Expert Panel Addresses Problems Facing South Caucasus

From November 28 - 29, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation hosted a workshop in Tbilisi on 'Current developments in Azerbaijan and the South Caucasus in light of internal transformations in Turkey.' Meydan TV journalists caught up with participants from the conference later to find out more: 

On November 29 at the Radisson Blu Iveria Hotel in Tbilisi, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung South Caucasus Office held a public panel discussion titled, ’Challenges for Georgia and the South Caucasus arising from current developments in Azerbaijan and Turkey’. The panel capped off two days of meetings and discussions between experts, scientists, political analysts, journalists and civil society representatives from a number of countries.

The public panel was moderated by Julia Bläsius, director of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung South Caucasus Office, and included three speakers: Rashad Shirin, an Azerbaijani, Chatham House academy fellow and researcher at Radboud University, Netherlands; Nigar Göksel, Turkey Project Director for the International Crisis Group and Tornike Sharashenidze, Head of the MA Program in International Affairs at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs.

Illiberal Tendencies

One of the most debated topics in the event and especially during the Q&A session afterwards, was the question of the decline of liberal values in the region. This issue was brought up by Rashad Shirin during his portion of the presentation, and has recently become a topic of interest among scholars and academics, referred to as ‘illiberal’ states, leaders and tendencies. However, both the panel and the audience seemed to agree that this is not a phenomenon unique to Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space, but seems to be an international phenomenon, expressed in the West as well in the forms of Brexit, the election of Trump as president of the USA and growing right-wing populist movements throughout the West.  

What was not agreed upon was the precise significance of this tendency – Mr. Shirin asserted that this is, in fact, a paradigm shift away from the era established after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when every self-respecting state claimed to be a liberal democracy regardless of actions. In his explanation, many states of the post-Soviet space have long been curbing down democracy and freedoms, but previously put on a liberal façade for the sake of receiving Western ‘carrots’. 

Mutual Fatigue

While not everyone in the room agreed with Mr. Shirin’s interpretation, there did seem to be consensus that the West and states like Azerbaijan and Turkey have reached a point of mutual fatigue. The West is frustrated by ‘illiberal’ developments and curtailments of rights and freedoms, whereas the aforementioned states and their populaces are frustrated by myriad demands and a lack of positive stimulus – Ms. Göksel, for example, highlighted frustration in Turkish society with the drawn-out European integration processes and the lack of stimulus provided by visa liberalization. 

Tornike Sharashenidze asserted that Georgian society, on the other hand, remains committed to liberal values and democracy despite some disillusionment with Europe or doubts regarding the fairness of elections. One audience member expressed the hope that perhaps recent developments in the West will help to convince Georgian society of the inherent good of liberal values, rather than their use simply as a key to receiving Western ‘carrots’.

On the topic of mutual frustration and fatigue, Nigar Göksel stated that Ankara’s and Baku’s current shift away from the West and towards Russia is motivated by precisely these sentiments – a bitterness about Azerbaijani and Turkish demands not being taken seriously in the West, and a perception that Moscow is more decisive and assertive. However, she maintained that despite this stall in the eastward movement of Western values and institutions the West is Turkey’s only option in the long run. She stated that, despite posturing, Turkey cannot ‘go it alone’ without risking encirclement by Moscow and damage to the Turkish economy, and in this regard expressed hope that Turkish-Western relations can be salvaged. 

Caught Between Giants

Tornike Sharashenidze summed up the significance for Georgia of all these developments using an amusing analogy: when you are caught between two giants (Russia and Turkey), if the giants make war, you suffer; but if the giants make love, you also suffer! In other words, the best situation for Georgia is one in which there is increased democracy and liberal relations, and strong Turkish-Western relations. This is a situation in which Georgia can serve as a transit corridor and can rely on relations with neighbors to balance one another out, like in the case of the Russian trade embargo, which was neutralized by Turkey implementing a visa-free regime. 

In this respect, Mr. Sharashenidze gave credit to the governing Georgian Dream party, whose foreign policy, in his estimation, has largely consisted of trying not to provoke Russia and trying not to be provoked by Russia. However, he expressed concern regarding how long such a position could be maintained, taking into account regional developments. 

He expressed particular concern regarding the recent resumption of shooting in the Karabakh conflict, noting that Georgia’s neighbors Armenia and Azerbaijan both have military allies (Russia and Turkey, respectively), whereas Georgia is part of no military alliance. In this respect, he stressed that a resumed shooting war between Armenia and Azerbaijan could only end badly for Georgia.

Pressure on Baku

Finally, one audience member raised a question that might be of interest to our readers: stressing a recent worsening of the situation with human rights in Azerbaijan (which has been well-documented in recent articles on Meydan TV) he questioned why Ankara and Tbilisi do not put pressure on Baku to make improvements in this sphere. However, both the Georgian and Turkish representatives expressed doubts in their countries’ abilities to make a difference where the West has failed. And Ms. Göksel further emphasized that Turkish society is unlikely to take an interest in someone else’s democracy at the moment, already being concerned with curtailments of its own democracy, not to mention geopolitical and security issues. In other words, in the short term at least, Azerbaijani society may be left to fight for democracy and civil rights on its own.