Armenia, Georgia Battle Dissimilar Crises

RFE / RL Feature Articles

Wednesday, 14 April 2004

Armenia, Georgia Battle Dissimilar Crises

By Richard Giragosian

Washington, 14 April 2004 (RFE/RL) — The South Caucasus once again faces
the threat of instability as the still-fragile Georgian and the
well-entrenched Armenian governments each face escalating internal
challenges. There are key differences, however, between the Georgian and
Armenian situations that suggest very different trajectories for the two

First, there is a fundamental difference in the nature of the threat faced
by each state. The immediate challenge to the Georgian government posed by
its ongoing confrontation with the assertive leadership of the autonomous
region of Adjaria is only one aspect of a much greater challenge that
constitutes a serious test of legitimacy and authority for the struggling
Georgian state. That threat is further magnified by the loss of territorial
control over the breakaway unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South
Ossetia, and by the steady erosion of authority from the central government
to the regions. Resolving the confrontation with Adjaria is therefore just
one step toward the larger task of reversing this devolution of power and
strengthening Georgian sovereignty by restoring central-government control
over the entire country.

In neighboring Armenia, by contrast, the political opposition is seeking to
dislodge a powerful government apparatus. Unlike the threat to the Georgian
state, the Armenian crisis is more a competition between elites and less a
threat to state authority, although the reaction of the Armenian leadership
undoubtedly creates doubt about the durability of its legitimacy.

The second key difference between the two crises lies in the nature of the
two regimes. Despite a superficial similarity, the political situation in
Armenia today is significantly different from that in Georgia in late 2003,
when President Eduard Shevardnadze was forced from power in a peaceful “Rose
Revolution.” The Georgian transition was unique and holds no real lessons
for Armenia. Regime change in Georgia was the result of a complicated
combination of factors, very few of which are present in Armenia. Most
importantly, the outcome in Georgia was due as much to the weakness of the
state as to the strength of civil society. It was, in other words, a
combination of a power vacuum and a weakened state that presented the
opportunity for the peaceful advent to power of a group of young pro-Western
politicians headed by former Justice Minister Mikheil Saakashvili.

In Armenia, however, the reverse is true. A strong and assertive state is
exercising, without restraint, its powers of control and intimidation
against a traditionally marginalized opposition. The Armenian regime also
differs from its Georgian counterpart in its reaction to the confrontation.
By resorting swiftly to force and coercion, the Armenian leadership has
contributed to a cycle of violence and an “arrogance of power” that can only
bolster the opposition in the long run. But even with the potential of
Armenian civil society, there is no easy or open avenue to confront the
government, despite the illusion of the opposition’s demands for impeachment
and sporadic demonstrations in the streets.

Yet the political situation in Armenia today is more complex than a simple
confrontation between the Armenian government and the political opposition.
There are a number of internal fault lines running through Armenian society
that could determine the course of the opposition-government political

Politics in Armenia is increasingly expressed in a contest between
entrenched elites on the one hand, and a ruling elite happy to rule but
hesitant to govern and an opposition whose appeal lies in the personalities
of its leaders rather than its platform, on the other. This competition of
elites is marked by a struggle for control over the country’s limited
resource base and economic assets, a struggle in which the political
opposition is also a well-established player. The largest and most
significant group excluded from this competition for wealth is the majority
of the Armenian population, which remains impoverished and disenfranchised
from the real political process.

It is this divide between the ruling and aspiring political elite and a
frustrated although largely apathetic and weary Armenian population that
serves as the one potential advantage for the opposition. By tapping
widespread general frustration and mistrust of the incumbent leadership, the
opposition hopes to galvanize their campaign against President Robert
Kocharian as an avenue to power. There is no guarantee, however, that once
in power, the opposition would be any better, or any more honest, than the
government it superseded. More unites the authorities and the opposition
than divides them, and the real struggle in Armenia is for power, not
democracy or social justice.

The fate of democracy in Armenia is, in fact, very much in danger; and the
real challenge to Armenian national security comes from within, not from any
external threat. And as in the case of much of the Caucasus, the Armenian
people remain hostage to the petty politics and shortsighted governance of
their so-called leaders. In many ways, both the state and the opposition are
seeking to rule out of self-interest, instead of seeking to govern in the
national interest. Moreover, the Armenian leadership, through its use of
harsh repression, mass detentions, and the arrogant demonstration of its
“disdain for democracy,” is actually only legitimizing the politics of the
opposition while undercutting its own, waning legitimacy and authority.

But the most important point is that the true test of the stability and
legitimacy of the Armenian government rests in its handling of the current
crisis. The Armenian government might well be the author of its own demise,
by overestimating and overreacting to the perceived threat posed by the