Friday, May 15, 2009

Prof. Neil MacFarlane on the August war and its implications

How has the politics in the region changed after the August war? Professor Neil MacFarlane gave a public lecture at the Center for Social Sciences of Tbilisi State University on May 13, 2009. His lecture was devoted to the Implications of the War in Georgia for the International Relations of the Caucasus.

According to Professor MacFarlane, the war has fundamentally changed international relations in the South Caucasus. He noted that although it is too early to draw final conclusions, but some shifts following the war can be highlighted already.

Increased Russian influence in the region – After restoring political order and recovering from the economic turmoil of the 1990s, Russia’s sphere of interest in the near abroad was next on Putin’s list of tasks. According to Dr. MacFarlane, control over the South Caucasus makes control over the North Caucasus easier for Russia. However, Georgia had been challenging Russian’s aspirations for control in the region by declaring itself a liberal, democratic western-oriented country. By intervening with its military, Russia showed that it is both capable and willing to assert its influence.

Reduced US engagement – The change of the administration in the US and the financial crisis played decreased US engagement in Georgia. The Obama administration is seeking to restore the US relationship with Russia and will not sacrifice that relationship for Georgia’s sake, according to Dr. MacFarlane. Moreover, due to the financial crisis, one of the first cuts the US will make will be in money given for aid.

Increased EU involvement – Professor MacFarlane described the Western response to the war in August as “shameful”. Moreover, most of the steps (albeit symbolic) taken by the EU during the crisis were rather personality driven (referring to Sarkozy). However, after the war the EU has increased its presence in the region through its monitoring missions and moderators.

Prospects for the settlement of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict – The war provided an incentive for Armenia to diversify its relationships and reduce its security dependency on Russia by starting talks with Turkey. The positive developments in the Armenia - Turkey relationship may lead to Nagorno Karabakh conflict settlement.

Professor Neil MacFarlane is the Head of the Department of Politics and International Relations at St. Annes College, University of Oxford. Professor MacFarlane is a specialist on the regional dynamics of the former Soviet Union. He is also interested in the impact of international organizations in the management and resolution of civil conflicts and in the political and economic transitions of former communist states. Professor MacFarlane works with the Center for Social Sciences and comes for regular visits. You can consult the CSS website for further information.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Georgian Protests | Getting the Numbers Right

Georgia has seen long-standing protests, now lasting for almost 5 weeks. Some opposition supporters have expressed surprise why so few people continue to come to the protests, with only a few thousand coming out onto the street for current protest events. "How is it", one supporter wondered, "that we talked to people in February and March and practically everyone was dissatisfied, but now we only have a handful actually out supporting us? Did we get it wrong?"

They got it right and wrong at the same time. Very roughly (and apologies in advance for the generalization), we can observe the following distribution in Georgia at this point. 20% - 30% of the population support the government. 20% support the more strident opposition. 50% to 60% are undecided politically, or only have a weak affiliation (say, with the relatively new Christian Democrats). The key to the political contest is winning over those that are undecided, many of whom voted with the government in the last two elections. They are dissatisfied with certain aspects of the government, but also not committed to any current alternative.

Put in other terms:

  • 20-30% want stability
  • 20% want change, even if this is risky (since they believe the government to be a force of destabilization)
  • 50-60% want significant change, but also sufficient stability

This means that for the opposition, they could have found up to 80% of the population agreeing with them that they want change -- but with limited research, it was difficult for the opposition to ascertain that the overwhelming majority only wanted change up to a point, and only if stability could be guaranteed. The example illustrates how surface impressions can mislead, and how more detailed opinion research would have been needed to guide an appropriate opposition strategy.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Georgian Asylum Applications Rise: Significance

In several surveys , we have asked the question: "would you leave Georgia if you had the chance?" We believe that this question is a good measure to gauge people's perception of their current situation.

We wondered if perhaps another interesting way to get at the state of Georgians' attitude toward Georgia is to look at asylum applications. Since 1990, according to UNHCR data, 79,121 asylum application have been filed in Europe and North America. While this could equate to fewer that 79,121 people, since people could have filed multiple applications, the number is significant. While asylum applications before the Rose Revolution had been rising dramatically, they began to fall after 2004.

However, last year witnessed a renewed uptick in asylum applications. Fascinatingly from a research perspective, the locus of asylum applications for Georgians has also migrated.

So what exactly does this tell us? As seen in the graph above, the locus of almost all asylum applications in Europe and the United States in the early 1990s were in Germany. BAMF, the German Office for Migration and Refugees was notoriously lax in the '90s and at one point Germany was getting 300,000 asylum applications a year. This lead to a controversial and difficult battle in Germany, which finally changed its asylum law and streamlined its processes. A new efficiency took hold. Whereas before, long backlogs had made it easy for migrants to work while their asylum cases was being processed (and generally rejected), a host of agreements and EU level legislation made it much easier for Germany to deport Georgians. As a result we see the dramatic decline in the percentage of Georgian asylum applicants placing claims in Germany.

Switzerland is seen as offering the best return package. It is commonly known among Georgian migrants that one should file an asylum claim in Switzerland to return back to Georgia. This may explain the constant, yet low level of Swiss claims.

The major change, however, is Greece. In 2007 and 2008, 39 percent and 40 percent of all asylum applications made by Georgians in either Europe or the US were lodged in Greece. The feminization of labor migration and Georgians connection to Greece through the large Pontic Greek community, which predominantly migrated to Greece, has led to large scale employment of Georgians in domestic care in Greece. However, why are the asylum applications jumping. One reason may be that Greece is cracking down on the visa overstayers and those not allowed to be in Greece (documenting unauthorized work is more difficult). If the asylum process is working slowly in Greece, then it may be a good opportunity for Georgians to have temporary leave to remain in Greece (i.e. be on Greek soil legally) and work under the table. However, we aren't sure and think more research into this would be worthwhile. Ultimately, it may be less a sign of increased dissatisfaction but more a result of changes in European Member States with regard to implementation of migration and asylum law.

Either way the results are fascinating.