Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

High Stakes in the Caucasus

Voters in Azerbaijan and Georgia are heading to the polls, but probably few believe that this year's elections will free their countries from the stranglehold of authoritarianism. The politically fragile, oil-rich Caucasus region is beholden to competing foreign powers -- including the United States and Russia -- that are willing to sacrifice long-promised democracy and economic reform for the sake of a return on their energy investments. But Azeris and Georgians -- and even some investors -- are discovering that politics can't serve the oil business unless it also protects democracy.

Until recently, the region's longtime leaders had disregarded democratic principles and sanctioned electoral interference to consolidate their power. Thus, Western powers found eager anti-terrorist allies in Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and Azeri President Heidar Aliyev, whose responses to war and competing nationalisms have been to violate human rights in the name of stability. Yet, without electoral mandates, Armenia and Azerbaijan cannot resolve their border dispute in Nagorny-Karabakh. And the 10th anniversary last month of the secessionist war in Georgia's Abkhazia reminded voters that Shevardnadze is prone to exploit their fears of more violence to mute criticism of his government's harsh actions against reputed terrorist sympathizers and to influence the November parliamentary elections.

But the region's biggest political problem is turning out to be the West's quest for energy security. The Caucasus is a magnet for outside powers whose eyes for profit color their every security and rights calculation. This is hardly a democracy-friendly environment.

For Azerbaijan, home to powerful foreign oil investors and the origination point for a U.S.-backed pipeline, politics is a family affair that presents risks both for social cohesion and the oil economy. Aliyev, long hospitalized in the United States, withdrew from the ballot this month after conveniently altering the constitution to ensure that the prime minister -- his son, who calls himself the "architect of the country's oil industry" -- could succeed him. Not surprisingly, a flawed referendum supported the president, the ever-obliging parliament agreed, and, for safety's sake, the supreme court upheld the removal of some opposition leaders from the ballot. By treating the younger Aliyev as heir apparent, the United States has conferred legitimacy on the father's dynastic ploy. But the restive Azeri opposition, suspicious of electoral fraud, is on a collision course with the government.

In Georgia, major opposition groups have joined forces against Shevardnadze, touting their urban-rural, center-right coalition as "Revolutionary Change Without Revolution." The betting in Tbilisi is that Shevardnadze's increasingly right-wing, nationalist and notoriously corrupt supporters -- allied "For a New Georgia" -- are inciting street fights to discredit the opposition and retain power.

When Shevardnadze's poll-rigging tactics sparked a fight with parliament last summer, the Bush administration dispatched former Secretary of State James Baker to Tbilisi to broker an agreement to ensure fair parliamentary elections. Opposition leaders complain that the government has already violated the accord and that Georgia's elections have become another opportunity for the government to arrest, beat, bribe or persecute dissenters. The United States and other donors have spent heavily to revamp Georgia's electoral system, but chances are that by the time hundreds of international observers arrive there next month, Shevardnadze's manipulations will have overwhelmed the reforms.

Pipeline politics will fail amid such political disarray. Breakaway Abkhazia, restive South Ossetia and even the semi-autonomous Muslim border region of Adzharia further jeopardize U.S. plans for Georgia. Because Shevardnadze needs to counter growing Russian influence in Adzharia, he allows Adzharia's leader remarkable political influence, hoping that this will keep secessionism at bay as well.

But this is Russia's backyard. Moscow is already a major financial power in Armenia's energy sector, and Russian companies are big players in Georgia's energy markets. Some observers speculate that the companies want to develop the untapped energy market in neighboring Turkey, long a U.S. ally and the destination for the Caspian pipeline.

The Caucasus has thus become a zone of competition between Russia and the United States, but old-fashioned security thinking hurts both business and democracy. The region's authoritarians alternately curry favor with the two rivals to win new investments. When they engage in corrupt practices to get their way, Washington slaps them on the wrist but resists advancing the fundamental political changes necessary to turn profit-seekers into honest political brokers.

Weak states invite foreign meddling. If the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything, it is that when money, energy, alliances and political systems are in jeopardy, the stakes are too high to leave things to tired authoritarians.

Political and economic stagnation in the Caucasus, or worse, reversion to old conflicts, should be unacceptable.

Just now, they are all too likely.

Paula R. Newberg is an international consultant who works with countries in conflict and transition. This comment appeared in the Los Angeles Times.