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Democratic transitions in Armenia and Azerbaijan Essay

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Armenia and Azerbaijan, two former Soviet Republics have since 1991 been undergoing a political transition from an authoritarian system towards a democratic system. Ten years after these transitions began, it is still questionable whether these states have made much progress. Aside from examining political, economic and social reforms undertaken, it is also important to consider the historical tradition of the region, which can be a factor in determining what kind of regime will emerge. Iran, Russia, and Turkey have always had immense influence over the area, thus in order to understand the process of democratization occurring it is necessary to examine their foreign policies.

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Since the collapse of the Soviet Union more than a decade ago, the newly formed successor states have undergone many changes and transformations. Though the initial enthusiasm of change has long dissipated it is only now possible to truly evaluate the actual developments that have occurred in the newly independent states (NIS) for the past ten years. Perhaps one of the most telling regions that can be assessed, in the former Soviet empire, is the southern Caucasus, more specifically the states of Armenia and Azerbaijan. This historically rich region, ripe with cultural tradition as well as ethnic rifts in many ways exemplifies the transitions taking place throughout the former Soviet Union. However, it must be emphasized that the experience of these two republics is unique especially when looking at the war they maintained with each other from 1992 to 1994. The intensity of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan was one that has yet to be repeated by any of the other republics, thus making the South Caucasus a particularly interesting region to examine.

Whereas an overview of the changes that were made within Armenia and Azerbaijan would give us a partial, if somewhat superficial understanding of the transition process, it is necessary to go beyond that scope. With the establishment of the former Soviet republics as legitimate and independent states in the late 1990’s a new wave of democratization began. Like most of the former republics, with the exception of Belarus and Turkmenistan, Armenia and Azerbaijan looked forward to democratization.

However as time passed the smooth transition from one regime to another began to falter. Though many reasons can be attributed to explain why democratization was not an immediate success within Armenia and Azerbaijan, such as political, economic and social conditions, not much attention has been given to external factors which have hindered the democratization process. More specifically it is necessary to look at the policies of foreign states and their impact on the establishment of a democratic tradition. In other words, aside from domestic policies, are the policies of foreign countries influential in the democratization process?

Therefore, I propose, in order to understand the exact impact of foreign policies on Armenia and Azerbaijan, it is necessary to concentrate on the three major powers in the region, Iran, Russia, and Turkey. Historically all three states have had immense influence in the South Caucasus; consequently, their interests have come to dominate the events unfolding in the region. Accordingly, examining the foreign policies of Iran, Russia, and Turkey is a necessity in the understanding of the democratization process, determining whether or not their foreign policies have helped or hindered this process.

I suggest that, in general states, act in accordance to their interests, and therefore seek to implement policies within their states that will uphold these interests. Hence, when looking at Armenia and Azerbaijan, in comparison to their neighbours, it is only natural that these neighbours would try to impose their influences on these two relatively weak states to advance their political, strategic and economic interests. Thus demonstrating that while it is important to look at the domestic politics to understand the process of democratization, it is not sufficient to explain everything. Moreover, we can say that this is not a situation unique to Armenia and Azerbaijan but can be applied in most cases to newly independent states, or states undergoing democratization.

Defining democracy and democratization

At this time it is necessary to define some of the terminology in order to clarify what is being implied by democracy and democratization. Democracy as a concept has in the past been defined according to its origins and its goals, in other words, as a system that derives from the will of the people and seeks to achieve the common good or social justice.

However, such a definition is not easily proved and can easily lead to ambiguity where, after all, dictators can claim that they have received their power from the will of the people and they are in fact promoting the common good and social justice. Perhaps democracy can be defined within the framework of a procedural conception where decision making over rules and policies are collectively binding but over which the people still maintain control. Furthermore, within this system it is necessary that all members of the collectivity be assured of their equal rights in participating directly in this decision making process. In other words, democracy is the polar opposite oif a system of rule where the population is excluded from the decision making process and therefore has no control over it.

Transitions happen when there is a split within the regime between the hardliners and softliners. This split causes the beginning of a bargaining process between the state and its opposition elite, thus prompting the transition within a modal pattern.

