Wednesday, October 23, 2013

At the crossroads of Europe and Eurasia - exploring public attitudes in the South Caucasus

Armenia's announcement in September that it would enter the Eurasian Customs Union led to some dissatisfaction regarding relations with Russia, especially since the announcement came months before the Armenian delegation’s visit to Vilnius to sign a DCFTA (Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement) with the EU. At the first public debate on the issue in Armenia, organised by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and Regional Studies Center, speakers addressed possible attitudes of Azerbaijan and Georgia to the Customs Union. The director of the Caucasus Institute, Dr. Alexander Iskandaryan, noted that Azerbaijan, with its significant energy resources and ability to export them to the EU, does not need to join the organisation for economic development. However, according to him Azerbaijan would not be able to sign a DCFTA given that the country is not a member of the WTO—a prerequisite for all signatories of the document. Georgian Prime Minister Ivanishvili has remained sceptical about the Customs Union, but has not ruled out some form of Georgian participation. While all three South Caucasian countries attempt to diversify their trade (particularly with the EU and Turkey), Russia remains a very important trading partner. Russian firms own critical assets in the Armenian telecommunications, transport, and energy sectors. Data from the Caucasus Barometer (CB) show largely positive attitudes towards conducting business with Russians – not only in Armenia, but in all three countries. In light of the ongoing debate in Armenia on the significance of joining the Customs Union, the CB's results are worth considering within the wider South Caucasian context.

Armenia has shown the most positive attitudes towards business with Russians from 2009 to 2012, but negative attitudes have slightly increased. The result for 2012 shows an approval rating of 84%, lower than the past four years, yet higher than any result in Azerbaijan during the same time period, and higher than results in Georgia for the prior 3 years.

Azerbaijanis’ approval of doing business with Russians has increased over time, and have shown the biggest change from negative to positive attitudes over the four years shown. The share of those who approve of doing business with Russians has increased from 62% in 2009 to 82% in 2012.

Georgians have continued to have positive attitudes about doing business with Russians over time. Even in 2009, one year after the Russian-Georgian War in 2008, 76% approved doing business with Russians.

There are several possible reasons for these positive attitudes in addition to intensive trade with Russia and strong social networks with Russians. According to an infographic from the World Bank in 2013, 4 of the top 10 countries receiving remittances by share of GDP are in the CIS (Armenia taking sixth place with 21%). Russia is the top destination for migrant workers across the Former Soviet Union, and it is the destination of choice for 61% of Armenia's potential emigrants. Considering that the amount of private remittances from Russia to Armenia in the first half of 2013 increased by 113%, Armenians' positive attitudes may not be surprising. The net amount of remittances sent from Russia to Azerbaijan in 2013 has been 234 million USD thus far, and 263 million USD to Armenia—remittances from abroad were less significant than in Armenia as a share of GDP. During a recent conference in Yerevan on demography, Dr. Alexander Grigorian noted that access to Russia for Armenian migrant labourers could become even easier following Armenia's accession to the Customs Union, and that this possibly lead to  quantitative (higher numbers of migrant labourers) and qualitative (a higher percentage of educated workers) changes in emigration from the country.

What other factors do you think could play a part in attitudes towards doing business with Russians?

If you want to explore these questions in more detail for yourself, we welcome you to download the 2012 and other Caucasus Barometer datasets.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Funding for Healthcare in the South Caucasus

Government expenditure on healthcare can be an indicator of a government's commitment to the health of its citizens. It is also important for the sustainability of health programmes. Nevertheless, the total health expenditure in all three countries of the South Caucasus is dominated by private spending, including prepaid plans and “out-of-pocket” (on the spot) payments. This blog provides a brief overview of the patterns of government spending on healthcare in the South Caucasus during recent years. The blog also links these patterns to data from the 2012 Caucasus Barometer (CB) about assessments of health, satisfaction with health, and trust in the health system.

Total expenditure on health as a percentage of GDP provides information on the level of resources invested in health relative to a country's overall wealth. In developed countries, government spending on healthcare accounts for approximately 10% of gross domestic product (GDP) or more. This percentage of resources pooled by the government is comparatively lower in the South Caucasus. It accounted for as much as 9.9% of the total GDP in Georgia, 4.3% in Armenia and 5.2% in Azerbaijan, according World Health Organization data from 2011.

Total expenditure on health is distributed between private and government expenditures, which are also unequal across the globe. In more than half of low income countries, government expenditure on health is less than 50% of total health expenditure. Where health spending is comparatively lower in general, the shortfall is made up by private spending. This can also be observed in the South Caucasus where the private amount paid for health services dominates the expenditure (reaching around 78% in Georgia and Azerbaijan, and more than 64% in Armenia). Most of the private expenditure on health in all three countries is so-called “out-of-pocket” – made by patients to both public and private providers at the time of receiving health services. Despite the fact that this method of payment can result in financial catastrophe for individuals or households, in each country in the South Caucasus “out-of-pocket” expenses amounted to 89% of total private expenditure on health.

