Georgia Pushes Friendship, Not Revolution with Azerbaijan
By Jahan Aliyeva: 10/31/05

After US President George W. Bush this May described Georgia as a "beacon of liberty" for neighboring countries, considerable speculation focused on how President Mikheil Saakashvili would interpret this role. Azerbaijan, which will hold parliamentary elections on November 6, appeared as one likely test case. But Georgian analysts and political figures now say, that in the case of Azerbaijan, the Saakashvili government prefers to keep Georgia's beacon under wraps.

One influential member of the ruling National Movement Party argued that while Georgia supports free and fair elections in Azerbaijan, attempting to promote democratic change in its oil-rich neighbor would constitute unwarranted interference in another country's internal affairs.

"What happened in Georgia in November 2003 was by the will of the Georgian people and it would be wrong . . . to impose that experience on other countries. Each country decides its fate itself," said Giga Bokeria, a National Movement Party member of parliament who played a leading role in the 2003 Rose Revolution.

At the same time, Bokeria cautioned, Georgia's own democratic experience is far from deep. "We cannot teach democracy because we are not an established democracy yet, even though our country was honored to be called a "model for democracy" by Bush. We are in the process of [becoming a] democracy," Bokeria said.

Such statements could prove reassuring to Azerbaijan's government and ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party. Both have frequently stressed that the country's parliamentary elections will not follow the example of parliamentary votes in Georgia in 2003, in Kyrgyzstan in 2005, or of Ukraine's presidential vote in 2004, which all ended in revolution.

Saakashvili himself has taken pains to emphasize the positive in his joint appearances with Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev. At the October 12 opening ceremony of the Georgian section of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, President Saakashvili described Georgia's relations and interests with Azerbaijan as "developing" and "growing."

"I am glad to see that Azerbaijan has a leader [President Ilham Aliyev] who not only represents a great hope for his people and whose achievements are obvious, but who is also a man very close to Georgia," the Georgian president said.

One Georgian opposition leader sees another reason for Georgia's amicable relations with Aliyev. The $50 million per year in transit and sale fees that Georgia will collect from the BTC pipeline and similar revenue expected from the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline dictate the Saakashvili policy on Azerbaijan, argued Tina Khidasheli, a leader of the Republican Party. "Democracy is very important, but economic interests are more important than democracy," Khidasheli said.

But while many observers in Georgia concede that the 1,770 kilometer-long BTC pipeline can be listed as one of the reasons behind Georgian reluctance to promote reform in Azerbaijan, others argue that it is not necessarily the highest priority for relations between the two states.

"Georgia stands to earn some $50 million a year in transit fees, which is less that 5 per cent of its annual budget. This is small in comparison with the billions that Azerbaijan expects to have from the transport and sale of oil," said Gia Nodia, a political analyst for the Tbilisi-based Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development.

Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, however, termed the BTC pipeline "a foreign policy priority because BTC will decrease Georgia's dependence on Russia."

Nonetheless, Nodia cited the roughly 290,000 ethnic Azeris who live in Georgia, the country's largest ethnic minority, as exerting a stronger influence on Saakashvili's ties with Azerbaijan since any tension between the two leaders could have an affect on the Azeri community's attitude toward the Georgian government. "[Saakashvili] tries to keep good relationships to the maximum," Nodia said.

Most recently, that focus on friendship has led to a pledge by Georgia, following an October 27 phone call from Aliyev to Saakashvili, to provide Azerbaijan with equipment needed for the inking of voters' fingers in the November 6 parliamentary vote.

Ultimately, Nodia continued, Saakashvili wants to make clear to Azerbaijan that it is not interested in a power change. "Saakashvili's style of taking power is seen as a bad precedent in Azerbaijan, so by taking such a position [of friendship toward Aliyev] Saakashvili wants to say 'Don't worry, I'm not an enemy,'" Nodia said.

While Georgia under Saakashvili sought to build a strong relationship with the leaders of Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution, no such overtures appear to have been made to the Azerbaijani opposition. Similarly, strong cooperation between Azerbaijani and Georgian youth groups - a factor of some concern for pro-government groups in Azerbaijan - has also failed to materialize, commented Giorgi Meladze, a program director at Tbilisi's Liberty Institute, which has ties with the youth movement Kmara (Enough).

While Kmara has had relations with Azerbaijani youth organizations, Meladze said, "it did not develop into close connections because they [the youth organizations in Azerbaijan] were not well organized and lacked a clear strategy."

Ukraine and Azerbaijan, commented the National Movement's Bokeria, "are different cases." Former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma's government, Bokeria said, "was a harsh dictatorship in the middle of Europe and it is impossible to make any parallels between them [Aliyev and Kuchma].'

The international community, however, has been outspoken in its criticism of the conduct of Azerbaijan's election campaign. While expressing strong approval for a recent decree by President Aliyev that provides for inking voters' fingers to prevent duplicate votes and allowing foreign non-governmental organizations to act as monitors, the assessment of other aspects of the political situation in Azerbaijan has been more critical.

In its report on events between September 24 and October 7, the Organization For Security and Cooperation in Europe's Observation Mission touched upon the "disproportionate restrictions placed on several election rallies across the country" and expressed concern that the bans violate Azerbaijan's freedom of assembly law and a May 2005 presidential decree that instructed officials to provide for free and fair elections.

The European Parliament on October 27 also condemned Azerbaijan's treatment of opposition protesters and called for the release of opposition activists arrested during the protests.

The Liberty Institute's Meladze commented that ultimately reforms in Azerbaijan depend more on the resolution of such human rights issues. "If they [Georgia and Azerbaijan] strive to become members of the European Union then human rights issues must be a priority for each of them," Meladze said. "[T]he transformation to democracy depends on how strong civil society is in the country."

Editor's Note: Jahan Aliyeva is a Tbilisi-based freelance journalist.

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In a possible tribute to Georgia's peaceful Rose Revolution the
Azerbaijan opposition movement has adopted a red carnation as its
rallying symbol for the upcoming parliamentary elections. (EurasiaNet
photos by Sophia Mizante)