Another important issue within democratization literature deals with the definition of democratic consolidation. It is necessary to distinguish clearly the differences between ‘transitional democracies’ and ‘consolidated democracies’. In fact it woiuld be erroneous to assume that states emerging from authoritarian regimes could be automatically called democratic just because its officials are popularly elected. In most cases these states are still missing some of the essential elements of democracy,. Furthermore, they require the setting up and instutionalization of the new regime and its rules. Therefore it is important to acknowledge that a transition from an authoritarian regime does not necessarily mean a transition to a democracy or democratic consolidation. In fact, it can be said that both processes are distinct involving separate actors, strategies and conditions. Consequently, rather than simply undermining and authoritarian regime, democratic consolidation is more elaborate.

The main role of democratic consolidation is to rid the state of the remnants of the old regime which are incommensurable with the construction of democratic institutions and reinforcing rules. Therefore, a concise definition of democratic consolidation is when a state’s actors have agreed to abide by the democratic rules of the game and will not resort to using any other extra-democratic means to achieve their goals.

The events leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union

The collapse of the Soviet union did not occur overnight in December 1991. In fact, the fabric of Soviet society had been gradually unraveling for years. By the time Mikhail Gorbachev assumed leadership of the Soviet Union he was aware of that things coulds not continue in the same manner. In 1985, Gorbachev tried to introduce the reforms of ‘acceleration’ and ‘intensification’ in relation to upgrading productivity. Thus by the end of 1985, perestroika (restructuring) and glasnot (openness) became the slogans of his administration. Perestroika emphasized a new type of bureaucratization, one which was much more in tune with the masses. In short, it was a way to change the ‘boss’ mentality prevalent in command regimes and to reorganize the system to make it more efficient.

Though Gorbachev actively spoke of change in public, behind the scenes very little was truly being done to change the system. The explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor was a perfect example of this lack of change. Though the government spoke of opennes, it took Gorbachev nearly three weeks to acknowledge the extent of the catastrophe, at which point he did not give any details on the effects of the explosion on agriculture, industry and the consequences on human lives. In essence, glasnost had failed because the government itself was not completely commited to it. Perestroika also suffered a similar fate seeing as not much was being actually done to restructure the system.

From 1987 to 1988, Gorbachev introduced five new economic reform which were designed to help the fledging Soviet economy. In January 1987, he introduced quality control inspectors in order to make sure that the quality of Soviet goods would be improved from their well known substandard level. In other words, emphasis was going to be put more on quality than quantity. The following month, he launched a new wage policy where an individual worker would be rewarded for an above average performance.

Gorbachev then set about decentralizing the management of enterprises requiring that they administer their own finances, in order to make them profitable. Those who did not meet the standard were to be shut down. On May 1st 1988, Gorbachev allowed for the limited opening of private enterprises. Lastly in August 1988, he initiated a new agricultural policy where farmers would be allowed to rent land from the state, and to purchase the necessary equipment. However with the deregulation of enterprises, the prices of goods inexorably went up, causing discontentment within the population. Gradually the government saw all of its reforms either criticized for being too radical or not being reformist enough.

Concurrently, in the republics nationalists movements had begun to emerge revealing, in some areas, widespread anti- Russian sentiments. One such outburst ocurred in December 1986 in Alma Ata in Kazakhastan, however, Gorbachev choose to ignore the riot thinking that it was an abnormality. By 1998 and 1989 other outbreaks occurred, as a direct result of the added freedom of glasnost. All of a sudden Armenians were demonstrting on the streets of Yerevan, the capital city of Armenia, demanding for the transfer of the Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabagh which was under control of Azerbaijan. The Baltic republics began to claim their independence from the Soviet Union, stating that their annexation in 1939 with the Molotov- Ribbentrop pact was unlawful.

Ethnic unrest aslo erupted throughout the Central Asian republics, in Moldavia, and in Georgia. Nevertheless, in the face of such unrest, the Gorbachev government remained largely ineffectual, demostrating that it was unable to cope with the changes ocurring throughout the Soviet Union.

