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What do Aliyev, Ivanishvili and Zelenskyy have in common?

There is a recurring pattern among some of Russia’s neighbours. Centrists look to avoid a confrontation with Moscow, while national democrats tend to blame it for their ills.

November 24, 2020 - Taras Kuzio - Articles and Commentary

Meeting between President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in Baku in late 2019. Photo: The Presidential Office of Ukraine (cc) wikimedia.org

Although Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine have different political systems, their leaders seem to promote similar foreign policies designed to avoid conflict with Russian President Vladimir Putin. They all seek to pursue pro-Western foreign policies while not agreeing to integration into Eurasian institutions without at the same time irritating Russia, a difficult balancing act for each country with frozen conflicts initiated by Russia on their territories. This centrist balancing act should be viewed as different to the mono-directional foreign policy pursued by national democracies in all three countries who had very bad relations with Russia.

At the same time, the political systems of these states are all dominated by centrist ‘parties of power’ and centre-right national democratic forces, with oligarchs operating in both camps. All three countries even have ‘frozen conflicts’ on their territories that are either the product of Russian-backed proxy forces (Georgia, Ukraine) or Russian support for invading states (Armenia).

Centrists and national democrats have adopted fundamentally different approaches to dealing with these frozen conflicts and the reason for this hinges on different approaches to dealing with Russia. Centrists have held their noses and tried to not say or do anything which would irritate Russia and President Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, national democrats have gone ahead without taking into account Putin’s concerns and have repeatedly blamed ‘Russian imperialism’ for past occupations of their countries and current trevails.

National democrats were in power in Azerbaijan during 1992-93, when Abulfaz Elchibey lost control over Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding Azeri territories. As the former head of the Azerbaijani Popular Front, Elchibey’s abrasive foreign policy towards Russia likely played a key role in ensuring his short tenure as president. The centrist presidents Heydar and Ilham Aliyev have avoided such a fate. Both have been much more cautious in dealing with Russia and have gone out of their way in not having bad relations with Putin. This has paid off for Baku. In the 44-day Armenian-Azerbaijani war in September-October of this year, Baku successfully returned seven regions and southern Nagorno-Karabakh without Russia intervening to halt their forces. This showed to Azerbaijani leaders that their centrist balancing worked better in dealing with Russian concerns.

Nationalists and national democrats have dominated Georgian politics for eleven of its nearly three decades of independence. During 1991-92, firebrand nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the leader of Round Table-Free Georgia, was killed in office during the country’s civil war. In comparison, Mikhail Saakashvili and Nino-Burjanadze, both from the national democratic United National Movement (UNM), were able to rule Georgia from 2004-13. All three Georgian national democratic leaders had very bad relations with Russia; indeed, Saakashvili (unlike both Aliyev’s) seemed to go out of his way to irritate Putin. In August 2008, Putin sought to topple Saakashvili when Russian tanks headed to Tbilisi with the intention of regime change; they only halted their advance after the US raised diplomatic protests and sent humanitarian assistance in military cargo planes.

Centrists did rule Georgia for a longer period of fifteen years. Former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnazdze, head of ‘Union of Citizens of Georgia’, ruled the country for eight years until 2003. Giorgi Margvelashvili and Salome Zourabichvili, both from the Georgian Dream party, have led Georgia since 2013. The centrist party entered government a year after it was launched by Georgian oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, who controversially made his huge fortune in Russia, the origins of which remain obscure.

Centrists and national democrats continue to be the only considerable political forces in Georgia. In this month’s parliamentary elections, Georgian Dream won with nearly half (48.23 per cent) of the vote, whilst UNM gained just over a quarter (27.16 per cent) of electoral support. Opposition parties have though contested the vote. All three Georgian centrist leaders have sought to pursue an Azerbaijani-style multi-vector foreign policy by being simultaneously pro-Western while seeking good (‘normal’) relations with Putin and Russia.

Despite the image of Ukrainian politics as dominated by revolutions and nationalists, its politics have also been dominated by centrist leaders and parties. Between 1991-04, both Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma were allied with a wide range of centrist parties. One of these groups, the NDP (People’s Democratic Party), failed to become a party of power. Kravchuk and Kuchma pursued multi-vector foreign policies that sought – as with Georgian and Azerbaijani centrists – integration with the West and cooperation with Russia. Kuchma and Putin had good relations.

After the 2003-2004 Orange Revolution, national democrats led Ukraine under President Viktor Yushchenko. Yushchenko’s support for Ukraine’s first attempts at decommunisation, elevation of the Holodomor as a genocide committed by Moscow against Ukrainians, rehabilitation of anti-Soviet nationalists, expulsion of Russian diplomats for espionage, support for Saakashvili in Georgia’s August 2008 war with Russia, and mono-vector foreign policy of NATO and EU membership inevitably led to five years of very bad relations with Russia and Putin.

In August 2009, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev demanded Ukraine’s next (centrist) president ‘correct’ Yushchenko’s ‘nationalistic’ policies by accommodating Russia’s concerns. For Russia, Yushchenko the national democrat was the aberration to how the Kremlin believed Russian-Ukrainian relations should look after they had been exemplary during centrist Kuchma’s decade-long presidency. Medvedev’s ‘corrections’ were duefully implemented by former Party of Regions leader Viktor Yanukovych’s four year presidency from 2010-2014 which returned Ukraine in the Kremlin’s eyes to centrist ‘normality’ .

