Combustible Caucasus
Combustible Caucasus
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

Combustible Caucasus

While most of the world was watching the elections-cum-coronation in Russia earlier this month, in a far corner of the former Soviet empire, the fallout of another fraudulent poll left at least eight dead and over a hundred injured. Sadly, the violence in the wake of Armenia's presidential election, though a first in the streets of the capital Yerevan, follows a dangerous pattern now all too familiar in the South Caucasus.

The oft-repeated scenario goes like this: First, irregularities and allegations of fraud mar elections. Then, the opposition organizes mass demonstrations in protest. Finally, the police are sent out and use excessive force to beat protesters off the streets. This has become such a routine in Armenia and Azerbaijan that the parties facing the polls now seem to spend as much time preparing for the post-election showdown as campaigning for votes. The same also appears to be underway in the run-up to May's parliamentary elections in Georgia, where a government crackdown on peaceful protests in November set the scene for January's presidential poll.

Few in the region believe they can change the government peacefully through the ballot box. Too many elections have been spoiled by bad or very bad counting, intimidation of opposition activists, ballot-stuffing, multiple voting, biased election commissions, use of state resources to support the government-backed candidate, and skewed media coverage during the campaign. Rather then fully investigate claims of election-related violations, the country's elections bodies and courts dismiss them.

This was not the post-Soviet reality many had hoped for. After the South Caucasus republics won their independence following the Soviet Union's collapse, everyone spoke of their transition to democracy. Several wars and many sham elections later, the transition seems stalled at best.

The international community is partially to blame. Election observation in this region is the remit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, but many international observers do not wait for the OSCE's full and final assessment before casting judgement themselves. Foreign parliamentarians participating in the short-term yet high-profile side of monitoring the election-day voting are often too eager to give a seal of approval to the poll. Their aim is usually political: To support the incumbent or government-backed candidate in the name of "regional stability" or simply to help keep particular allies in power.

But the OSCE has another arm, the far more technocratic Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, ODIHR, which is on the ground for weeks or even months to evaluate how the elections are run. Their staff do not grab the kind of headlines the visiting dignitaries do, but their judgements are usually far more credible.

The result of this dual assessment is that the international community often first embraces the government's election result, thereby bolstering their claim to legitimacy, only to later release a detailed account of violations tarnishing that victory. Both winners and losers thus have their arguments reinforced, further eroding trust in the process.

In Armenia, this scenario has played out once more, with Western leaders again preferring to support incumbents or their preferred successors who appear to represent "stability." Soon after the poll, the EU's Commissioner for Foreign Relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, declared that, "considerable progress had been achieved," while commending the people of Armenia and its leaders on their victory.

ODIHR, under pressure from Russia and other states who want to weaken its election observation methodology, released a relatively mild preliminary statement saying the election was "mostly in line" with Armenia's international commitments. Even so, it documented serious abuses, including partisan election commissions, pressure on public sector employees to vote for the pro-government candidate, allegations of vote buying, and a biased media.

As a result Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian claimed victory with 53% of the votes, while former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, who got 21%, refused to concede defeat and called for the inevitable street protests.

Mr. Ter-Petrossian was probably trying to follow the model of the color revolutions in Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004). After fraudulent polls and in the face authoritarian leadership, the Armenian opposition felt that it could change things by getting people into the streets, as happened in those neighboring countries. But when governments are willing to respond to protests with excessive force, this formula often doesn't work, as we have seen in Azerbaijan (2003), Georgia (2007) and now Armenia, and puts the opposition in peril.

We're likely to watch this show again in Georgia's parliamentary elections in a few months time and autumn's presidential poll in Azerbaijan. Unless, that is, the EU and the U.S. take a new tack by supporting these countries' institutions rather than individual leaders. They need to make it clear that another round of fraudulent elections will not be tolerated, and that censure rather than handshakes will be on offer for those who try to steal elections.

Seventeen years after the fall of the Soviet Union, all these countries should know by now how to conduct a proper poll. It is time for local authorities, and their foreign partners, to show the necessary political will to restore trust in the democratic process to avoid further bloodshed in the South Caucasus and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.

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