The final blow to the Soviet Union came in August 1991 when conservative forces within the Communist party, unhappy with the reforms and the new union treaty, put Gorbachev, who was vacationing in the Crimea, under house arrest in an attempt to seize power from him. Through the coup attempt was unsuccessful, it was clear Gorbachev’s central administration was quite impotent, leaving room for the assertion of power by the republics, in particular the Russian republic and its leader Boris Yeltsin. For the remaining months, Grobachev tried in vain to regain control. Nonehtless, one after the other starting with the Ukraine, each republic voted for independence. By the end of the month the Soviet Union no longer existed.

Reforms and Changes in Armenia and Azerbaijan

With the end of the Soviet Union, fifteen new republics emerged, each trying to find a way to cope with this newfound freedom. Slowly, the international community recognized the republics as independent and sovereign states. Consequently, most of them publicly announced that they would choose democracy as their form of government, in order to become full members of the international community and play by the rules of the game. Armenia and Azerbaijan from the beginning declared that they would democratize. They would adopt rules and regulations that would promote institutions of democracy. They would have free elections, and institute liberal market economies. In other words, they would eradicate the old soviet system and accept liberal demcocracy. Needless to say, it did not quite occur that way, nor has it been so easy.

Considering the fact that even before the disintegration of the Soviet Union Armenia and Azerbaijan were in the midst of an ethnic war with each other, it is not surprise that the actual process of democratization in these countries is tentative and at times very slow. The years of conflict have left the local economies of each state weak, with widespread infrastructural damage and large refugee problems. Moreover, due to the conflict and general instability of the region, foreign investment has been scarce. In other words, democratization has taken a back seat to survival.

However this is not to say that there have been no developments. When looking at electoral patterns as an indication of democratization it is possible to observe that Armenia and Azerbaijan, since 1991 have had elections, with a somewhat stable change in the government of Armenia in 1998. There had been somewhat controversial elections two years earlier, in 1996, when the incumbent oresident Levon Ter Petrossian banned the major opposition party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. In 1998, after much discontent over the settlement of Nagorno Karabagh issue, Ter PEtrossian resigned. The elections of 1998 were not perfect, in fact observers sent by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) noted many abnormalities. However, since these elections, there have been noted improvements in the conducting of the May 1999 Parliamentary election and the October 1999 municipal elections.

Nevertheless, the process of democratization did suffer a significant blow when five armed men entered the National Assembly in October 1999, killing the Prime minister, the speaker of the National Assembly and six other deputies. Furthermore, most recently Armenia has been criticized for media censorship when it recently closed down a non-government funded television channel. This is not the first time the Armenia rsorts to intervening the media. Before the 1996 elections, then President Ter Petrossian shut down many of his opposition’s media outlets.

In comparison, elections in azerbaijan have been less successful, with constant widespread irregularities. This is further emphasized by the fact that the current president o Azerbaijan, Heidar Aliev, came to power in less than democratic circumstances, and has used the constitution several times to extend his tenure. For example, in preparation for the 1998 presidential elections, electoral laws were modified, the media was under strict censorship, in other words, everything was done to make sure Aliev was reconfirmed as President. Needless to say corruption and nepotism are not unusual in Azerbaijan. This trend has been reinforced by the Aliev government which has taken to he practice of assigning extended family members to important government or business positions. For example, Aliev’s brother is in charge of the State Oil Corporation of the Republic of Azerbaijan (Socar), which is the enterprise in charge of most of the oil extraction in the Caspian sea.

Democratization as a foreign policy

In recent years, a debate among academics has been at the forefront of the study of post communist transitions, evaluating whether they can be compared with other transitions to democracy. Though it is necessary to state that there are some differences in the process, however that does not mean that they cannot be compared. Even though post communist states face different challenges, there is a similarity when evaluating the influence of a foreign state.

At this point it is necessary to discuss some of the challenges faced by former Communist states. Though the debate on the comparability of the democratization process of former communist states and other authoritarian states is still ongoing, it would be unwise to believe that there are no differences in the transition process. Nevertheless, differences do not mean that each of the processes cannot be compared, on the contrary, differences along with similarities make the research much more dynamic. Indeed what makes transitions from communism unique from from all other forms of authoritarianism is the fact that it is a transition from Communism. Thus raising the question of how are they different? It is often stated that one of the distinguishing factors of post communist transitions is the rise of ethnic conflict. From 1989 to 1991 three countries broke up causing ethno-territorial conflicts.

