Rufat Ahmadzada
Observing the Caucasus, Iran and Middle East

Comparative Analysis of Democracy Promotion Outcomes in Georgia and Azerbaijan

Georgian protestors

Major Factors in Democracy Promotion Outcomes in Georgia and Azerbaijan: Similarities and Differences

While the situation in these neighbouring countries may appear to have been very similar in 2003, if we look a little deeper we can see several key differences.

Leadership: By 2003 Eduard Shevardnadze seemed to have lost his touch as Georgian leader. He had formed an energetic government in 1995, bringing in young reformers, one of whom was the U.S.-educated Mikheil Saakashvili. But by 2000 dissatisfaction was growing with Shevardnadze’s failure to tackle corruption and the poor functioning of the Georgian state and economy. A group of parliamentary deputies from the business community left government in protest. In 2001, Mikheil Saakashvili resigned too, leaving the government and party and taking other young reformers with him. As corruption and the economic situation worsened, Shevardnadze seemed unable or unwilling to take action. Nor were any members of his government able to direct him to tackle the country’s chronic problems. (Welt; Sibilla)

In Azerbaijan, by contrast, President Heydar Aliyev started gradually to tighten his grip on power after the 1995 parliamentary elections. The only departure from senior ranks was that of the chairman of parliament, Rasul Guliyev, in 1996. He resigned his post and left the country quietly, only later establishing himself as an opposition leader from his base in the U.S.A. There was no desertion from the Azerbaijani government on a par with Saakashvili’s. On the contrary, the regime remained united behind Heydar Aliyev and behind plans for his son Ilham to succeed him. In 1995, Ilham Aliyev was elected a member of parliament, and in 2001 he became the head of Azerbaijan’s first delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. In 1997, Heydar Aliyev appointed Ilham vice president of the State Oil Company, SOCAR, ensuring his involvement in negotiations with American and international oil companies. When Heydar Aliyev’s health failed in 2003, his administration had no intention of giving up power. On 1st August 2003, it was announced that Ilham Aliyev would be a candidate in the elections scheduled for October. This was a clear sign that Ilham had been chosen to take over from his father and was reinforced on 4th August when he was appointed prime minister, the country’s most senior position after the president. (Altstadt) Heydar Aliyev was not seen in public after he left the country for treatment at Turkey’s Gulhane military hospital. From Gulhane he was taken to a clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. Heydar Aliyev’s death was announced on 12th December 2003, after his son Ilham had had time to become established as president.

Economy and state: The Georgian state system and economy were struggling in 2003, and chronic problems with the supply of gas and electricity were continuing even in the capital. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, was already receiving revenue from oil production. Power and water supplies in Baku were improving and there was optimism about the future of the economy.

Use of force: Even the name of Georgia’s Rose Revolution reveals its non-violent nature. The street protests were peaceful and the police did not use force, even when Saakashvili and his supporters marched through police and security cordons into parliament. The Azerbaijani regime, on the other hand, had no hesitation in using force to suppress protest.

Opposition – unity and leadership: Both the unity and leadership of the opposition should be considered major differences between Azerbaijan and Georgia in 2003. As a minister in Shevardnadze’s cabinet, Mikheil Saakashvili had earned a reputation as a strong critic of government corruption. After setting up his own opposition party, he emerged as a charismatic politician, able to work with other anti-government forces. As the protests over fraud in the parliamentary elections continued, two other prominent politicians, chairman of parliament Nino Burjanadze and the former chairman, Zurab Zhvania, rallied behind Saakashvili.

In Azerbaijan, by contrast, the opposition was fractured. When Aliyev’s predecessor, Abulfaz Elchibey, died in 2000, his opposition Popular Front split in a fight over who should succeed Elchibey. This added one more party to the four largest opposition parties, and there were many smaller parties too. The infighting among the parties damaged the opposition’s standing in the country. Moreover, the failure of the leading opposition parties to agree on a single candidate to contest the elections, despite meeting in London in August 2003 to discuss their choice, made it much harder for any one of them to challenge Ilham Aliyev. No one leader had the political acumen of Saakashvili, nor his broad appeal.

