Wednesday, 05 March 2014

MAIDAN: Lessons for the South Caucasus

Published in Analytical Articles

By Huseyn Aliyev, Emil Souleimanov (the 03/05/2014 of the CACI Analyst)

The turmoil in Ukraine is followed closely not only in Russia, but also across the Caucasus. While part of the population and opposition activists have found a source of inspiration in the capacity of ordinary Ukrainians to topple the corrupt and unpopular regime, possibly paving the way for Ukraine's accession into Western structures, regional elites have demonstrated a more ambiguous approach, ranging from careful endorsement to acute concern.  

BACKGROUND: The recent developments in Ukraine have potential implications far beyond the borders of this vast Eastern European country of 46 million. Concerned about the prospects of upheaval emanating from its own – largely silenced – opposition, Belarusian authorities have advanced a new bill that would free members of the country's special forces of any responsibility for casualties that might arise while deployed in operation. Russian sources suggest that apart from foreign political considerations, the Maidan events have caused concern in the Kremlin over the prospects of its own – currently largely fragmented – opposition movement. In the South Caucasus, too, elites are said to be alarmed by the "revolutionary mood" among anti-regime forces generated by the Ukrainian popular revolt. At the same time, as an Azerbaijani opposition activist put it, "people keep continuously reconsidering the prospects of a 'Maidan' in Azerbaijan," an option that seems to have drawn attention among Armenian opposition supporters as well.

The current situation has a clear precedent, however. It is reminiscent of the aftermath of the 2004 Orange Revolution. Back then, many experts and laymen both within and outside the post-Soviet space interpreted the events in Kiev as a continuation of what seemed to be an evolving trend among post-communist elites to break free from Moscow's firm embrace; move closer to the West economically, militarily and politically; and to introduce liberal economics. In 2011, what has come to be known as the Arab spring reinvigorated Azerbaijan's political opposition; yet their efforts to regain political freedoms, let alone to topple the current regime in Baku, eventually failed. An analogy of Maidan took place in Armenia in March 2008, when as a consequence of clashes between protestors and pro-regime armed units, at least ten protestors lost their lives. In clear resemblance to recent developments in Russia, every time mass demonstrations sought to protest authorities in both Armenia and Azerbaijan in an organized manner, Yerevan and Baku eventually managed to strengthen their control over the population by means of resorting to violence, curtailing political freedoms, and limiting the freedom of media.

IMPLICATIONS: A closer look at the external effects of the Maidan events reveals that they have had a differentiated impact on South Caucasian societies. In Georgia with its extensive experience of largely non-violent anti-regime protests, the foreign political component of the Ukrainian events has drawn particular attention. In Tbilisi, periodical mass demonstrations in support of the Maidan protestors have taken place since November, in which thousands of Ukrainians and Georgians have participated. This has largely followed the idea of Ukrainian-Georgian solidarity that was cultivated in the aftermath of Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution and Ukraine's Orange Revolution the following year that brought to power Mikheil Saakashvili and Viktor Yushchenko, both pro-western leaders who had established close personal ties. Support for the Maidan protestors in Georgian society has been more unequivocal than for Georgia's political leadership during and after the Russo-Georgian war of 2008. As Georgian journalist Ilia Beroshvili has observed, when Russian tanks nearly entered Tbilisi in 2008, there was no such unity in Georgian society as there is currently regarding the Maidan protestors.

In Azerbaijan, the political opposition has been vocally supportive of the Maidan protestors. However, a visit by Isa Gambar, the head of Azerbaijan’s opposition party Musavat, to Kiev’s Independence Square on December 15 in support of the Maidan activists was probably the most notable reaction of the Azerbaijani opposition to the Ukrainian events. Unlike Georgian mass demonstrations in support of Maidan and with the exception of several small-scale opposition-organized protests where calls for Azerbaijan’s integration with the EU have been voiced among other demands, no Maidan-inspired large scale events have so far taken place in Azerbaijan.

The inability of Azerbaijan’s opposition parties, fraught with internal fractions and disagreements, to overcome their differences and mobilize mass support, which in conjunction with the further entrenchment of Ilham Aliyev’s regime also contributed to the opposition’s weak results in last year's presidential elections, have eliminated all prospects for Maidan-inspired protests to occur in Azerbaijan at the time being. According to one senior opposition figure, Ali Kerimli, Azerbaijan will emulate Maidan-style protests “when we are ready to struggle peacefully.” Official Baku's reaction to the events in Ukraine has been reserved and has largely focused on the need to maintain “friendly relations” with a “stable” Ukraine regardless of the outcome of the Maidan protests. In fact, Baku’s cautious policies towards rapprochement with Russia, combined with a generally positive attitude towards cooperation with the EU, offer limited opportunities for the Azerbaijani opposition to rally popular support along either anti-Putin or pro-European rhetoric.

In contrast, in Armenia's capital Yerevan, hundreds of pro-Maidan protesters participated in anti-Putin rallies which took place on December 2, 2013, and coincided with the Russian president’s visit to Armenia. The demonstrators protested against Armenia’s decision to pull out of signing an association agreement with the EU in favor of membership in the Moscow-controlled customs union. Over 100 were arrested when demonstrators tried to reach the headquarters of the presidential administration. A smaller rally of around 100 participants took place in Yerevan on January 24 to commemorate the victims of clashes with police in Kiev. However, similarly to their colleagues in Azerbaijan, Armenia's opposition has made no efforts to stage large scale protests against the regime. Scores of Armenian activists, however, traveled to support and participate in the Maidan protests in Ukraine.

In spite of the growing interest among the Armenian public in closer integration with the EU, demonstrations against Armenia joining the Customs Union were unsuccessful and failed to receive mass support among the population. The Armenian government’s reactions towards the Maidan events were similarly muted: the consensus among both government and opposition-leaning politicians remains in favor of closer Armenian ties with Russia. Some Armenian experts, however, have raised concerns that Ukraine’s withdrawal from economic and political partnership with Russia and its rapprochement with the EU could negatively affect the future of the Kremlin-led Eurasian Union and therefore endanger Armenia’s political and economic stability.

CONCLUSIONS: As for the impact of the Maidan events on the foreign political perspectives of all three South Caucasian counties, the victory of the Ukrainian opposition and the end of Yanukovych’s rule, on the one hand, and the outcome of Russia's efforts to contain the damage of these events to its interests, on the other, may have significant implications for the region. For Georgia, Russia’s efforts to retain its control over Ukraine by all means possible, as demonstrated by its actions in Crimea, may serve as a warning from closer integration with the EU and the West. However, if successful, Ukraine’s integration with Europe would further enhance Georgia’s chances of strengthening its own partnership with the EU and its political and economic independence from Russia. For Azerbaijan, the Maidan events can serve both as a lesson of caution for Aliyev’s regime on the suppression of political rights and, similar to the Georgian case, can result in a continued cautious approach to Western integration. Armenia, regardless of Moscow’s failure in Ukraine, is still more likely to benefit from closer ties with Russia, which guarantees Armenia security and support in its unresolved conflict with Azerbaijan.

AUTHORS' BIO: Huseyn Aliyev is a Ph.D Candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Emil Souleimanov is Associate Professor with the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of Understanding Ethnopolitical Conflict: Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia Wars Reconsidered (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective (Peter Lang, 2007). 

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