The main internal impediments faced by post communist societies in their transition can be traced to the social and economic legacy of communism. Aside from the foreign policy of other countries, those states in transition had to deal with eighty years of perverted modernization. Even though under communism Russia became a modernized, highly industrialized, urbanized and literate society, the fact remains that the regime tried to undermine the human ability for autonomous action. This is most obviously reflected in the transition to a liberalized market economy, where the concepts of preoperty and originality are essential.

Clearly, there is a strong correlation between the establishment of democracy and the growth of a market economy. However, with the destruction of the notion of private property, the notion of personality was also ruined. The loss of personality and property systematically erased the conception of freedom as natural and alienable. It is imperative to acknowledge that it was not only the capacity for acting autonomously that was affected but also the ability to think freely and with innovation. Furthermore, Communism also annihilated the idea of social responsibility, which is a necessity in a democratic regime. Consequently, during transitioin and democratization in communist states, it is not only necessary to change the actual regime, but it is also crucial to change the social consciousness, in order to change the conception of property and responsibility which are inherent to a healthy market economy.

Returning to the issue of foreign influence, it would be wrong to assume that only states in the process of transition can be affected by the foreign policy of other actors, indeed, to a certain degree, all states are susceptible to foreign policies, but this is most obvious in states undergoing regime changes. In fact, when comparing to other factors, the study of foreign policy as an influence on transitions to democracy reamins largely controversial and understudied. Most scholars of regime change, in particular, of democratization, have focused on other means of explanation. This does not mean that the importance of the foreign policy should be disregaderd. Perhaps, this is an indication that more time should be accorded to its study. One author on the topic has determined three evident ways that foreign actors impact the transition of another state. The first level described is the influence on the socio-economic structures, in other words, activism, social and cultural cleavages, and economic concentration, dispersion, and inequality.

The second level consists of outright domination of state over another through the means of foreign policy. As a result, it is the politics of another state that determines the type of regime which emerges, democratic or authoritarian. Needless to say, this type of influence is quite rare, though there are some outstanding examples. Following the end of the Second World War, Germany, Austria, and Italy were quickly imposed democratic forms of government by the victorious Allies, specifically the United States, Great Britain and France. In contrast, Czechoslovakia and Poland were imposed authoritarian regimes by the Soviet Union. Another type of complete domination can also be colonialism or even the occupation of territories of one state over another state.

The third level deals directly with how foreing policy can alter choices available to a state in transition, therefore the type of regime adopted will to some extent depend on what kind of influence the foreign actor excercises. In 1989, with the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, eastern European states, one after the other declared their rejection of the communist regime and adopted a pro- democratic stance. The reason for that can be attributed to this change, following the line of thinking presented above, is with the end of the old regime, the influence of western European foregin policy on eastern Europe, democracy and democratization seemed to be the only viable choice.

The influence of Iranian, Russian and Turkish foreign policy on Armenia and Azerbaijan

At this point, it is necessary to examine the specific foreign policies of the three mos influential countries in the Caucasus and their effects on Armenia and Azerbaijan. As stated earlier the different policies pursued by Iran, Russia and Turkey have a tremendous impact on the transition to democracy of Armenia and Azerbaijan due to the nature of the relationship with each other. Consequently, the policies practiced by one state will undoubtedly affect another; this is especially true when examining the susceptibility of Armenia and Azerbaijan in comparision to their powerful neighbours. Moreover, this influnce extends beyond the political realm, affecting economic relations as well as social structures.

a) The foreign policy of Iran

Even though the interest of Iranian foreign policy in the Caucasus is a product of the end of the Cold War, there are historical and ethnic reasons behind this current concern. The Russo-Persian wars of the 19th century had effectively removed Persian influence from the region however it did leave behind a significant consequence. By signing the Treaty of Turkmenchai in 1828, Persia gave up all claims to territories north of the Araxes River, permanently severing the lands inhabited by the Azerbaijani. With the fall of the Iron Curtain that division was not quite as important anymore, therefore possibly influencing the social balance of Iran.

