November 18, 2003
Georgian Turmoil may destabilize the Caucasus
If the powder keg known as the Caucasus region needed another shockwave, Georgia has provided it through its parliamentary election held on November 2. Georgia is Armenia's next-door neighbor, with a population of 4.9 million, and a territory of 69,700 sq. km, compared to Armenia's 30,000 sq. km. The country is the only other Christian nation in the area, with a very diverse ethnic profile. Georgians constitute 70.1% of the population. Armenians are the largest minority with 8.1%, Russians 6.3%, Azeris 5.7%, Ossetians 3%, and the Abkhazians 1.8%. Other minorities constitute 5% of the total population. Political fault line falls along ethnic concentrations. Georgia has endured and survived its share of turbulence, political instability, assassinations, coups and counter coups.
These, of course, give no consolation to Armenia, which has gone through the same experiences and become more stable.
During these turbulent years, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which rendered independent the former constituent republics, Georgia lost control of Southern Ossetia to the cessationist movement. A war broke out between Abkhazia and Georgia and the Moslem Abkhazians declared their independence. Ajaria, also mostly Moslem, is ruled by a descendant of Ajar princely families, namely Aslan Abashidze, who gives little hoot to the central government in Tbilisi. The Javakhk region bordering Armenia is home to a restive Armenian population, who have suffered most by the succeeding nationalist governments in Georgia.
During the November 2nd Parliamentary Election, very few people were surprised by a comment made by the observer of the International Institute of Republicans, Charles Fairbanks, who was touring the electoral precincts in Georgia. He bluntly stated: "Georgia should ponder to what extent its sovereignty extends over the region inhabited by the Azeris". Indeed, the Azerbaijani flag was hoisted at the election centers and Azerbaijan's national anthem was played and Azerbaijan's Central Election Council was busy counting the votes in Georgia.
Although Georgians have not treated Armenia as a good neighbor, Armenia is heavily dependent on Georgia, which is one of the outlets to the world, the other one being Iran, which is under constant U.S. threat as a country on the list of "axis of evil". Should Iran be dismembered or "liberated" like Iraq, Armenia will be left to the tender mercies of the Georgians, because the other neighbors, namely Azerbaijan and Turkey, have already blockaded Armenia.
Therefore, Georgia's stability is very crucial for Armenia's prosperity, and even survival. Yet Georgia has fallen into a political turmoil since the November 2nd elections. Those elections were the last ones in the cycle of other elections in the Caucasus. Indeed, this year Armenia held its Presidential and Parliamentary Elections, followed by the Presidential Election in Azerbaijan. In fact, the autocratic ruler of that country, Haydar Aliev, turned over to his son the oil rich country as a family property. OSCE and the European Union observers criticized those elections harshly, yet the European countries and the U.S. decided to work with the elected officials. Georgians concluded that they could also rig the elections and get away with it. But the country's fragile structure could not withstand the aftershocks of those elections.
The Central Election Commission declared pro-presidential "For a New Georgia" block the victor with 27.8%, the Labor Party in second place with 16.1%, the Burdjanadze-Democrats block 9.5%, New Rightists 8%. On the other hand, according to exit polls conducted at the request of the independent TV station Rustavi-2 Saakashvili's National Movement won the elections with 20.8%, followed by pr
esidential party (AS) with 20%, Labor 17.37%, Burdjanadze-Democrats 10.15%, Democratic Revival Union 8.13%, New Rightists 7.99%.
There are 235 seats in the parliament, and for any block or party to meet the minimum votes is 7%, whereas in Armenia it is 5%.
The opposition parties formed a Resistance Front and resorted to demonstrations. Estimates vary as to the number of demonstrators who marched on the Presidential Palace demanding Shevarnadze's resignation. Some put the number at 10,000, while others go as high as 35,000. In a last ditch effort to diffuse the volatile situation, Shevardnadze agreed to meet with the opposition leaders Nino Burdjanadze, Surab Jvania and Saakashvili. Their stormy session further aggravated the situation and Shevardnadze warned that the country was on the verge of chaos and that if unrest continued a repeat performance of the 1991 civil war, which claimed 70 victims, could be anticipated.
Demonstrations continue and even some opposition members have resorted to hunger strikes, demanding the President's resignation. Since November 2, the political turmoil gripping Georgia has not subsided and there is no end in sight.
Ajaria's leader Aslan Abashidze has emerged as a peacemaker. Technically he is in opposition to the central government, yet he has come out with a strong support to President Shevardnadze and he has branded the opposition leaders as "Fascists" and "Communists" who should not accede to power in Georgia and they should be stopped by force if necessary.
It is very unlikely that force can yield any positive results in a fragmented country.
Abashidze has also undertaken a whirlwind tour of Yerevan, Baku and Moscow, apprising Kocharian, Aliyev and Putin of the grave situation in Georgia and seeking their support to resolve the crisis.
As a result of his consultations in Moscow a consensus has emerged that the Caucasian Quartet has to come together and propose solutions - meaning the presidents of Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
Already regional powers have been monitoring the situation very carefully. As an interested party, Turkey would have loved to play a role to enhance its influence in the Caucasus. But given the setbacks suffered by Ankara recently, the hands of Erdogan government are tied up. Indeed, Turkey was uninvited from sending troops to Iraq; the European Union has reiterated its demand on the resolution of the Cyprus crisis as a precondition to Turkey's accession to the Union. The recent Synagogue bombings in Istanbul have symbolized Turkey's isolation in the Moslem world in light of its political-military cooperation with Israel.
Iran has built a bridge with Russia over Armenia and Georgia and has developed the North-South political axis, which may be jeopardized by events in Georgia. Her economic ties with Europe may also suffer.
Russia and the U.S. seem to have come to an understanding to preserve the status quo.
The Quartet has very limited space for maneuvering. Armenia has already lent its support by sending its security chief before the elections to meet with his Georgian counterpart in the Armenian populated Javakhk region to avoid tensions. With the tacit encouragement of the Armenian government Armenians in Georgia have reluctantly supported President Shevardnadze's bloc where three Armenians have been elected to the parliament. The Samtskhe-Javakheti and Kvemo Kartli based Council of Armenian Organizations have called upon all the parties and deputy candidates to refrain from violence.
Had the Armenians acted emotionally they would have added more fuel to an already volatile situation. And they had all the rights to do so, given Georgia's animosity toward Armenia and Armenians. Even during the last elections the word "Armenian" was used as a swear word in the political marketplace where even some
government supporters used scare tactics on Azeri voters by hinting that some opposition leaders - like Saakashvili and Jvania - are of Armenian ancestry and they should be banned from taking over the government.
For Armenia it would be a self-inflicted wound to pay animosity with animosity. Instead, Armenia is taking a broader view of regional stability, which will benefit all nations in the region. And Armenia needs stability more than any other party in the region. It has been playing its constructive role within the Quartet and also independently.
Let us hope that the die has not been cast yet on Shevardnadze's plight.