Covid-19 in the South Caucasus – fast reactions and authoritarian reflexes


The three countries of the South Caucasus, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, have so far dealt with the corona crisis relatively well, as they started early to close state institutions and shut down public life. The governments of the three countries’ were aware of the threat that their health systems could collapse because of a rapid increase of infections.

Desinfizieren von Autos auf der Straße in Corona-Zeiten

Therefore, it was from the beginning important, to slow down the growth of infected cases with major cuts in social and economic life. Nevertheless, the measures the countries have taken, as well as their numbers of infected people vary.

As of 7 April 2020, Armenia had the highest rate in the region with more than 800 official cases, followed by Azerbaijan with almost 650 cases and Georgia with less than 200 people infected people. By this date, 8 deaths were officially confirmed in Azerbaijan, 7 in Armenia and 2 in Georgia.[1]

Rapid reactions and different measures

After the first Corona cases have been confirmed in Georgia at the end of February, the Georgian government immediately reacted: By the beginning of March, all the schools were closed. In the following weeks, more measurements were gradually implemented. All shops except grocery stores, pharmacies, banks and gas stations were closed, public transport within the country was effectively suspended, entry restrictions for foreigners were imposed, a state of emergency was declared with further restrictions on public life, and curfews between 21.00 to 6.00 am were imposed at the end of March.

Violating the curfew costs fines of 3,000 Lari (950 USD) or up to three years in prison for repeat offenders. Until the outbreak of Corona, Georgia was caught up in a conflict between the opposition and the ruling party "Georgian Dream" over the reform of the election law for the parliamentary elections scheduled for October 2020. With the spread of the virus in the country, the government under Prime Minister Gakharia followed expert comments from the National Centre for Disease from the very beginning and very transparently communicated current case numbers and the measures taken.

Popular approval among the population and discipline in complying with the measures continues to be high. This could pay off for the governing party in the October elections, which was in a tailspin until the Corona crisis. The opposition has so far supported all measures and there seems to be an unspoken truce between the two sides.

Orthodox Church greatest risk in fight against the virus

Merely the Orthodox Church and the Patriarch for a long time rigidly adhered to the usual rituals for Mass and continued well into March to use one spoon for all people attending the Communion. Observers argue that the declaration of a state of emergency on March 21 was also a reaction to the fact that the church did not obey rules on social distancing.

Consequently, legal rules were implemented, which even the Patriarch cannot ignore. [2] While the government fears that at the Orthodox Easter ceremonies in mid-April these rules will nevertheless not be respected, it at the same time holds back with direct criticism because of the churches high authority. According to a December 2019 poll of NDI, after the army, the church is the most trusted institution in the country with 50 percent describing their performance as good while the government has only a support of 30 percent and the parliament of 9 percent.[3]

The Georgian Orthodox Church, which has for years been known for its homophobia and stands for a traditional way of life, could thus become the greatest challenge to the containment for the spread of the virus.   

Armenia and Azerbaijan with slower but stricter reactions

Armenia, too, had declared a state of emergency in mid-March and had already closed the border with Iran, the neighbouring country from which the first identified case of corona had entered the country on 23 February. In general, most of the cases in the South Caucasus were brought in by persons from Iran or returnees from Italy.

Many people work in neighbouring countries (first of all Russia) or in EU countries. The Armenian government was initially more relaxed about public life and shop opening hours but took more drastic measures when the number of cases began to multiply.

In addition to closing public facilities and all non-essential shops, banning large gatherings and restricting entry, Armenians are only allowed to walk certain routes and must carry a note with them containing all the important information about the person and their return to their homes. Employers must provide their employees with a certificate confirming the necessity to go to work.

In contrast to the other two states in the region, Azerbaijan had not declared a state of emergency by the end of March, but only adopted special quarantine measures as of 20 March. These measures forbid people older than 65 years to leave their homes and groups of more than 10 people are not allowed to meet in public places.

Furthermore, travel restrictions apply within the country and especially for the capital Baku. Only essential shops are allowed to open, restaurants have limited opening hours. Since April the 5th Azerbaijani government has further restricted the rules. Azerbaijanis can now only leave their homes after receiving persmission by sms form the policy, or if they have a special certificate of employment. Beside the police, the army actively enforcing these rules.

