Opinion: US and Russian involvement in recent domestic upheavals in Georgia and Armenia

Russia's dependence on ruling elites in the post-Soviet space reduces its capacity to influence, argues Benyamin Poghosyan in this commentary prepared for commonspace.eu

After the collapse of the Soviet Union the newly independent successor states faced numerous challenges: economic collapse, ethnic conflicts, and a rapid introduction of market reforms which ushered in large scale poverty as well as a quick enrichment of very small portion of the population. At the same time, there was a constant flow of western experts and consultants who were embedded in almost all state institutions. In the first decade of independence there was a vague but widespread perception that the ultimate destination of former soviet republics would be membership of the Euro-Atlantic institutions - EU and NATO. However, since the mid 2000s, as Russia started to reassert itself as a great power and sought to gain the position of regional hegemon, the overwhelming narrative in the West was based on accusations  that Russia  was interfering in the domestic affairs of the post-soviet republics, and attempting to influence their foreign and security policy. The 2008 Russia - Georgia war and 2014 Ukraine crisis strengthened this narrative, of Russia bullying its neighbors and undermining their security and territorial integrity. Armenia's last minute decision to cancel the signing of an Association Agreement with EU, and enter the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) instead, was interpreted as another vivid example of Russian pressure and disregard towards the sovereignty of the newly independent states.

The west and the US in particular, continue their involvement into the newly independent states domestic politics. These actions are explained by the US ambition to promote democracy and the rule of law. Given the recent political tensions in Georgia and Armenia, it is worth analyzing US and Russian policies and actions in this regard. Georgia is the sole strategic partner of the US in the South Caucasus and the two states signed a Charter on strategic partnership in January 2009, just days before the start of the Obama Presidency. On the other hand, Armenia is the only strategic ally of Russia in the region. Yerevan hosts Russian military base and Russian border troops, and is a member of EAEU and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

The United States and Georgia

The latest phase of domestic political crisis in Georgia started just a year ago with the events of the so called "Gavrilov's night". Thousands of Georgians poured into the streets on June 20 protesting against the presence of the Russian MP Gavrilov at the Georgian Parliament sitting on the Speakers' chair.  Riot police were deployed against protestors after their attempt to storm the parliament building. To defuse tensions the chairman of the ruling "Georgian Dream" party and the government's ultimate decision maker, Bidzina Ivanishvili promised sweeping electoral reforms including the introduction of 100 percent proportional system and zero percent threshold for the Parliamentary elections scheduled for October 31, 2020. However, majoritarian MPs of the ruling party rejected constitutional amendments based on this model during a parliamentary vote in November 2019. The opposition blamed Mr. Ivanishvili for "playing a dishonest game" and organized more protests. Immediately after this vote Georgia witnessed a  barrage of criticism in letters from US legislators. In December 2019   Congressmen Adam Kinzinger and Gerry Connolly - Co-Chairs of the US Congressional Georgia Caucus - sent a letter to Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia regarding ongoing protests in Tbilisi. The congressmen stated that they were shocked to hear about the collapse of promised reforms to move to a proportional electoral system, and expressed the hope that Georgian officials would resume negotiations immediately and pass the promised electoral reform package.

On January 21, 2020 four US Congressmen - Adam Kinzinger, Gerry Connolly, Michael McCaul and Eliot Engel - sent another letter to Georgian Prime Minister Gakharia. They criticized the Georgian Dream's perceived political targeting of the US-backed Anaklia Development Consortium, which they said   deterred or prevented investment from American companies in that project. A week later, on January 29, 2020 US Senators Jim Risch, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Jeanne Shaheen, ranking member of the Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation, sent another letter to Mr. Gakharia, in which they expressed concern over recent events that indicated that they perceived as backsliding from Georgia's commitment to build democratic institutions.

On the same day the new US ambassador to Georgia, Kelly Degnan, arrived in Tbilisi and immediately was involved in the negotiation process between the ruling party and opposition launched in late November 2019 and facilitated by the Western diplomats.  US pressure, including subtle hints of possible sanctions against the personal assets of Mr. Ivanishvili, helped nudge the ruling party into signing a deal with the opposition on March 8 to introduce a new electoral system in Georgia. According to the deal the elected Parliament should consist of 120 members elected through the proportional system and 30 members elected through majoritarian system. The electoral threshold for proportional elections was set at 1 percent and a capping mechanism was introduced not to allow any party having less than 40 percent of voter support to form a government alone.

The COVID - 19 pandemic and the declaration of emergency situation for a moment sidelined   domestic political developments in Georgia. However, at the beginning of May another controversy broke out between the authorities and the opposition. In February 2020 the leader of "European Georgia" opposition party, ex-Mayor of Tbilisi Gigi Ugulava was sentenced to three years and two months in prison by the Georgian Supreme Court for the embezzlement of 48 million GEL from Tbilisi Municipal Development fund while in office. On April 13, 2020 former Minister of Defense Irakli Okruashvili was found guilty in the June 20, 2019 rally case, and sentenced to five years in prison by Tbilisi City Court. The Opposition argued that the March 8 agreement had clearly stipulated the release of political prisoners. The Georgian Dream rejected these claims, saying that Georgia had no political prisoners. However, on May 12, 2020 the US Embassy and EU delegation made a joint statement arguing that March 8 agreement consisted of two parts: one focused on the electoral system, and the second devoted to resolving issues that were  related to political interference in the judicial system.

