Germany's Feminist Foreign and Development Policy: Need for Changes in Relations with the South Caucasus

The German government is in the process of spelling out a feminist foreign and development policy. This article, aimed at contributing to policy changes based on the new paradigm, suggests how Germany’s policy towards Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, whose political relevance has increased for Berlin due to Russia’s war in Ukraine, could become feminist. It recommends that Germany steps up its support for civil society and human rights in the region, ensures feedback loops to its policies from diverse local groups, becomes a strong ally for gender equality and LGBTQI rights, and puts its political weight behind the promotion of lasting peace.

Collage work, the women with a long hair
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Giovannino Gabadze

The 2021 coalition agreement between the Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, and the Liberals (FDP) stipulates that together with its partners, Germany "want[s] to strengthen the rights, resources, and representation of women and girls worldwide and promote social diversity in the spirit of a Feminist Foreign Policy." Now, the Federal Foreign Office and the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development are developing corresponding guidelines. The Foreign Office plans to apply a 3R+D approach to promote "the rights, representation, and resources of women and marginalized groups, as well as to enhance diversity." The Development Ministry uses more comprehensive and political language, stating that "feminist development policy is centered around all people and tackles the root causes of injustice such as power relations between genders, social norms, and role models." Moreover, Development Minister Svenja Schulze announced plans to "increase the share of bilateral Development Ministry funding that contributes to gender equality as a principal or significant objective – from its current level of about 60 per cent to a level of 93 per cent" and to "double the share of projects that pursue gender equality as their principal objective." Since the two ministries' feminist strategies are still in the drafting process, it is yet unclear how exactly their policies will be spelled out.

This article is part of the dossierFeminist Foreign Policy and the South Caucasus. It is based on reflections from an online workshop conducted by the Heinrich Boell Foundation in October 2022 with decision-makers, civil society representatives, and academics from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, and Germany.

This article discusses what a German feminist foreign and development policy could look like in the South Caucasus – a region not particularly known for feminist politics. All three South Caucasus countries exhibit strong patriarchal structures and gender inequality, although progress has been significantly more extensive in Georgia than in Armenia and Azerbaijan. For instance, in the 2022 Global Gender Gap Index, Georgia takes 55th place, while Armenia ranks 89th and Azerbaijan is 101st worldwide (Germany: 10th). In ILGA Europe's 2022 Rainbow Index, Azerbaijan achieves a score of 2% out of 100%, Armenia 8%, and Georgia 25% (Germany: 53%).

Some Success in Earlier Gender Mainstreaming Efforts

Support for gender equality in German foreign and development policy is not new. The government adopted its first National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, under the leadership of the Foreign Office, in 2012. Since 2014, the Development Ministry has had a gender equality strategy, an action plan followed in 2016. In 2019, interministerial strategies on the rule of law promotion, transitional justice, and security sector reform were adopted in the context of the 2017 Guidelines "Preventing Crisis, Resolving Conflicts, Building Peace," all including gender-responsive approaches. Lastly, in 2021, the government adopted the LGBTI Inclusion Strategy to "promote the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people (LGBTI) in foreign policy and development cooperation."

The implementation of these documents has been partially successful. In 2021, the Women, Peace, and Security Index ranked Germany among the top dozen implementers of the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda. German civil society praised the progress made by the current National Action Plan (2021-2014) while also referring to remaining shortcomings, for example, in financial backing, domestic implementation, and a more coherent peace orientation of the government. An evaluation of gender mainstreaming in German development cooperation in post-conflict contexts concluded that while specific individual projects have achieved results, the "connection between gender and conflict is not sufficiently anchored in the projects, with the result that its potential is not systematically exploited to a sufficient extent."

Feminist Foreign and Development Policy: More than Gender Mainstreaming

Either way, the idea of feminist foreign policy (FFP) goes far beyond gender mainstreaming. What is feminism, then, and how is feminist foreign policy typically understood in civil society and academia? One of the most vocal advocates of feminist foreign policy in Germany, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) "understands feminism as a movement, form of activism and site of critical inquiry for social justice and gender equality." Instead of a one-size-fits-all definition and approach to FFP, they propose five core values that should be at its heart: 1) intersectionality, 2) empathetic reflexivity, 3) substantive representation and participation, 4) accountability and 5) active peace commitment. While intersectionality and representation/participation are closely linked to gender mainstreaming practices and relatively well-understood, the other three values merit further explanation. WILPF sees empathetic reflexivity expressed in "the need for policy makers and non-state actors to address their own position, historical relationship and political investments in the policies being made." Accountability is defined as "a sense of responsibility and duty of care not only to state institutions and financial investors, but to the communities and individuals that the policies are designed to assist." Lastly, according to WILPF, active peace commitment does not merely require support for the absence of military violence, but assisting reconciliation processes, attempts at establishing justice, and other efforts that contribute to long-term, positive peace.

Germany's Policy Towards the South Caucasus

Certainly, Berlin has several security and economic interests in the region. These interests have only grown after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, highlighting the global importance of the rule of law and democracy for stability, the need for value-based alliances, and the urgency of diversified trade and energy routes. Nonetheless, the German government does not have a distinct South Caucasus policy nor comprehensive or publicly accessible country strategies for Georgia, Armenia, or Azerbaijan. The Foreign Office defines its priorities for specific countries in a closed fashion, with the embassies having some but limited leeway. Thus far, Germany has chiefly acted through and within the European Union and its Neighborhood Policy and Eastern Partnership and only rarely appeared as an independent or outspoken political actor.