Authoritarian tendencies

In an address to the nation during the “Novruz” New Year holidays, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev used the opportunity to directly attack the opposition, threatening that their role in the Corona crisis might make it necessary to take tough action against them.

According to him, the opposition would try to stir up unrest and panic in the country by provocations. In authoritarian manner, Aliev blamed the crisis on the opposition, which he accused of being a "fifth column". If a state of emergency were to be declared, Aliev said, "the isolation of representatives of the fifth column could become a historical necessity.” [4]

Critics argue that the government in Baku had closed the border with Iran too late, allowing the virus to spread into the country. Thus, the corona crisis in Azerbaijan could be used to reverse the limited loosening measures that have been introduced for the opposition in the last two years. Shortly after the President's speech, opposition representatives were attacked by security forces and some were arrested.

In Armenia, following controversial discussions in parliament, a law was passed which allows mobile phone and thus movement data to be tracked in order to prevent further spreading of the virus. This regulation is only valid as long as the state of emergency lasts, and the data is then to be destroyed.

However, there is much criticism of the post-revolutionary government's communication policy, which is also discussed in the context of this decision. In order to prevent the spreading of fake news regarding the Corona virus, the government has prohibited journalists and the media to publish certain news and articles. This measurements also affected independent, critical media and journalists who wanted to report, among other things, on the desolate situation in hospitals.

It also seems problematic that in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed region between Armenia and Azerbaijan, parliamentary and presidential elections – not recognised by the international community – were held on 31 March. It has been criticised that election campaigns could not be led as in "normal" times – and, moreover, the voting itself significantly increased the risk to spread the virus further. In the first round of voting, former Prime Minister Arayik Harutyunyan narrowly missed the absolute majority with 49 percent, who is considered more of a representative of the corrupt old elites and does not stand for a political change.

By allowing this election to take place, the democratically elected Armenian government has lost prestige in the country's progressive circles. On election day, there was also fighting on the contact line with Azerbaijan. Observers interpreted these fighting as an Azerbaijani reaction to the illegal elections in Nagorno-Karabakh. Furthermore, several soldiers in Armenia fell ill, raising fears that Azerbaijan could use the weakening of the Armenian army to attack the country.

Socio-economic consequences

All three countries of the South Caucasus have weak social systems. Many people work in precarious jobs in the service sector, tourism and agriculture. There are high unemployment rates, as many people are not registered or depend on subsistence agriculture farming. For Armenia and Georgia, tourism and agriculture are the most important economic sectors besides mining. Many Armenians work abroad, especially in Russia.

Their remittances to their home country are an essential pillar of the Armenian economy – this income is now breaking away and is missing from the families as well as from the entire economy. Another consequence of the lock-down: Domestic violence – especially against women – is a constant issue in all three countries in the region and increases further in times of domestic isolation.

In Azerbaijan, the economy is primarily dependent on income from the oil and gas business. The country is therefore now struggling with falling oil prices (currently below 30 US dollars per barrel) in the price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Inflation will become a growing problem for the populations of the three countries. Stabilisation packages to support the currencies and financial aid for companies will either evaporate or ultimately help few people. Even if there are social benefits, many cannot claim them because they have been working in informal sectors, which governments have so far tolerated.

Besides older people with pensions below the minimum subsistence level, mainly young people have lost almost all their jobs in the service sector. One of the main available jobs now, are delivery services, which are badly paid and risky for their health. Many people in Georgia have gotten into debt with loans for the construction of holiday homes. This is a backlash to Georgia's one-sided focus on tourism and services in its economic structure.

At the same time, the countries of the South Caucasus – like all post-Soviet countries – have gone through a deep economic, social and political crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. In this respect, the societies have a certain degree of resilience and self-sufficiency and know how to help each other in an acute crisis situation. Nevertheless, the socio-economic consequences of the pandemic will have a long and profound impact on the development of South Caucasian countries in the coming years.

This will have an impact on their democratic development and may push even harder authoritarian measures in Azerbaijan. For the democratic elected government in Armenia after the Velvet revolution this is a comprehensive stress test, while Georgia’s conflict between the ruling Georgian Dream party and the opposition head of the parliamentary election is only put on hold.