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Looming Instability in the Transcaucasus?

(Washington, DC--January 17, 2003) Western policy-makers should pay more attention to domestic sources of potential instability in the Transcaucasus -- rampant corruption, massive unemployment, dysfunctional democracies, a widening divide between rich and poor, and the imminent political leadership transitions facing Georgia and Azerbaijan -- and less on commercial issues and the U.S.-Russian focus on security. That was the message of analyst Richard Giragosian, who spoke at a recent RFE/RL briefing in Washington.

Giragosian said that in all three of the countries of the Transcaucasus -- Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia -- power is concentrated in the hands of small, clan-based elites, which are fueled and rewarded by corruption. Strong executives rule each of the governments, with weak parliaments and dependent judiciaries. The upper layer of wealthy elites is set apart from an overwhelming majority of people who are poor, powerless and resentful. Civil society is not deeply rooted in the region, and the media is dominated by state-run broadcasters and press outlets and a few harassed, financially vulnerable opposition or independent media.

Armenian politics are dominated by corruption, cronyism and a siege mentality that Giragosian characterized in general as "good government gone bad." The 1999 parliamentary killings and the December 2002 murder of a senior state media official are "aberrations from the otherwise steady course of Armenian democracy." Although he displays a seeming "arrogance of power," President Robert Kocharian is almost guaranteed reelection next month and, according to Giragosian, is in a good position to settle the long-standing conflict over Nagorno-Karabagh. The key to solving the conflict, in Giragosian's view, is to forge a settlement that offers Azerbaijan a "face-saving accommodation."

"Dynastic succession" is the key problem facing Azerbaijan, in Giragosian's opinion, along with the growth of aggressive nationalism and overdependence on the oil sector. President Heidar Aliev, 80, has "anointed" his ill-prepared son Ilham to succeed him. Once "cunning" President Aliev passes from the scene, Azerbaijan may even face civil war -- from elements in the marginalized political opposition or ethnic separatists among the Lezghin and Talysh peoples.

Giragosian said that Georgia may be seen as a "failing state," with federation offering a possible solution to the country's chronic ethnic minority crises in Southern Ossetia, Abkhazia, Adjaria, and most recently, involving the Armenian minority in the southern Georgian region of Javakhetia. Rampant corruption -- which accounts for almost half the economy -- along with a looming succession crisis once 75-year-old President Eduard Shevardnadze leaves office in 2005, led Giragosian to express serious concerns about the future stability of Georgia.