After the 2013-2014 Euromaidan Revolution, Russia described Yanukovych fleeing from Kyiv as an ‘illegal coup’ which brought to power ‘nationalists’ of the same anti-Russian vein who had been in power in the Yushchenko era. The Kremlin felt a sense of de ja vu made worse by the international crisis following its annexation of Crimea and hybrid warfare operations in eastern Ukraine.

The Kremlin failed to understand that its military aggression against Ukraine had destroyed the centre ground in Ukrainian politics pushing centrists such as Petro Poroshenko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk into the national democratic camp. There was no other show in town in Ukraine except being anti-Russian. From 2014-2019, Ukraine was led by a national democratic coalition dominated by Yatsenyuk’s Popular Front, the Poroshenko bloc and Samopomych (Self Reliance).

In 2019, Russia could have capitalised on the election of centrist Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the newly created Servant of the People party which were both were hugely successful in the presidential and pre-term elections. But, Putin did not moderate the Kremlin’s tough negotiating stance over the Donbas war and many peace overtures undertaken by Zelenskyy have failed to lead to a breakthrough. Moscow has probably concluded that what it perennially touts as ‘Russophobia’ is too deeply entrenched in Ukraine and Zelenskyy too weak a leader to escape the clutches of ‘nationalists.’ The Russian media depicts Zelenskyy as a ‘puppet of Ukrainian nationalists’ and Ukraine as a ‘puppet of the West.’

As aforementioned, the domestic and foreign policies of these three states all now revolve around frozen conflicts involving Russia and how to have ‘normal’ relations with Russian presidents, especially with the more nationalistic Putin.

Frozen conflicts and dealing with Russia

Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine have dealt with their frozen conflicts differently and of the three it is no coincidence that centrist-run Azerbaijan has been the most successful in retaking its territory. National democrats in Georgia arguably made the situation in their frozen conflicts worse after Saakashvili’s 2008 botched intervention into South Ossetia led to a Russian invasion and the Kremlin’s recognition of South Ossetian and Abkhaz ‘independence’. In Ukraine in the mid-1990s, centrist Kuchma also subdued Crimean separatism without Russia intervening. But in Spring 2014, what the Kremlin saw as an ‘illegal coup’ which brought ‘nationalists’ to power was used by Putin as an excuse to launch a Russian invasion of Crimea followed by its annexation.

The Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh has, until recently, been under Armenian control. This followed a short but brutal war that ended in 1994. Due to long-term frustrations regarding the failure of international diplomacy and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s threats to formally annex Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan launched a successful (with Russian acquiescence) military assault to re-take its territory in late 2020.

Under centrists Shevardnadze and Ivanishvili, Georgia has not sought to use military force in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The national democrat Pashinyan’s nationalistic rhetoric over Nagorno-Karabakh has resulted in a miscalculation similar to that made by Saakashvili when he sent Georgian forces into South Ossetia in 2008. Nevertheless, there is an important difference. Armenia, of course, was the occupying power in Nagorno-Karabakh, while Saakashvili was seeking to take back South Ossetia.

International affiliations and Russia

Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine have been consistent in their policies throughout the post-Soviet era of remaining outside Russian-led Eurasian economic and military projects. Since 1997 they, together with Moldova, have been allied in the GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova) group, which was renamed in 2006 GUAM. The Organization for Democracy and Economic Development.

There has though been a noticeable difference between Georgia and Ukraine on the one hand, and Azerbaijan on the other. National democrats and centrists in Georgia and Ukraine have both officially supported membership of NATO and the EU while centrist-run Azerbaijan has preferred to only back integration, not membership, of these two organisations.

At the same time, we should note a subtle but important difference between how Georgian and Ukrainian centrists go about implementing their countries goals of NATO and EU membership. While Georgian and Ukrainian centrists espouse pro-NATO and pro-EU membership rhetoric this is often not followed up with concrete steps in the same manner as their national democrat opponents. The main reason is again Russia and the wish of centrist leaders to not inflame relations with Putin.

In strong contrast, Armenia has always been an ally of Russia since the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Since 1994, Armenia was a founding member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian attempt to establish a NATO-type structure in the former USSR. Armenia also withdrew from the EU’s Eastern Partnership Association Agreement in 2013 and became a founding member of the Eurasian Economic Union (Russia’s attempt to emulate the European Union) two years later.

Russia has had good relations with all Armenian leaders except Pashinyan because he came to power in a 2018 colour revolution. Although he promised to maintain Armenia’s geopolitical orientation towards Eurasia, Russia still prefers his centrist predecessor Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan and his Republican Party. The Kremlin’s negative view of Pashinyan and its paranoid fears of contagion from colour revolutions, coupled with multi-vector foreign policies and good relations with Moscow pursued by Azerbaijan’s centrist rulers, explains why Russia did not support Armenia in its war with Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan is also better served on the global stage compared to Georgia or Ukraine as it has a powerful external ally in the form of Turkey. Ankara supplied modern military technology, such as drones, and has directly backed the country’s attempt to retake its territory.

Centrists have been in power longer than national democrats in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine. Overall, they have adopted two key foreign policy strategies that are different to their national democrat rivals. Firstly, they avoid provoking Putin by not publicly blaming Russia for past historical wrongs and frozen conflicts on their territory. Secondly, centrists fundamentally reject military solutions. When Georgian national democrats attempted to use military force in 2008 it led to a Russian invasion and the Kremlin’s recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In contrast, centrist-run Azerbaijan was successful in retaking back its territory.

Taras Kuzio is a professor in the Department of Political Science, National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy and a Non-Resident Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

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