Does public opinion accurately gauge government performance in the South Caucasus?

Robert Putnam’s 1993 work Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy marked a seminal moment in the development of institutionalism. Putnam’s exhaustive study of the relationship between the governed and governing in the Italian regions contained the discovery that public opinion provides an accurate picture of actual government performance: “The Italians’ gradually increasing satisfaction with the regional governments … corresponded to real differences in performance,” and in each region Putnam’s measurement of performance was “remarkably consistent with the appraisals offered by the regional attentive public and by the electorate as a whole.” While Italy was the focus of his study, Putnam’s findings can be applied broadly as he draws identical conclusions across regions with disparate social, economic, and historical conditions. Can his insight on the relationship between public opinion and government performance be transposed onto any or all of the countries of the South Caucasus? 

The three states comprising the South Caucasus – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – are characterized by varying degrees of governmental effectiveness. Public opinion data from the CRRC Caucasus Barometer survey (CB) also shows differing levels of trust toward government in each country. This blog post asks the following question: does public trust in government institutions in the South Caucasus countries reflect the actual performance of government? Drawing on CB data as well as the Government Effectiveness dimension of the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators project (WGI), this blog post finds an apparent mismatch between levels of public trust in state institutions and measures of actual performance.

The populaces of the three South Caucasus states demonstrate divergent attitudes toward the institutions that make up government. Azerbaijanis report more positive views of government, reporting relatively high levels of trust in the Parliament, President, and Prime Minster and ministers. Georgians are less trusting of the Parliament, Prime Minster and ministers, but demonstrate more trust in the courts, the ombudsman and political parties. While it is not possible to say with certainty whether the average Georgian or Azerbaijani has more trust in government institutions overall, it does seem apparent that Armenians demonstrate the least trust. In 2013 residents of Armenia indicated the highest levels of distrust on almost every relevant CB question. The only incidence in which Armenians demonstrated levels of trust slightly higher than a neighboring country was when asked how much they trust or distrust their country’s local government. 35% of Armenians indicated trust, compared to 28% of Georgians.

Note: This graph only displays the percentage of people who reported distrust in the respective institution. The original question asked, “Please tell me how much do you trust or distrust … [institution]?” Values were re-coded from a 10-point scale used in the questionnaire to the three-point scale used in this text, with original values 1-4 corresponding with the response “distrust” (shown here), 5-6 being “neutral,” and 7-10 corresponding with “trust.” While the graph displays data from 2013 only, this blog post drew on data from 2008 onward. 

In attempting to answer the central research question, this blog post investigates whether the greater propensity to trust state institutions appears alongside higher WGI scores for government effectiveness in each country. While a comprehensive model of governmental effectiveness is the task of a deeper, more comprehensive analysis, this blog post relies on the Government Effectiveness aggregate of the WGI. This metric is intended to measure “the quality of public services, the quality of the civil service and the degree of its independence from political pressures, the quality of policy formulation and implementation, and the credibility of the government’s commitment to such policies.” The indicator is aggregated from 15 individual indicators of governmental effectiveness including the World Bank Country Policy and Institutional Assessment, Economist Intelligence Unit, Bertelsmann Transformation Index and Gallup World Poll.

Provided that the findings of the index paint an accurate picture of the subject at hand, it brings up mixed results with regards to Putnam’s aforementioned conclusion. In each year 2006-2013 Georgia’s score bested those of the other two countries in question, thus the relatively high levels of trust observed in Georgia appear alongside regionally impressive scores for governmental effectiveness. As for Azerbaijan, it scored the lowest of the three South Caucasus states in every year in which scores were awarded. In 2008, the year corresponding to Azerbaijan’s lowest score on the WGI, 87% of Azerbaijanis reported trust in the President and 52% in the Parliament, both measures being higher than those found in Georgia and Armenia (the first being much higher), even though Azerbaijan received a WGI score of less than half of either of its neighbors. Thus it does not appear that public opinion accurately reflects reality in the case of Azerbaijan.

Note: These scores represent percentile rankings. Not all of the 15 indicators used in the Government Effectiveness metric are available from each country in every year. For example, in 2013 a total of 11 indicators were used to compile Armenia’s score, compared to 10 for Georgia and 9 for Azerbaijan.

When observing the case of Armenia, viewing CB findings in relation to the WGI index indicates possible dissonance between public opinion and governmental effectiveness. While Armenia scored slightly lower than Georgia on the WGI each year from 2006 and 2013, CB results show that Armenians’ reported trust in government institutions has been much lower than that in Georgia. This could indicate that Armenians are overly pessimistic about the performance of their government, that Georgians are overly optimistic, or a combination of both. In each case, a possible explanation is that Georgia’s scores on the WGI have almost invariably trended upward, starting at a trough of 39.5 in 2005 before peaking at 69.9 in 2012. Armenia, on the other hand, has seen only modest and uneven gains, with public trust in Parliament, the President and the executive government each declining over the same period. Georgian optimism may stem from the appearance of progress, while Armenian pessimism could be the product of a general malaise in the performance of government.

On the whole, it appears that Putnam’s observation cannot be applied neatly to the three states of the South Caucasus. The Azerbaijani public demonstrated the highest levels of trust in almost every governmental institution listed on the CB, even as the country received the lowest scores on the WGI. Georgia scored the highest of the South Caucasus states on the WGI, while public trust in government appeared to be generally lower than in Azerbaijan. Trust in Georgia was significantly higher than in Armenia despite scores on the WGI being only slightly higher. Thus, viewing Georgia and Armenia in relation to one another also appears to uncover a mismatch between perception and reality.

To gain more information on public opinion in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, please visit the CRRC regional website or refer to the CRRC’s online data analysis tool.


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