Political and media freedom: One of the main differences between pre-election Georgia and Azerbaijan in 2003 concerned freedom of assembly, expression and the media. During the election campaign in Azerbaijan demonstrations by the opposition forces were constrained. “An atmosphere of intimidation gravely undercut public participation and free campaigning. This situation was compounded by serious violence and an excessive use of force by police at some stages of the campaign,” the OSCE/ODIHR noted its report (p. 1). Media freedom was also restricted. The Azerbaijani opposition, particularly Ilham Aliyev’s main opponent, Musavat Party leader Isa Gambar, did not get fair air time with almost all media outlets biased in favour of Ilham Aliyev.

“Opposition candidates were mentioned sparingly and often in negative terms. In news and current affairs programs, State owned media failed comprehensively to meet its legal obligation, as set out in the Election Code, to create equal conditions for candidates. Private television stations were similarly biased.” (OSCE/ODIHR, pp.1-2)

What can be considered a game changer in this context is the work of the popular independent Rustavi-2 TV channel in Georgia. Both before and after the parliamentary elections in 2003, Rustavi-2 broadcast interviews with opposition and NGO representatives. Rustavi-2 also financed an independent exit poll, which was unimaginable in the Azerbaijani circumstances. The media in Georgia were able to function relatively freely during the election campaigns. As the OSCE/ODIHR report noted (2003, 2, p. 12), “In Tbilisi, a plurality of print and electronic media operated largely without undue government interference.” Moreover, even in the campaign for the November 2003 elections in Georgia the OSCE/ODIHR found that the rights to free speech, free association, and peaceful assembly were generally respected. (p. 2)

Civil society and NGOs: As mentioned above, a variety of NGOs, both foreign and local, were active in Georgia in the run-up to the parliamentary elections and during the protests. NGOs had become an indispensable part of public opposition to the Shevardnadze government and had benefited from funding from the U.S. government and non-government sources, especially the Open Society Foundation. (Bunce, Wolchik, 2010, p. 42) Perhaps the most important result of U.S. investment in NGOs was their role as election monitors. Forty-five domestic observer organizations were accredited for the Georgian elections, of which ISFED was by far the largest, deploying some 2,500 observers on election day. According to the OSCE/ODIHR observation mission report, observers from ISFED and Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA) “played a crucial role in enhancing the transparency of the election process by conducting a partial, parallel vote tabulation (PVT) according to a dependable methodology”. (OSCE/ODIHR-2, 2003, pp. 15-16)

While Azerbaijan had its NGOs, they were less active than in Georgia and had their hands tied when it came to election observation. The law On Public Unions and Foundations banned domestic organisations that received more than 30 per cent of their budget from foreign state funding from observing elections. NGOs and opposition parties failed to facilitate deployment of a comprehensive electoral monitoring model, so were unable to produce credible alternative results to challenge the official ones. (Bunce, Volchik, 2010, p. 43; OSCE/ODIHR, 2003-1, p. 17)

2 Importance of U.S. Role in Democracy Building to the 2003 Election Outcomes in Georgia and Azerbaijan

As listed above, a number of key factors affected the 2003 elections and their aftermath in both Azerbaijan and Georgia. A specific role of the U.S.-backed democracy promotion programmes in Georgia was in helping political parties and local activists and NGOs improve their campaigning, their understanding of the election system and their ability to train and work as election observers. This turned out to be very important, as the work of the exit pollsters and local observers and creation of a credible parallel vote tabulation were crucial in stoking popular indignation at the fraudulent election results. This indignation fuelled the protests in Tbilisi that were so successfully led by Mikheil Saakashvili. More generally, the NGOs, including the student movement Kmara, and the example of the peaceful overthrow of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic helped to create public awareness of the possibility of change. (Welt; Kandelaki) The importance of U.S. diplomacy is hard to quantify. Despite the U.S. diplomatic pressure to hold free and fair elections, including the visit by James Baker mentioned above, the regime conducted an openly fraudulent poll. However, condemnation of the elections at State Department briefings and the threat to reduce U.S. economic and political support for Georgia, made by the ambassador on Rustavi-2 TV, increased popular concern. The regime’s refusal to use force may also have been encouraged by pressure from the U.S. The ambassador said that he put a lot of time into talks with both officials and leaders of the demonstrations on the importance of resolving the crisis peacefully. (Welt, p. 43; Sibilla, p. 10) It is remarkable that neither the regime nor the protestors resorted to violence during the election protests, especially after the very recent example of Azerbaijan. Moreover, U.S. support helped Saakashvili and his regime to become established in the early days.

