“Democracy in Azerbaijan is at least no worse than in Georgia, but the comparison with Armenia is almost impossible,” said Khazar Ibrahim, the head of the press service of the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs (www.day.az, April 29). This statement came as a result of presidential elections in Armenia and the shattered situation with democracy and human rights in that country. For Azerbaijan, this turn-around seems to bring more self-confidence, as well as positive hopes for a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
For many years the international community has been rating Armenia’s democratic developments ahead of those in Azerbaijan. Rankings used by prestigious organizations such as the Heritage Foundation, Freedom House and others indicated that Armenia had made more progress toward democracy than Azerbaijan. Although serious doubts remained about the methodology and indicators used for these rankings, the general public seemed to trust them, both at home and abroad.
This had several negative implications for Azerbaijan and for regional security. On the one hand, many foreign governments and international organizations have justified the occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh by Armenia with the fact that Armenia enjoyed higher democratic standards. The United States Congress even openly declared support for sanctions on Azerbaijan, citing human rights problems, although the official text of the sanctions had nothing to do with the domestic developments, but rather the military situation between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Now, however, the situation seems to have changed. What was expected to be a smooth transition of power from former President Robert Kocharian to his closest political ally, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, has become one of the most serious cases of political turmoil since the country’s independence in 1991. Officially, Sarkisian received a little more than 52 percent of the votes cast, with opposition arguing that there needed to be a second round. The opposition protested. The police and army reacted brutally. Tanks were brought in and bullets were used against the demonstrators. As a result, eight people were killed and more than 100 were severely wounded. The Kocharian-Sarkisian regime imposed martial law and arrested more than 200 opposition activists. Media censorship, including on the Internet, was imposed in the country.
The situation has severely damaged the image of Armenia abroad. The governments of Norway and the United States, and international organizations such as the OSCE, the Council of Europe and others have expressed deep regret about the events in Yerevan and have urged Armenian authorities to use democratic means to build political dialogue and consensus in the country.
These recent developments, if closely analyzed, do not stand alone from the rest of Armenia’s post-Soviet history. The use of violence for political purposes has been a frequent feature in the Armenian political arena. In 1997 President Levon Ter-Petrosian was forced to resign by an internal coup headed by Robert Kocharian, who was then Prime Minister, and backed by the defense and security ministers. In 1999 gunmen stormed parliament and killed the speaker of parliament, the prime minister and dozen more MPs and government officials. It is still unclear who was behind these gunmen and what were they trying to achieve. Analysts believe, however, that the murder of these high-profile officials was aimed at empowering former President Kocharian and undermining the peace process around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. There are also other examples in the history of Armenia of the use of violence and terror for political purposes.
These undemocratic developments in Armenia—the use of violence and a brutal crackdown on the opposition activists—will affect the future of the country and the region in a number of areas, including political stability, economic prosperity and the state of democracy. The biggest blow to Armenia, however, will be with regard to the process of negotiations over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Azerbaijan, having achieved political stability, enjoys the highest GDP growth in the world at 35 percent (Ministry of Economic Development website), maintains absolute sovereignty over its foreign policy (enjoying very good, but equal, relations with both the West and Russia) and is making further advances in political freedoms and democratic standards.
Armenia, on the other hand, has nearly fallen into complete dependence on Russia, both politically and economically, sees itself increasingly isolated from regional transportation and energy projects, continues to struggle with the economy and trade and now has also proven that the state of democracy in the country has greatly worsened.
Under these conditions Azerbaijan’s self-confidence is rapidly increasing, and it is likely that this will have an impact on the future of the negotiation process as well. Azerbaijan no longer sees itself as “second-rate” country, and its growing capacities will push it to be more principled. It will also bring more international pressure on Armenia, as the West is increasingly irritated by the sharp drop of democratic standards in that country.