Indeed the majority of ethnic Azerbaijanis do not live in Azerbaijan, rather they live in Northern Iran, making up a population of roughly 15 to 20 million. In comparison, in the republic of Azerbaijan, there is approximately a population of 8 million Azerbaijanis. Therefore, it is not surprising that in 1991, after Azerbaijan became an independent state, there were demands on both sides of the border for unification, thus making the government of Tehran, the Iranian capital, very nervous. However, talk about unification, soon faded when the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorno Karabagh intensified.

Azerbaijan was in no position, financially and politically to absorb the influx of migrants or to begin a process of unification.

The iranian government began to give importance to the conflict. This was largely due to the fact that many Azerbaijanis fleeing the conflict began to take refuge in northern Iran. Moreover, with the intensification of the conflict between the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis, the whole region was beginning to destabilize. Iran was worried that perhaps there would be a spill over effect, maybe even mobilizing its own Azerbaijani population. Another reason for concern was the growing influence of Turkey. It was no secret that with the end of Communism, Iran and Turkey were actively vying for positions of influence in the Caucasus, mainly because of the issue of Caspian oil.

Initially, Iran tried to mediate between the two faction; in 1993 it even sponsored the first ceasefire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan, however it soon became obvious that this effort would fail. At that point, Iran no longer actively participated in the negotiation process, however it did continue to pursue its national interests. In order to avoid any long term separatist movement, Iran sought to support the Armenian faction. Though it strongly adherer to the principle of territorial integrity, Iran at every opportunity sustained the Armenian war effort, in hopes of keeping some measure of control over Azerbaijan and any nationalist claims.

By 1994, the focus of Iranian foreign policy shifted to the matter of the division of the Caspian Sea and Caspian oil. In an unprecedented move, Iran and Russia, seeing themselves being gradually left out of the Caspian oil deals, began to collaborate on the issue of dividing the Caspian Sea. Also, through the intermediary of Armenia, Iran initiated bilateral and trilateral meetings with Russia signing cooperation accords. Azerbaijan and Turkey did not view these as gestures of friendship, rather they saw them as potential threats. It must be said that relations between Iran and Azerbaijan remain quite tense. Iran’s continued economic and political support of Armenia remains a bone of contention for Azerbaijan.

b) the policy of Russia

With the end of the Soviet Union in December 1991 and the subsequent emergence of fifteen independent republics a new era of foreign policy began on the Eurasian continent. In regards to the three states of the Caucasus, that is to say Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, Russia’s foreign policy was quite clear. The Caucasus, for Russia, is an integral part of its policy realm.

By the final years of the Soviet Union, during the Gorbachev administration, Soviet foreign policy changed dramatically, culminating in the abandonment of Eastern Europe, the dissolution of the Warsaw pact and then the end of the Cold War. Nonetheless, when comparing turn of the century Russian foreign policy with its current counterpart, it becomes evident that little has changed. The Caucasus, in other words, Armenia and Azerbaijan, play a significant role in Russian national security.

When looking at Russian foreign policy in Armenia and Azerbaijan, there are specific issues that need to be examined in order to comprehend Russia’s poisition and its foreign policy, such as, ethnic conflicts, terriorial integrity, and military bases. Like Iran and Turkey, Russia’s foreign policy towards Armenia and Azerbaijan has been dictated by the Nagorno Karabagh conflict. As part of its foreign policy concept, Russia is quite serious about keeping territorial integrity intact.

Of course this is in their best interest considering the problems it has in the Northern Caucasus with the Chechens. The fact is that if they do give any chance to the possibility of altering borders this would give added incentive to separatist groups within Russia to declare their own independence. Therefore, it is clearly stated in their foreign policy that territorial integrity is a non negotiable element. In fact, Russia supports a diplomatic resolution to the conflict through the auspices of the OSCE. Though some critics would say that Russia’s intentions in this conflict were in general biased towards the Armenian faction, due to the fact that the Armenian government repeatedly enlisted Russian military support in its conflict with Azerbaijan.

