It was daring — even brave — of the Armenian National Movement to invite the European Liberal Democrats (ELDR) to convene a Council meeting in Yerevan this week, only days after general elections were held in Armenia, about which they have cried foul. ELDR has never had a meeting on such a scale in the Caucasus before, but it was doubly valuable for European Liberal Democrat Council members as the Liberal International organised a side-trip fact-finding mission to Georgia beforehand. I was involved in both, as the (UK) Liberal Democrats’ representative on the Executive of Liberal International and an elected member of the ELDR Council. I was in Armenia six years ago, travelling widely around the country, so it was fascinating to see how the capital Yerevan has been rapidly modernising, though the countryside has changed little and indeed gives the feeling of still being back in the Soviet era, only friendlier. But there was also a big contrast between Georgia (a first for me) and Armenia. In Tbilisi, our Georgian hosts — the Georgia Dream coalition — gave a very critical appraisal of how they see democracy fumctioning in their homeland, whereas the government — who looked after us for half a day — put a different spin on the state of affairs. But whoever was right about whichever issues there is no denying that Georgia is a place willing itself onto an upward trajectory, much aided by the abolition of widespread earlier corruption and personal insecurity. Most Georgians are anxious to get into NATO and one day into the EU as well; the 12-Star flag of Europe is prominant everywhere alongside the Georgian red cross. We were taken to the Line of Occupation on the edge of South Ossetia to remind us of just how close and real the Russian occupational presence is. In Armenia, in contrast, there is more of a Russian flavour to the capital, but of course there is also a big influence of the Armenian expatriate community from France and the United States, some of whom are presumably financing the massive amount of reconstruction going on. In the ELDR Council and contiguous special sessions we heard a lot from NGOs and others about alleged irregularities in last Sunday’s poll. But there was also, among other things, a fascinating session on LGBT Rights in the South Caucasus, organised in conjunction with the two Dutch Liberal parties (the VVD and D66) as well as International Liberal Youth (IFLRY). Just days ago a gay-friendly bar in Yerevan was set alight by far right activists, but nonetheless there is a lot of positive conscious-raising on equality issues (even in Georgia, where over 90% of the population say they disapprove of LGBT activism). The black hole as far as the Armenians are concerned seems to be Azerbaijan, but as I know from a visit there not all that long ago, things are modernising apace in Baku, financed by oil money, even if the regime is pretty authoritarian. All in all, the Caucasus is a region with huge political and economic potential, desperate to be seen as European, while at the same time retaining its diverse specificities.
By jonathanfryer on Sunday, 13th May, 2012