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Sizing up the 'Bush effect' in Armenia and Azerbaijan

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Haroutiun Khachatrian and Alman Mir-Ismail

US President George W. Bush stressed the need for "freedom and democracy" during his visit last month to Georgia. Bush's words have had a noticeably different impact on neighboring states in the Caucasus. In Azerbaijan, where parliamentary elections are scheduled for November 2005, Bush's rhetoric seems to be influencing domestic political developments. The reaction in Armenia, meanwhile, appears far more muted.

In his May 10 speech in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, Bush suggested that Georgia's Rose Revolution in 2003 heralded an era of democracy across the Caucasus. "We are living in historic times when freedom is advancing, from the Black Sea to the Caspian, and to the Persian Gulf and beyond," Bush said. "Now, across the Caucasus, in Central Asia and the broader Middle East, we see the same desire for liberty burning in the hearts of young people. They are demanding their freedom -- and they will have it."

In Azerbaijan, the president's speech resonated broadly, helping to energize opposition political supporters. In an interview shortly after Bush's visit to Georgia, Khagani Huseynli, director of the Azerbaijani Center for Strategic Research, argued that US president's remarks were a signal to the Azerbaijani government that free and fair elections must be held this fall. Accordingly, opposition leaders are taking action designed to ensure Bush's message is heard by President Ilham Aliyev's administration in Baku. On June 4, an estimated 10,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Baku to call for a cleanly contested poll. As they marched, many protestors carried framed photos of Bush.

The US embassy in Azerbaijan welcomed the government's decision to sanction the June 4 rally, which occurred two weeks after police used force to break up a similar opposition protest. "We urge the [g]overnment of Azerbaijan to continue sanctioning public demonstrations, and to meet its other stated commitment to conduct parliamentary elections this fall that live up to international standards," said embassy spokesperson Sean McCormack in a June 6 statement.

Pro-government figures have argued that Bush's May 10 comments contained no message for Azerbaijan. "We know that there are five countries around the Caspian Sea," Mubariz Gurbanli, deputy executive secretary of the governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party (YAP), said shortly after Bush's Tbilisi speech. "I think Bush's hint applies to other countries and not to Azerbaijan. Because there is already a democratic system functioning in Azerbaijan."

In the weeks since Bush's visit, a variety of influential presidential supporters have sought to reinforce the notion that the government is a champion of gradual democratization, and therefore should not be viewed as a regime-change target. In remarks broadcast by ANS television on June 7, YAP Executive Secretary Ali Ahmadov stated that "democratic development is Azerbaijan's strategic choice." The same day, Interior Minister Ramil Usubov offered assurances that the police would conduct themselves "worthily" during the November parliamentary poll, the Turan news agency reported. "Therefore, the opposition should not be expecting a revolution," he added.

An opposition bloc, comprising Musavat, the Popular Front and the Democratic Party, appears determined to press ahead with protest plans. Authorities have already sanctioned a follow-up rally, scheduled for June 18.

In Armenia, the governmental reaction to Bush's speech has been similar to that in Azerbaijan, with President Robert Kocharian's administration insisting that it stands on the side of democratization. Pro-government media outlets in Yerevan have scoffed at the notion, implied by Bush, that Georgia's reform-minded administration could provide an example for countries throughout the former Soviet Union to follow. "By ascribing such a worldwide-historical mission to little Georgia, President George Bush simply paid tribute to [President] Mikheil Saakashvili, a person having messianic ambitions," said an editorial published by Hayots Ashkharh on May 11. "It was a solemn moment, but had no relation to real politics." Many Armenian political analysts view the newspaper as the unofficial mouthpiece of Defense Minister Serge Sarkissian.

At the same time, the reaction of opposition activists in Armenia, in sharp contrast to that of their Azerbaijani counterparts, has been comparatively subdued. Opposition leaders have not attempted to stage anti-government demonstrations during the last month. Instead, their reaction has largely been limited to hopeful rhetoric. Bush's visit may work to the advantage of "a victory of democratic forces . . . to revolution, or to the change of power," Viktor Dallakian, secretary of the opposition Justice bloc told the weekly Yerrord Uzh on May 13.

Bush's visit to Georgia generated little public attention in Armenia, local political observers say, helping to account for the opposition's muted response. Many Armenians do not appear to see the US president as a force for positive change. In a recent survey conducted by the Armenian Sociological Association for the Gallup Institute, only 32 percent of those polled expressed confidence in President Bush, as compared with 87 percent for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Armenia and Russia have long enjoyed a special relationship.

Most Armenians, in fact, paid greater attention to Moscow's May 9 celebration for the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II than to President Bush's speech in Tbilisi. One Yerevan pensioner who did watch Bush's televised visit to Tbilisi echoed the views of many. "I think President Bush was wrong to give such a high mark to modern Georgia," said Torgom. "To name Georgia 'a beacon of liberty' is the same as to declare it the eighth wonder of the world."

Recent actions by US diplomats in Yerevan provide no indication that the White House is ready to support the Armenian opposition's confrontational stance toward the Kocharian administration. Opposition leaders were not invited to the recent opening of the new American embassy in Yerevan, and US Ambassador John Evans has described the Kocharian administration as "headed in the right direction," a qualification not shared by the opposition.

Washington has been similarly careful not to offend Aliyev's administration in Azerbaijan. The recently opened Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline -- a project that stands at the core of US energy policy for the Caspian Sea basin -- explains that US caution in part. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Azerbaijan, which borders on Iran, also plays a growing role in security policy for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Pentagon.

With those considerations apparently in mind, Azerbaijani pro-government media outlets have dismissed opposition hopes for greater attention from the White House as overblown. "At first, they [opposition parties in Azerbaijan] said that President Bush would meet with them. Then, they said that he would meet with the opposition NGOs. And what we see is that President Bush did not even meet with anyone from Azerbaijan," commented the privately owned TV channel Lider TV. Pro-opposition youth groups such as Megam (It Is Time) and Yox (No) traveled to Tbilisi in hopes of catching the president's attention during his May 10 speech in the city's Freedom Square, but, apparently, did not succeed.

US Senator Charles Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, reinforced Washington's support for the Kocharian and Aliyev administrations during his recent tour of Caucasus states. In Baku, Hagel ruled out the possibility of American support for a 'velvet revolution' in Azerbaijan. "The US does not support a 'velvet revolution' and I am not aware of such reports", the English-language AzerNEWS daily newspaper quoted Hagel as saying. In Armenia, the senator said he was "very impressed" with the Kocharian administration's reform record.

Despite Bush's characterization of Georgia as "a beacon of liberty," the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments both seem disinclined to follow the reform example set by Saakashvili's government in Tbilisi. Indeed, several geopolitical factors are exerting force on Georgia to adopt conciliatory positions towards Armenia and Azerbaijan.

With Georgian state coffers slated to receive some $50 million per year from the BTC pipeline, Azerbaijan's importance as an energy producer is likely to restrain any urge by Saakashvili to press for democratization in Baku. In Armenia, complaints from ethnic Armenians in the southern Georgian region of Samtskhe-Javakheti and disputes with the Georgian Orthodox Church over Armenian churches in Georgia appear likely to place similar restraints on Tbilisi's political influence in Yerevan.

Editor's Note: Haroutiun Khachatrian is a Yerevan-based writer specializing in economic and political affairs. Alman Mir-Ismail is pseudonym for a freelance political analyst based in Baku, Azerbaijan.

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