- Good News from the Caucasus?An Introduction to the Special Issue
These days, positive news seems to be increasingly scarce on the global political scene—and the last place from which we might expect it to come is the Caucasus. In its north, part of the Russian Federation, news items in recent years have included the corruption scandals that enveloped the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Ramzan Kadyrov's escapades as the personalistic ruler of Chechnya, the trademark brutality of Russian special forces fighting the Islamist underground, and occasional protests by local populations driven to despair. In the south, the ruling dynasty of oil-rich Azerbaijan seems intent on outdoing the erstwhile Shah of Iran in its repressiveness and profligacy, at its own peril. Even in the solidly pro-Western Republic of Georgia, the once demonstratively ultra-liberal regime of the famously mercurial Mikheil Saakashvili has given way to a dull imitation of democracy: faceless politicians emerge from nowhere and disappear with equal ease at the whim of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the secretive billionaire widely rumored to control all branches of Georgian government from the privacy of his gaudily post-modernistic mansion that floats above Tbilisi's cityscape. And that is not to mention the regional powers with their own stakes in the Caucasus: Iran, Turkey, and Russia proper.
In this picture, Armenia is often overlooked. To begin with, it is small: it measures just 29,730 sq. km (smaller than the U.S. state of Maryland) and has only 2.9 million inhabitants. Furthermore, it is landlocked and mountainous, with a mean elevation of 1,792 meters.1 To make things worse, Azerbaijan and Turkey have kept major segments of Armenia's borders closed since 1992 due to the ongoing armed dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh. A single worn railroad through Georgia precariously connects Armenia to the outside world. Few experts would consider this a good location for economic growth. It therefore comes as no surprise that Armenia is also one of the poorest post-Soviet republics. With the severance of rail connections and the collapse of the centrally-planned Soviet economy in 1991, its once large chemical and machine-parts industry died out almost instantly. In the context of this economic depression, the former [End Page 437] workers and engineers either turned to petty trade or emigrated en masse. It is commonly estimated that as many Armenians are now earning their living as migrants in the United States and Russia as remain in Armenia.
Surprisingly, this could be grounds for hope regarding Armenia's future. As Georgi Derluguian and Ruben Hovhannisyan show at some length in their article in this issue, the Armenians are a nation of survivors forged through the centuries of harsh foreign domination and forced dispersal that culminated in the Young Turk genocide of 1915. In addition, social scientists have established that persecuted minorities have tended to acquire education, professional skills, and enterprising dispositions.2 Diaspora is, moreover, a time-honored form of global network. Derluguian and Hovhannisyan argue that the key political function of the diaspora in the recent change of power in Armenia was to follow in real time the political drama in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, and uphold the moral aversion to the use of force against fellow Armenians. The role of the internet in fostering the worldwide community of the people claiming Armenian descent is a vast fertile field awaiting research.
What actually happened in Yerevan last spring? Over the course of nearly two decades starting in the early 2000s, a regime of post-Soviet restoration coalesced in Armenia. For all its cultural and historical peculiarities, the regime nonetheless looked quite similar to—and functioned in a similar way to—other post-Soviet restorations, from Belarus to Kazakhstan. The political scientist Henry Hale has called this regime type a "patronal presidency."3 The Armenian regime particularly resembled that of Putin's Russia, both at the level of institutions and personal connections, albeit that the Armenian version never approached Russian levels of brutality and venality. This disparity in what each regime felt was appropriate is puzzling and calls for an explanation, in which the articles brought together in this issue of Demokratizatsiya might...