In one of the villages of Shamakhi Region of Azerbaijan, visits from foreign strangers are an exotic curiosity.
Located in the center of the country, far from the capital Baku and surrounded by the sea, this village is the opposite of the famous Azerbaijani metropolis, but also a world away from neighboring regions. It is a couple of kilometers from the next village.
There’s no road and we trudge through mud in late autumn. Here people fall asleep and wake up smelling of livestock and still use make-shift, outside toilets with no plumbing. But here we also find the biggest attraction of the region – Shamakhi Palace Sharadil.
Living in such a place is not easy and it is hard to imagine for a European or an American, but the inhabitants of this village are certainly patriotic. The local children are a shining example. They ran out to greet us and accompanied us through the village with cheerful shouts and laughter while we tried, hopelessly, to get a connection on our smartphones.
“Do you speak Russian?” I asked the children at the request of my Western colleagues.
The kids obviously didn’t understand the question, but when they heard the familiar word ‘Russian,’ they stopped smiling and vigorously twirled at their temples to show that I was out of my mind.
Nationalism as the Only Form of Patriotism
Immersed in their own domestic problems, perhaps deprived of a choice between Western and Russian values, post-Soviet Azerbaijan emphasizes nationalism as the only form of patriotism.
Georgia has ventured into a more vocal democracy, also built on nationalism. We went there during the heated pre-election period to meet with activists trying to impose European values on the post-Soviet mentality of the former and current government.
At the main entrance and on the floors of the Prime Minister’s Office of Georgia, the European Union flag is hung next to the national flag everywhere. So Foreign visitors, unfamiliar with Georgian politics, might wonder if the country is an EU member.
If you ask, you hear proud statements about the Association with the EU, visa-free regime and aspirations to join the European Union and NATO which are prescribed in the Constitution.
“The EU and NATO are Georgia’s national idea. This direction is irreversible,“
Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili will tell us when we meet him this week.
For Georgia, which together with Ukraine is the most progressive democracy in the post-Soviet space, any accusation of pro-Russianism is a blow to everything achieved since the 2008 war, when Russia occupied the whole territory of South Ossetia and recognized it as an independent republic along with the previously invaded Abkhazia.
Moving Forward with One Eye on the Kremlin
Now Russia is blackmailing Georgia with energy resources for these republics, putting Tbilisi in a position where, on the one hand, they have to help the occupied territories if they consider them their own, but on the other hand, they have no moral or ethical reasons to do so.
Something similar is happening with the water supply in Crimea. It’s a little different, but Chisinau’s gas debts are piling up because of occupied Transnistria.
Officially Tbilisi is delicately balancing on a tightrope, trying to preserve the achievements of 2014 and 2017 – that is, the strategic agreements with the West reached after Mikheil Saakashvili left power.
For Russia’s neighboring states, which long depended on the empire for trade, energy and even politics even after gaining independence, relations with Moscow are often in many ways decisive. Building a democracy without confronting the Kremlin is a luxury available to Western countries, which they cannot yet fully appreciate.
The former republics of the USSR, on the other hand, have to look back at Russia now and again. Its threats have long since become part of internal political struggles, national dialogues, and state-building.
The Caucasus, Ukraine, Belarus, and the countries of Central Asia – none of us want to, but all of us have to move forward with one eye on the reaction and actions of the Kremlin – their military, resources or media threats.
Each Country Has Their Own Form of Democracy
While remaining an undeniable priority for these post-Soviet countries, democracy in each has its own definition or form, sometimes quite caricatured. Last week, in addition to Georgia, I visited Azerbaijan. The local political elite has pointed out many times that they seek a close relationship with the West. In reality, however, Azerbaijan is more about building its own strict vertical of power. And this goes against Western democratic values.
Democracy in post-Soviet countries is often tied up in uncontrolled internal political struggles, and so it becomes distorted. It seems that it is impossible to transplant the formula of Western democracy as a whole and without adaptation to the post-Soviet space, where the dictatorial Kremlin still has such a considerable influence.
So, we have to keep balancing. It turns out that Azerbaijan with its strict vertical was able to retake Nagorno-Karabakh and remains energy independent of Russia.
“Georgia and Ukraine, the two largest post-Soviet democracies, are desperately seeking ways to minimize dependence on Russia and counter its military threats.“
And they still haven’t achieved the quality of Western democratic governance.
All the countries in our part of the world have to balance democracy as an unconditional value with building a vertical chain of command so that the strengthening of institutions does not turn into another dictatorship, but also so that they can keep the country from being encroached upon again by Moscow.
We are yet to find out what post-Soviet democracy is. In the meantime, we often see chaotic movement as an essential part of our evolution.