Pressure from the U.S. and European organisations led to Azerbaijan adopting new standards in the electoral process in May 2003, although these improvements failed to prevent election fraud. (Altstadt, p.76) The U.S. also supported considerable democracy promotion work amongst NGOs and civil society in Azerbaijan, though it was not on the massive scale that it was in Georgia. There was no student movement in Azerbaijan comparable to Kmara and the local NGOs were smaller and more fragmented than in Georgia. It is hard to say what the effect might have been of more democratisation programmes, but I think it is highly unlikely that the authorities would have allowed the conduct of credible exit polls or the compilation of a parallel vote tabulation. The regime’s work over many years to divide and undermine the opposition is a sign that they had no intention of handing over power. This is confirmed by the use of overwhelming force to break up protests on the eve of polling day and again the following day. The U.S. administration’s initial acceptance of the election result may well have emboldened the regime in Azerbaijan. The stronger words that came later seem to have had little effect on the regime, perhaps because the regime rightly calculated that those comments would not be backed up by action.

After the failure of the Bush administration’s democracy promotion in Iraq, American foreign policy was looking for any history of success in terms of spreading democratic values. This, after all, had been a priority for the Bush administration following the 9/11 attacks. After the Rose Revolution in Georgia, President George W. Bush was keen to use Georgia’s model as a foreign policy success story in order to gain support in the 2004 American presidential elections. He also thought that Georgia’s democratisation would be a clear example of his vision for democracy in the Middle East. During his visit to Georgia in May 2005, President Bush said in an interview, “We are living in historic times when freedom is advancing from the Black Sea to the Caspian, and to the Persian Gulf and beyond.” (Bumiller, 2005) In a speech he described Georgia as “sovereign and free and a beacon of liberty for this region and the world” and said that the success of democratisation in Georgia would send a powerful message to the Middle East and North Korea. (CNN, 2005) President Bush’s call for democratisation from the Black Sea to the Caspian was heard loud and clear in Azerbaijan ahead of the parliamentary elections in 2005, when opposition supporters took to the streets with President Bush’s photos. The opposition did form a more or less united coalition for these elections and managed to gain some public support to imitate Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, but it was not enough to stand against the strong state.

3 Understanding the U.S. Role

So why, when the Bush administration was so enthusiastic about democracy in Georgia, did it not try harder in Azerbaijan? American interest in the energy projects in Azerbaijan also extended to Georgia, as it was an essential part of the export route for Azerbaijani oil. I think the key may lie in stability. Before the elections in 2003 the Georgian state and economy were struggling. U.S. efforts went into both promoting a fair election in 2003 and supporting President Shevardnadze. When Shevardnadze refused to respond to the opposition protests at the election results and Saakashvili seized the initiative, the U.S. administration realised that Saakashvili and his supporters were the most likely force to put together a viable government. The U.S. then put considerable effort into supporting Saakashvili instead. Moreover, Russia made no serious objection at the time. In Azerbaijan, by contrast, the ruling regime showed clearly that they could guarantee stability. Any political change in Azerbaijan or other instability might well have led to a resumption of the “frozen” conflict with Armenia over Mountainous Karabakh, which would have meant greater Russian involvement in the region, which the U.S. did not want. I think another crucial factor was the U.S. administration’s security interests in Azerbaijan as a buffer against Iran. In 2003, moreover, the U.S. seems to have had grounds to hope that Azerbaijan would host a U.S. military base. Sarah Bush’s comments on the effectiveness of a later U.S. democracy assistance programme in Azerbaijan are equally applicable to 2003. She argues that since the Aliyev government uses elections as “a way of ‘shamming the appearance of democratic struggle’ to audiences such as the Council of Europe’, a program that enhances its parliament’s professionalism and reputation seems to play into the regime’s survival strategy.” (Bush, p. 72)