Despite more substantial budgetary allocations to citizens’ healthcare by the government in Georgia, compared to  Armenia, the CB shows that trust in the healthcare system in these two countries is almost the same (39% and 38%, respectively-“Fully trust” and “Somewhat trust” combined). Azerbaijanis’ trust in the healthcare system is the highest among the three countries, amounting to 51%. Considering the self-evaluation of one’s health, around half of the adult Azerbaijani population rates their health as good or very good. Again, this rate is lower in Georgia and Armenia, where only about one-third of these societies think they have good health. Interestingly, these numbers are again similar despite the fact that the Armenian government has larger health expenditure than the Georgian government.

Private expenditure still dominates the healthcare expenditure in the South Caucasus. Given that large parts of these populations are poor and cannot afford to spend much on healthcare, low levels of government spending on health might have an impact on the health of citizens. Nevertheless, a higher share of government health expenditure does not necessary directly influence the quality of a healthcare system, or an individual’s level of trust or self-assessment of health. Thus, other factors ought to be taken in consideration such as evolving purchasing power parity, the general price of healthcare, or remittances.

For more information on this topic, you are welcome to visit our Caucasus Barometer database.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Islam in Azerbaijan: A Sectarian Approach to Measuring Religiosity

Azerbaijan is arguably one of the most secular countries in the Muslim world. Nearly seven decades of official atheist policy as part of the Soviet Union, along with isolation from the rest of the non-Soviet Muslim world, diminished Islam's position in the country. According to many, including Haji Shahin Hasanlia prominent and respected voice among Azerbaijan's Shia population and akhund (Muslim cleric) of the popular Meshedi Dadash Mosque in Baku, today many Azerbaijanis have little knowledge of Islamic tenets and practices even after two decades of independence. However, accurately gauging the number of committed believers in Azerbaijan presents challenges, given that religiosity as measured by Azerbaijanis' religious knowledge, practice, and belief varies quite drastically. This blog suggests that Azerbaijanis' sectarian preferences may provide a reliable measure of religiosity.

Religiosity can entail "institutionalized" and "subjective" modes of religious involvement (Dittes 1971); the corresponding measures of these modes in Azerbaijan elicit very different results. According to data from CRRC's 2012 Caucasus Barometer (CB), Azerbaijanis' active (i.e. institutionalized) religiosity as measured by mosque attendance and fasting is quite low. Only 10% of Azerbaijanis claimed to attend religious services either on a weekly or monthly basis, while 34% indicated attendance on special holidays and 54% attended "less often" or "never". Similarly, only 16% stated that they "always" or "often" fasted when required by religious traditions, whereas an overwhelming 69% claimed "rarely" or "never" to fast.

More subjective measures, on the other hand, seem to indicate greater religiosity. Accordingly, over 20% of Azerbaijanis claimed to be "very" or "rather" religious, while 34% indicated they were "somewhat" religious and 41% "not very" or "not at all" religious.

When asked about the importance of religion in their daily lives, however, a remarkable 80% of Azerbaijanis indicated that religion played a "very" or "rather" important role in their lives, while less than 20% stated that religion was "not very" or "not at all" important.

Reconciling these measures is problematic for several reasons. First, indicators of attendance religious services may in fact underestimate the number of committed believers in Azerbaijan. Some argue that Azerbaijan's official Muslim clergy, for example, has a reputation for low levels of religious knowledge (see Yunus 2012: 18-21), a fact which may discourage many believers from engaging in collective, institutionalized religious practices in preference for prayer at home. Moreover, attendance measures do not take into account the practice of visiting Muslim shrines, which is widespread in Azerbaijan and represents another form--albeit informal and folkloric--of religious expression.

On the other hand, that Islam "plays an important role" in 80% of respondents' lives presents a vast contrast to the 10% who regularly attend religious services, suggesting that Azerbaijanis may have a stronger subjective attachment to Islam, even if active religious observation remains weak. A more cohesive measure of religiosity--one that reconciles institutionalized and subjective modes of involvement--may lie in Azerbaijanis' sectarian preferences.

By many accounts, Azerbaijan's Muslim population is approximately 65% Shia and 35% Sunni. While this figure may correspond to historical sectarian trends and thus hold true in a very normative sense, CB 2012 data indicate that over 80% of Azerbaijanis actually did not specify a sectarian preference when asked to which religion they adhered. Instead they simply referred to their religion as "Islam", thus indicating that their primary religious identification may not be based on sect. Out of the remaining 18%, 15% of Azerbaijanis claimed to be Shia, while 3% claimed to be Sunni.

A clear confessional stance may indicate who actually considers himself/herself to be a committed believer, given that sectarian affiliation entails observance of particular institutionalized and subjective modes of religious involvement. Institutionally speaking, Shias and Sunnis have a number of divergent practices, especially regarding namaz (prayer) traditions; and subjectively, Shias venerate the institution of the Imamate with regards to Muhammad's successor, whereas Sunnis view the non-divine Caliphate as the legitimate mechanism of succession.

Thus, clarifying one's confessional preference involves a conscious recognition of the tenets and practices most strongly associated with one's confession. In other words, it is above all committed believers--that 18%--who have a clear motivation to clarify their sectarian preference.

For more data on religion in Azerbaijan visit the new 2012 Caucasus Barometer dataset.