Three days after this statement Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili pardoned Gigi Ugulava and Irakli Okruashvili, stating that despite the fact that she was very well aware of the 'real actions and crimes' of the two former officials, nevertheless, as the president, she was pardoning them for the sake of "the country's interests". On June 21, 2020 the Georgian Parliament adopted the constitutional amendments on the transition to a 120/30 electoral system for 2020 parliamentary polls with the first reading, and on June 23 in the second reading. On June 25 Ambassador Degnan stated that for the US it would be a real accomplishment if Georgia passed the constitutional amendments with full multiparty support, which would show a real commitment to progress in the democratic process and towards creating conditions for fair elections in the autumn. A vote on the third reading is imminent.

Analyzing the political dynamics in Georgia in the November 2019 - June 2020 period, we may assess that there was an active US involvement in Georgian domestic politics, and often the US pushed the ruling party to find a compromise with opposition.

Russia and Armenia

Armenia is the only Russian ally in the South Caucasus, and Russia follows closely developments in Armenian domestic politics. Russia initially reacted quite cautiously to the April - May 2018 "Velvet revolution", and the change of government, in spite of the well entrenched Russian concerns regarding leadership changes in the Post Soviet republics through street demonstrations. There were no visible Russian attempts to prevent Nikol Pashinyan's election as Armenia's new Prime Minister. During the first five to six months after the revolution Armenia - Russia relations were strained, with issues such as the criminal investigation against then incumbent CSTO Secretary General, General Khachaturov; the arrest of the second President of Armenia Robert Kocharian who was perceived in Russia as the architect of the Armenia - Russia alliance; the launch of criminal cases against leading Russian companies working in Armenia - Gazprom Armenia and South Caucasus Railway complicating the relationship. However, the biggest concern for Russia probably was the appointment of several overt anti-Russian civil society activists into leading positions in the new government. These persons were toughly criticizing Russia in 2008-2018 accusing it of anti-Armenian policies, and of exporting rampant corruption and an oligarchic system of government into the former Soviet republics. They were calling for Armenia to leave the CSTO and EAEU, expel the Russian military base, and even arguing for revolution in Russia itself to topple the authoritarian rule of President Putin.

Despite this, except for some statements by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, calling for a halt to the criminal persecution of representatives of the former ruling elite, and the decision to increase the price of Russian gas for Armenia by 10 percent in January 2019, there were no active anti-Armenian measures implemented by Russia. Bilateral relations slightly improved in late 2018-2019. Russia delivered four advanced SU 30SM military jets to Armenia in late December 2019, and on December 31 an agreement was signed to keep the gas price for Armenia at level of 2019 until the end of 2020.

Tensions in Armenian domestic politics started to rise again at the beginning of June 2020. Several opposition parties established before the May 2018 events, or since, demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Pashinyan, accusing him of total failure in the fight against COVID - 19. These forces called for the formation of an interim government of national unity. It should be mentioned that Armenia has the worst indicators in the region on COVID-19. On June 5, the chairman of the biggest opposition party "Prosperous Armenia", and one of the wealthiest persons in Armenia, MP Gagik Tsarukyan voiced his support for these demands. A week later the National Security Service launched several criminal investigations against him, and the National Assembly deprived him of his immunity.

Meanwhile, on June 22, within several hours the ruling "My step" faction of the Armenian National Assembly adopted in the first and then in second and final hearings a package of constitutional amendments firing three judges of the constitutional court who had already served 12 year terms. The two opposition factions in the Parliament boycotted the session and claimed that the decision was anti-constitutional. On June 24 representatives of "Prosperous Armenia", the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, and the newly established "Motherland" party, agreed to establish a working group to elaborate a Road Map on joint activities to restore the constitutional order. It should be noted that "Prosperous Armenia" has partner relations with Russia's ruling party, "United Russia" and Tsarukyan's business interests are closely intertwined with Russia. Furthermore, the Chairman of "Motherland" party, Artur Vanetsyan, argues for strengthening the Armenia - Russia strategic alliance. Vanetsyan was the first post revolutionary head of the Armenian National Security Service, and the revolution's hero in its fight against old corrupted elites, but fell out with Pashinyan and was fired in September 2019. However, even during these dramatic events in June 2020 the Russian embassy in Armenia remained quite restrained in its actions. On June 17, the Russian ambassador in Armenia, Sergey Kopirkin, met with two MPs from 'Prosperous Armenia" party, but no statements on domestic political developments were made. On June 19 the Ambassador met with a representative of the ruling "My Step" faction, the deputy speaker of Parliament Alen Simonyan, as well with the leader of the "Bright Armenia" opposition faction, MP Edmon Marukyan.  Again, after these meetings there were no public statements calling Armenian authorities or opposition parties to make or refrain from certain actions, and there were no efforts to launch negotiations between the ruling party and opposition through Russian mediation, as was the case with American embassy in Georgia. On June 18 the foreign relations commission of the   "United Russia" party's General Council expressed its concerns regarding the developments around 'Prosperous Armenia" party and its leader Gagik Tsarukyan. However, there were no direct letters to the Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan urging him to change his stance. 

Thus, taking into account the open source information, it should be mentioned that the US through its legislators and embassy was quite actively involved in the recent domestic political developments in Georgia.

As for Russian actions in Armenia, it should be noted that Russia usually works with former soviet republics' through ruling elites, and has no experience of cooperation with opposition parties or with representatives of civil society. Given that Armenian civil society is mostly pro-Western, and many of its representatives are now part of the government, even if the Kremlin would like to change its tactics and work with Armenian civil society to put pressure on Pashinyan's government it would face significant obstacles. In its actions in the post-Soviet space Russia lacks the soft power tools that are available to the US, and finds itself having to reassess its tactics in the face of the current political developments in Armenia.   

source: Benyamin Poghosyan is the Founder and Chairman of the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan

photo: Russian and Armenian tanks during joint drills in Armenia (archive picture)

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