As Bunce and Wolchik write, “Energy politics, strategic geopolitical location and the victory of Hamas in Palestine in 2006 together reduced the priority the United States attached to, say, the defeat of dictators in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Russia and Kazakhstan.” (p.55) I agree that American foreign policy takes into account all of its national interests before providing any support for democracy, as this is evident from observation of the Middle East or former Soviet republics. The U.S. and EU felt they could impose sanctions on Belarus without damaging their other interests. They did not feel this way about Azerbaijan.

The argument of Fareed Zakaria that the U.S. should seek to promote democracy only in countries that have met certain economic conditions does not hold up in this analysis of Georgia and Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan was more economically developed than Georgia, but it was the poorer Georgia that would not accept election fraud and held the more democratic presidential elections in 2004. Another Realist argument against forcing liberal democracy on illiberal societies also comes up short in this study, as Azerbaijani society was no less liberal than Georgian. The striking similarities between the two societies undermine the argument.

The “resource curse” theory, however, fits the bill. I have shown that both production of Azerbaijan’s oil and its export via Georgia were a priority in U.S. foreign policy. Therefore, the U.S. wanted to see stable regimes in power in both countries with which they could do business. Saakashvili seemed a better prospect for stability in Georgia than Shevardnadze. This was a win-win situation for U.S. foreign policy, as with Saakashvili they got a more democratic and more stable regime. In 2003, Azerbaijan was already receiving a significant income from the production and export of oil and the economy was benefiting from a trickle-down effect. The volumes exported via Georgian territory were not large enough at that time to bring tangible change to the Georgian economy. The economic development in Azerbaijan and the optimism about the future of oil revenues and the economy made sections of the population, especially in the capital, more satisfied with their lot and, therefore, less likely to protest strongly against the ruling regime.

It is obviously open to discussion whether Georgia should be considered a democratic country or not, but one thing is clear: it has made progression in the right direction, whereas Azerbaijan has become a dynastic dictatorship.


This project has identified the main aspects of policy under different U.S. administrations towards Azerbaijan and Georgia and the place of democratisation in that policy. The analysis has shown that the failure of democracy promotion in Azerbaijan was the result of a combination of factors, especially the internal strength of the ruling regime and the divisions among the opposition parties. However, American foreign policy had a negative effect on the outcome. Through comparative analysis, I have highlighted similarities and, more importantly, differences between the internal political dynamics of Azerbaijan and Georgia pre- and post-2003. The main concern for the U.S. was to limit Russian and Iranian influence in the region, particularly in Azerbaijan. This concern shaped the contours of its commercial and security cooperation with Azerbaijan. The circuitous route of the BTC pipeline, bypassing Russia and Iran, is a visual demonstration of this policy. As relations with Iran worsened, security cooperation became the focus of U.S. policy in Azerbaijan. When it comes to Georgia, the weakness of the Georgian state under Eduard Shevardnadze at the turn of the century led the U.S. to adopt democracy promotion there as a centrepiece of its policy. Washington thought that greater democracy would make Georgia more stable and ensure the completion of the BTC pipeline. In Azerbaijan the Aliyev regime was much stronger and had worked steadily for several years to undermine and divide the opposition. During George W. Bush’s administration, American efforts to promote democracy worldwide backfired in Iraq. The administration used the regime change in Georgia as a success story to back up its foreign policy. There was a strong linkage between internal and external factors regarding democratisation outcomes. The examples of Azerbaijan and Georgia show that democratisation efforts fail when the right internal factors are not present.


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About the Author
A native of Azerbaijan, I write extensively on political developments in the Caucasus, Iran and the Middle East. City, University of London graduate.