, "Don't take this matter lightly. I want this problem handled swiftly and comprehensively." This, too, is unprecedented, especially given concerns about the president's commitments to human rights in the past.

Harassment of women in public spaces has always been outrageous in Egypt, a country ranked in the worst category for women's physical security in the WomanStats scale. In one recent study, 83 percent of Egyptian women surveyed said they had been sexually harassed in public. Sexual violence against women in public spaces is rising to even higher levels now in Cairo, and the assaults are no longer just groping but savage beatings and rapes.

But the outrage against this treatment also seems to be growing. Women have marched by the hundreds carrying knives and clubs, and bearing signs that threaten to cut off the hands of their attackers. And Egyptian women do not stand alone: New groups like Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment and Tahrir Bodyguard feature scores of men in bright vests who defend women against would-be gropers, rapists, and even killers. Not only do the men physically interpose themselves, but they challenge the attackers by asking: How can you call yourself a Muslim? That's a very good question, and one that men don't ask enough of male perpetrators in a largely religious society.

Even in the United States, we're seeing incremental progress for the protection of women from violence. After last fall's election, women make up a record 19 percent of the U.S. Congress. Smirk if you will, but that figure is already translating into legislative attention to women's issues: One of the first bills President Barack Obama signed into law this year was the "Transport for Female Genital Mutilation Act," which makes it a crime to knowingly transport a girl outside the country to be cut. This law is needed because families often take girls on "vacations" back to their homelands -- countries where female genital mutilation is permitted or common -- to undergo the practice. And just this week the president signed into law an expanded version of the Violence Against Women Act. Slowly but surely we are filling the holes in our own legal framework that have long provided impunity for those who would hurt and exploit women.

Do we have a long way to go? Yes. Although they are accumulating worldwide, and in some of the most unlikely places, so far these signs of hope remain singular cases. I still expect my inbox will contain horrifying accounts every morning. At the WomanStats Project, we rank countries based on the level of physical security women experience, as indicated by rates of violence perpetrated against them, and since we began coding the data in 2001 no country has ever scored in the best rank -- indicating that violence levels are low and the country strictly enforces a comprehensive legal code criminalizing such violence. Some scholars have questioned why we even have a scale point for security, since it remains a null set. This International Women's Day, heartened by evidence of a tipping point in sight, I'd venture to say that we have it because one day -- perhaps sooner than any of us dreamed -- we will need it.