Democracy in the Caucasus: A Case of Great Expectations?

Fighting for "democracy." (Photo: Anahit Hayrapetyan)

Soldiers armed with AK 47 rifles train in Martakert, Nagorno Karabakh, in 2007. More than 20 years following independence from the Soviet Union, the Caucasus countries still struggle with unresolved and unstable breakaway regions. (Photo: Anahit Hayrapetyan)

By the time Mikhail Gorbachev went on Soviet TV on Christmas night in 1991 and declared the Soviet Union officially dead, the “euphoria” in the new countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia over the promise of democracy was already fading. 

In fact, competing that night with those screen images of the last Soviet leader signing the empire off the world map was footage of events 1,000 kilometers to the south, in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. Two warlords were too busy with their armed campaign to topple President Zviad Gamsakhurdia to pay much attention to Gorby. They used heavy artillery to blast at the parliament where Zviad hid in a basement. 

Well before the hammer and sickle was no more, Georgia had descended into one conflict -- in South Ossetia. A second simmered in Abkhazia, itself imploding into war months later. Bloodletting between Azeris and Armenians over Nagorno Karabakh started even earlier. Then there were the civil conflicts, comic-opera coups and bloody attempted revolts, which continued for years. 

There is no doubt that in those first chaotic years of independence, “democracy” was still a favorable watchword, an antonymic antidote to communism and Soviet rule (depending, of course, on whose side one was on at the time). Elites from Heydar Aliyev to Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Politburo members, embraced this fashion-makeover to appear more palpable to Western donors, or maybe because they thought it was just the right thing to say. 

The reality was far more complex. 

Friends of mine in this storybook-beautiful land had wildly varying expectations of what democracy meant and how long it would take to achieve even a degree of it. They were much less naive than many in the West about how rocky that road would be. 

I remember one white-hot afternoon in the summer of 1993 during a short “civil war” in the steppe of central Azerbaijan. A colleague, Adil Bunyatov, and I had been filming with a group of “government” troops while riding in an APC. The inept crew, defending their “democracy” from those brandishing their own interpretation of it, managed to flip the thing over after becoming distracted by the sight of a woman. Adil -- later killed while filming an uprising outside a Baku army barracks -- pointed at the conflict to argue that he had nothing against democracy. But he was disgusted at the application of the word to mere bedlam. 

Similarly, a young man dropped by a party at my Tbilisi flat in 1994. House guests ejected him from the festivities for picking a fight. The offended boy returned, waving a loaded machine pistol at the dancing revellers. In reality, it was nothing unusual in the Georgia of those days. When the cops did finally come -- 45 minutes after being dialled on the then equivalent of 9-1-1 -- they left quickly, exasperated at being dispatched even though, in their words, “No one had even been killed.”     

Shalva, a friend whom I had invited to the party, told me gravely: “You can’t be too open-hearted here right now. This is not democracy; it is chaos. That’s why I am leaving for the next few years; because it will take a while to stabilize things.”  

Simple facts are as telling as any opinion surveys; the disaffected vote with their feet. In 1999, Georgia’s statistics ministry announced a cool 1 million people had packed up and left. Some Armenians worry that their population drain is so severe as to risk the country’s very viability. Even Azerbaijan, economically healthier from petro-revenues despite widespread corruption, has long watched many of its own travel to Russia in search of work, though the situation has improved of late.    

The “Free Caucasus” born 20 years ago emerged on one of the most unstable geopolitical fault lines in the world. That is reality. An unpredictable and bitter ex-metropole (Moscow) seethed over its loss of empire. Ill-defined borders were disputed. Ethnic grievances, smoldering for decades before the Soviet collapse, exploded. The regional economy was in a complete shambles.   

Yes, even the army of diplomats that descended on the region, billions of dollars in foreign aid, and well-financed “civil society” programs have not been able to solve any of the major regional conflagrations or instil wholly stable state systems. Corruption in many areas remains rife. Social security nets are shaky. There is every reason to be cynical. It is wholly unsurprising that over these two turbulent decades, the word “democracy” has lost some of its luster.  

Yet is the Caucasus unique in this fashion? What is to say of the more than 80 percent of Americans unhappy with the way their own Congress performs? In reality, Americans, as ready as we are to teach valuable lessons on democracy, obviously realize the imperfections of our own democracy.     

Still, there is equal reason to be hopeful in the Caucasus. How many in the blackout-stricken Georgia of 2003 imagined a life without the beloved electrical generators, or associating the cops with anything but crude shakedowns? At independence, none in the region resembled real countries, but rather territories where the law of the gun reigned supreme. Subsidized bread was fought over by mobs grasping ration coupons. The opening of a new retail outlet, or a new building going up, was looked upon as an object of wonder. 

The interpretation of the meaning of democracy, depending on what we associate with it -- our hopes, dreams, and disappointments -- comes and goes. People have every right to demand the most from their leaders, and the development of real institutions, not personality-based fiefdoms. But in a place where time is measured in longer frames than in the West, few in the Caucasus were foolish enough to believe “democracy” would set in overnight. They and their ancestors have accumulated far too much wisdom to fall victim to such naiveté.   

Editor's note: 
Lawrence Scott Sheets is the South Caucasus project director for the International Crisis Group, and the author of “Eight Pieces of Empire: A 20-Year Journey Through the Soviet Collapse” from Crown.