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Chris Smith

Flawed Elections in the Caucasus

  • Hon. Christopher H. Smith
    US












House of Representative

108th Congress, First Session

Mr. Speaker, as we approach the end of session, I would like to take note as Helsinki Commission Chairman of a very disturbing trend in the Caucasus republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. At this very moment, thousands of Georgians are engaging in a campaign of civil disobedience in the wake of the November 2 parliamentary elections. Georgian and international monitors registered large-scale falsification and ballot stuffing, not to mention the exclusion of many thousands of eligible voters. When the Central Election Commission gave the largest tallies to President Shevardnadze’s party and the nominally-opposition but Shevardnadze-allied Revival Party, opposition leaders organized large demonstrations in Tbilisi’s main street. There, in the rain and cold, protesters spent days demanding the President’s resignation and new elections.

Their efforts, born of rage and despair, have been peaceful and the authorities have so far acted with restraint. But Georgia faces a genuine crisis, make no mistake. After ten years of growing frustration at official incompetence and corruption, the country’s impoverished public has begun to resist business as usual. Eduard Shevardnadze, still lionized in the West for helping to end the Cold War as Soviet Foreign Minister, has long been deeply unpopular at home. Demands by successive U.S. administrations and international financial institutions to curb pervasive corruption have gone unheeded. And the November 2 election was a harbinger of the presidential race in 2005, when Shevardnadze will not be eligible to run. All participants and analysts agree that the outcome of this year’s parliamentary contest will influence the coming succession.

How the Georgian drama will play itself out is hard to predict. But it is clear that Georgia is not alone in suffering through a crisis of trust and legitimacy. On October 17, Azerbaijan held presidential elections that, according to OSCE observers, did not meet international norms. Serious clashes between opposition backers and the authorities erupted in which at least one person was killed and hundreds were injured. Law enforcement agencies arrested hundreds of opposition activists; though most have since been released, according to human rights groups, many were beaten in detention. The Azerbaijani election, moreover, marked the transfer of power from President Heydar Aliev to his son, establishing the first family dynasty in the former Soviet Union. But Ilham Aliev has begun his term under a shadow, tainted by an election seen as unfair inside and outside the country and marred by the accompanying violence.

Earlier this year, Armenia held presidential elections in February and parliamentary elections in May that also fell short of OSCE standards. In February, thousands of protesters marched in the snowy streets of Yerevan; perhaps their numbers kept President Robert Kocharian from claiming a first round victory and forced him into a runoff, a first for a sitting president in the Caucasus. Between the two rounds, however, the authorities detained some 200 opposition campaign workers and supporters. On election day, they did whatever was necessary to win in a landslide. The final judgement of the OSCE election observation mission was that “the overall process failed to provide equal conditions for the candidates. Voting, counting and tabulation showed serious irregularities, including widespread ballot box stuffing.” The Armenian Assembly of America on March 18 noted that “the people of Armenia deserved nothing less than the declared aim of their government for free, fair and transparent presidential elections. As reported in depth by the OSCE, this achievable standard was not met.”

There was some improvement in the May parliamentary contest, concluded the OSCE, especially in the campaign and media coverage. Nevertheless, the election “fell short of international standards…in a number of key respects, in particular the counting and tabulation of votes.”

In sum, Mr. Speaker, a discouraging and disturbing record for all three countries, marked by a consistent pattern of election rigging by entrenched elites who have learned that they can “get away with it.” The international community is prepared to register disapproval, by proclaiming these elections, in diplomatic language, to be sure, short of OSCE norms. But there have never been any other consequences for subverting the democratic process. Nor have opposition parties anywhere been able to annul or change the official results of a falsified electoral process, or even compel governments to negotiate with them.

Perhaps Georgia, where the state is relatively weak and discontent widespread, will prove the exception, although it is alarming that President Shevardnadze has sent his sometime rival Aslan Abashidze, who runs the region of Ajaria like a Central Asian potentate, north to gain Moscow’s support. The prospect of Russia propping up a shaky, illegitimate Georgian Government should send shivers down the spine of any American. But until and unless an opposition movement registers some tangible success, the men in charge of the destinies of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia have no reason to change course. What they are doing works and it benefits them, even if it harms their countries’ chances of developing democracy.

Even worse, there is little reason to expect changes for the better. For years, optimists maintained that however discouraging things were, time and constant pressure from Washington and the international community would bring gradual change. As we approach 2004, the 13th year of independence for the former Soviet republics, that prognosis seems increasingly Pollyannaish. The consolidation of ruling groups, determined to remain in power, in control of the state’s law enforcement and judicial agencies, and disposing of significant wealth, makes gradual evolution towards a genuinely democratic mentality and practices ever less plausible. Instead, we see evolution towards what some analysts call “semi-authoritarian” states and others, with reference to the Middle East, term “liberal autocracies.”

Mr. Speaker, this admittedly depressing analysis leads to several worrisome conclusions. First, political opposition and publics in the Caucasus have concluded that electoral processes are hopelessly corrupted and offer no prospect of fairly competing for power or even trying to influence policymaking. Accordingly, they are increasingly inclined to mobilize against their leaders and governments. Even though victories have thus far eluded them, this turn to the “street” bespeaks a perennial politics of resentment instead of compromise and consensus-building. Second, the gulf between rulers and ruled has obvious implications for stability and democracy. Ruling elites will try to tamp down actual protest and curb society’s organizing capability, infringing on their basic liberties; this, in turn, will upset the delicate balance between state and society. Change, when it comes, may be violent.

Steadily losing hope, many Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Georgians will likely opt out of politics altogether. Many others will emigrate if they can. This trend has been marked for years in all three countries; Armenians often try to come to the United States; while Azerbaijanis and Georgians find it easier to move to Russia. But the departure of these highly motivated individuals and their families, who often find ways to prosper in their adopted homes, weakens their homelands.

Washington has observed these tendencies with concern but little action. Democracy-building programs may help develop civil society but have little impact on leaders who pursue their own interests and are quite prepared to dismiss the State Department’s criticism of yet another rigged election, even if, as happened yesterday, the Department, in unprecedentedly strong language, said the Georgian election “results do not accurately reflect the will of the Georgian people, but instead reflect massive vote fraud in Ajara and other Georgian regions.” And while we are preoccupied with Iraq and the war on terrorism, Moscow has been steadily rebuilding its assets in these countries, buying up infrastructure in equity-for-debt deals and offering all possible support to those in power.

Under these circumstances, Mr. Speaker, our chances of influencing political evolution in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia may not be very great. But they will diminish to zero unless we recognize the problem, and soon.

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