What do protests in Georgia and Armenia tell us about democracy?

The Georgian and Armenian political crises show the pitfalls of two very different democratic transitions.

A protesters' tent during a rally demanding the resignation of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan held by the opposition Movement to Save the Motherland outside the offices of the National Assembly of Armenia, Yerevan, Armenia, March 10, 2021 [File: Lusi Sargsyan/TASS via Getty Images]

The similarities in images of protesters camped in tents in Armenia and Georgia over the past few months amid political crises in both countries have been striking. They are signs of the political openness and liberalisation in both the states which share a long history of authoritarian Soviet and Russian imperial rule.

But while “tent politics” certainly signals democratic breakthroughs, it also highlights persistent state weakness in both countries, where the opposition sees limited utility or interest in channelling its disagreements with the governing parties through official state institutions. But finding institutionalised solutions is the key to resolving both political crises.

Different circumstances

Georgia has been in a political deadlock since the fall, when the opposition United National Movement (UNM) disputed the fairness of the parliamentary elections won by the governing Georgian Dream (GD). Thus far, European and American mediation has failed to produce a resolution. The animosity between these two main political parties in the country runs deep and has been years in the making.

In Armenia, the governing Civil Contract party, which came to power after the country’s most recent Velvet Revolution in 2018 has been pitted against a coalition of more than 17 opposition parties and their supporters, referring to themselves as Homeland Salvation Movement. Raging public anger at the government’s handling of the devastating 2020 war in Nagorno-Karabakh has been the backdrop of this crisis. Amid repeated calls for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s resignation, in March, the government finally called for early parliamentary elections announced for June 20, 2021.

The protesters in Georgia and Armenia are of different political lineage and enjoy vastly different levels of support from their respective societies. Georgia’s street protesters hail from a broader political spectrum, united in challenging the October 2020 parliamentary results. Most of the attention, however, has focused on the country’s second-largest political party, UNM, whose leader, Nika Melia, was arrested in February. Prime Minister Giorgi Gakahria resigned after the arrest, but his decision to walk away empowered more hardline elements within GD who are against making any concessions.

By contrast, Armenia’s “tent coalition” is a noisy minority, representing many elements from the political forces that were in power before the Velvet Revolution. A February 2021 poll by the International Republican Institute reported less than 10 percent combined support for all the political parties that have been involved in the protests. The public discontent against the government seems not to translate into support for other parties, especially for those representing the interest of the previous regime. Thus, the protests in Armenia lack a broad social base of support, likely because some of their leaders advocate for anti-constitutional moves to depose the government.

Yet, unlike in Georgia, a consensus for early elections in Armenia emerged after a few months of grinding negotiations between the president, the prime minister, and the majority and opposition political parties in the parliament. Importantly, an early parliamentary election seems to be a compromise, after intense campaigning by the opposition in favour of technocratic and temporary government led by a former prime minister tied to the protests.

Such technocratic solutions would have amounted to a power grab through the back door and would have derailed Armenia from its democratic path. Indeed, the push for technocratic, as opposed to elected officials, is emerging as an indicator of democratic declines around the world. For now, at least, Armenia appears to have dodged this bullet.

Two paths of state-building

The current political crises in Georgia and Armenia betray deeper problems of weak statehood, albeit with significant differences. Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003 wiped the slate clean. Under the leadership of newly elected President Mikheil Saakashvili, significant constitutional changes were pushed through. With strong Western support, he embarked on technocratic state-building that often skirted the political processes needed to make the institutional reforms stick. As a result, state institutions remain weak in Georgia, creating a volatile political system where outsized personalities and parties dominate the public space.

After delivering initial reform success in a few areas, Saakashvili’s technocratic state-building approach resulted in splits within the ruling elite, attacks against the opposition and purges of the civil service. Judicial independence has remained elusive since then, and party loyalty – whether to UNM or the GD – reigns supreme. As in many other corners of the world, Georgia’s party polarisation has proven crippling for state autonomy: the two main political factions have been locked in a struggle to control state institutions.

Western support to Georgia has helped stabilise its democratic trajectory at times, but also shielded Georgian leaders from the political wrangling and the give-and-take with the opposition, needed to lock in democratic gains. The Western-backed, geopoliticised democratic transition in Georgia, while magnifying the political influence of the Western policy establishment, has failed to translate into stable state-building.

Armenia’s statehood problem is somewhat different. Its “do-it-yourself” democratisation within Russia’s security orbit has its own risks and opportunities. Armenia’s democratic opening in 2018, in contrast to Georgia’s, did not wipe the state clean. The Velvet Revolution unfolded without challenging the state institutions, and within the flawed but established constitutional order it confronted.

With little Western guidance and deep grassroots social support, the post-Velvet reformist government enjoyed a parliamentary majority to advance legislation swiftly. The country, for example, registered a 15-point improvement since 2012 in its corruption perception index. Its tax-to-GDP ratio, a key measure of state capacity, has been on an upward trajectory since 2004, spiking after the 2018 democratic breakthrough. Still, broad-based policy implementation via administrative structures of the state, parts of which remained under the control of forces of the previous regime, has proven slow and difficult. And after the war, public trust in key political institutions has seen a dangerous decline.

Georgia’s experience shows that there are no quick fixes and technocratic solutions for state-building. Yet, with party polarisation dangerously institutionalised, revitalised grassroots support and civic engagement can buy time and political momentum for party politics to deepen and regroup in the country.

Armenia shows the value of bottom-up and incremental reform politics, rooted in the messy politics of give-and-take. Here snap elections remain important to repair the post-war drop of public support for political institutions. But the country is still a long way from achieving institutional resilience of the state, which only regular and consecutive electoral cycles can produce over time.

In both cases, strengthening democratic institutions, through democratic measures including successive electoral cycles, is the path to stronger statehood.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.