Another aspect of the Russian foreign policy is the presence of its military bases in Armenia. Though this does not directly affect Azerbaijan, seeing as the bases are not near its shared bordder with Armenia, it does however affect relations between Armenia and Turkey. In essence the presence of the Russian military is there to reinforce its position in the Caucasus, making sure that neither turkey nor Iran for that matter, become too influiential. However the fact that there are Russian military installations on Armenia territory says much about the relationship between the two states. Armenia has become politically and economically dependent on Russia, and with military presence it also indicates a strategic presence it also indicates a strategic dependence. In contrast, Russia’s relation with Azerbaijan has long been strained, and has further disintigrated as Azerbaijan has aligned itself more closely to turkey.

c) The Foreign Policy of Turkey

Until the collapse of the Soviet regime, Turkish foreign policy had little concern for its eastern neighbours. Instead its attention focused its relation within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Cold War environment, as well as its accession to the European Union (EU) In other words, Turkey was largely preocupied with the West and securing a definite position within that context.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War dramatically changed that role. Turkey found itself along with Nato at a crossroad, trying to re-evaluate its relevance in the new global framework. Simultaneously, with the establishment of the fifteen newly formed republics of the former Soviet Union, Turkey was able to begin a new era in its foreign policy making, which was widely supported form within Turkey as well. Thus, Turkey sought to establish closer relationships with its ethnic brethren in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

With the 1990 rejection of the Turkish accession by The European Community and the end of the the cold war, Turkey had to adapt its foreign policy to reflect the current context. The first step in the process was the recognition of independence of the Azerbaijani republic on November 9th 1991, nearly a full month before it recognized the other republics. By supporting Azerbaijan, Turkey was asserting its newly found interest in the region, making sure that not one country would become the dominant influential power.

Aside from the political aspects of Turkey’s policy towards Azerbaijan, it is necessary to examine the economic aspects. Since the signing of the cease- fire between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1994, The Nagorno Karabagh conflict has taken a backseat in the relations between Azerbaijan and Turkey to give way to the Caspian Oil isse. Turke has actively participated and invested in the construction of pipelines and oil extraction consortiums. In fact, it is now one of the major investors in the Azerbaijan International Oil Company (AIOC). Moreover, Turkey has greatly invested in a new oil pipeline stretching from Baku to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, which will become the main mode of transportation of Caspian oil to the rest of the world. Thus it can be said, that relations between Azerbaijan and Turkey, in the future will have a much more economic slant.

In contrast with Azerbaijan, relations between Armenia and Turkey are much more difficult. In fact, one could even say that relations between Armenia and Turkey are at best hostile, barely tolerant of one another.

Nevertheless, despite the political hostility, in the las five years, Turkey has begun to penetrate the Armenian economic market through the export of goods, such as foodstuffs, machinery and construction materials. Though the exports, for the most part are not sent directly to Armenia, they usually arrive by way of Georgia, there is a growing recognition within the Turkish government and the Armenian government that economically it is in their best interests to cooperate. Turkish willingness stems from the fact that its easternmost province of Kars, which shares border with Armenia, is suffering from large population decrease and general underdevelopment.


With the end of the Cold War the dynamics of the republics of the former Soviet Union were completely changed. Immediately they were faced with a choice, either to adapt to the new world or desperately try to maintain the status quo. Initially, despite their difference Armenia and Azerbaijan seemed to be willing to democratize. However with the regional instability this process of democratization has been slow to progress.

Though there are many theories that try to explain the process of democratization and preconditions necessary for that process of democratization has been slow to progress.

Though there are many theories that try to explain the process of democratization and the preconditions necessary for that process, recent efforts have tried to explain why transition occurs in one area as opposed to another area. Though there are some similarities, the categorization of types of transition, such as transitions through transaction, transitions through extrication, or transition through regime defeat, the main point of contention deals with the historical legacy of the regime. According to some academics, the historical legacy of a former authoritarian regime is what determines the type of democratization that will take place. There is no direct link between prior regime type and the mode of transition in relation to the prospects of democracy.

Therefore when looking at the transitions of Armenia and Azerbaijan, though the old Soviet regime may determine to some degree what will happen in the process of democratization, there is not pre-established mold. In fact one of the elements that can have an influence in the process is the impact of the foreign policies of other states. In other words, for Armenia and Azerbaijan, democratization will be influenced by the foreign policies of Iran, Russia, and Turkey, due to the extent of authority the exercise in the region

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