Notably, the Development Ministry plans to develop country strategies for Georgia and Armenia in 2023, in line with its “2030 Reform” process. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Germany has been a key actor in bilateral development cooperation with the South Caucasus countries, making loans and grants of over 3.2 billion Euros available since 1992 (Georgia: 1.357 billion, Armenia: 943 million, Azerbaijan: 523 million, regional/South Caucasus: 405 million[1]). Whereas development cooperation had since 2001 been organized within the framework of the regional Caucasus Initiative, Germany is now ‘bilateralizating’ its cooperation portfolio; among others, this is due to the diverging developmental and regime paths of the three countries. Although gender has not been a focus of its work in the South Caucasus, the German development agency GIZ mainstreams gender into its activities; for instance, in its projects on economic and social participation, biodiversity management, and forest sector reform. However, it remains to be determined what a feminist foreign and development policy could mean for the region beyond gender mainstreaming. As analyst Philipp Rotmann writes, an intersectional feminist approach "cannot be achieved by simply doubling the usual "women's projects" in every embassy." While the following sections provide various ideas on how to make Germany’s foreign and development policy towards the South Caucasus more feminist, readers should not take the suggestions as exhaustive – feminist foreign policy is a broad concept and, thus, can take different shapes.

A German Feminist Foreign and Development Policy for the South Caucasus

Firstly, to make its foreign and development policy more feminist, the German government should engage more with civil society in all three South Caucasus countries. Such an approach could contribute to increased empathetic reflexivity and accountability, as political positions and activities would be more strongly informed by the input of the host societies and not primarily the German or partner governments. As German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has stated, "Feminist Foreign Policy can only work if we first and foremost listen; if we don't come to preach and say what we always knew and believed, rather if we are open to what is new and ready to learn from others." Regular and institutionalized consultations of the German ambassadors in Baku, Tbilisi, and Yerevan with local civil society would ensure an even better connection of German diplomacy and foreign policy-making with those who share liberal democratic values and are its main societal allies. As a positive side effect, this could also contribute to an improved image of Germany and its diplomacy, which is not always considered the most accessible and visible.

Notably, the 2023 Foreign Office call for civil society projects in the Eastern Partnership Countries and Russia seems to be an example of a beginning mainstreaming of feminist foreign policy across departments since "Support for and networking of women" and "Feminist foreign policy: vulnerable groups, rural areas" are now clear priorities. However, providing funding alone is insufficient if Germany wants to take on a feminist approach, as discussed in the case of Georgia below.

For German development cooperation, more substantial participation of civil society actors of the partner countries in project design and implementation would be critical. For instance, next to regular meetings as part of monitoring activities, the BMZ should institutionalize consultations with diverse Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Georgian civil society actors before each high-level bilateral government consultation or negotiation.

Secondly, Germany should demonstrate a more active peace commitment in all ethnic and territorial conflicts in the region. Indeed, the German government has financially contributed to peacebuilding, among others, through civil society organizations working on dialogue projects such as the Berghof Foundation or the political foundations. However, political investments have been less visible. The current regional instability caused by Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine provides specific opportunities for conflict management and renewed engagement across the dividing lines that can be supported by Germany, as discussed below – and will be easier to exploit if supported by Germany.

Georgia: Countering the Shrinking Space for Civil Society, Supporting Women's and LGBTQI Rights, Promoting Peace

In Georgia, which was granted a 'European perspective' in June 2022 and could become an EU candidate country in the future, German feminist foreign and development cooperation could focus on the following three issues: ensuring the free and independent work of civil society and countering the shrinking space caused by the country's current "Orbanization"; supporting women's and LGBTQI rights; and promoting peace. Needless to say, other already ongoing bilateral activities, such as in the fields of climate change or mobility, are also valuable from a feminist perspective and should continue.

As noted above, cooperation with civil society is crucial to ensure accountability and to do foreign and development policy in a feminist way. However, for several years, Georgia has seen increasing attacks by the government and affiliated actors on civil society, attempts to equate them with the unbeloved opposition, and even demonization. In October 2018, then Parliament Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze stated that "specific individuals, who are leading some civil society organizations, are harming the very idea [of civil society] because of their politicization and political bias." In April 2022, Kobakhidze, now Chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party, claimed that NGOs critical of the lack of judicial independence "have the sole aim of restoring – at least partially – the UNM's[2] control over the court." In September 2022, Kobakhidze and Mamuka Mdinaradze, the GD's executive secretary, intensified their attacks on CSOs, sowing doubts about the latter's funding and goals. Now, members of parliament who formally left the ruling party but remain affiliated with it have proposed a Georgian "foreign agent law," suggesting that the government might want to move from rhetoric to action and crack down on its loudest critics. Whatever the strategy behind these attacks, it is clear that they are harmful to Georgia's civic space, democratic political culture, and EU integration. German feminist foreign and development policy should not only provide funds to civil society but also provide political backing. Germany should condemn attempts to shrink the space for Georgia’s civil society and communicate to the Georgian government that a close partnership and extensive support cannot be expected under such conditions.

Secondly, in pursuing a feminist foreign and development policy, Germany should put gender equality, including women's and LGBTQI rights, on the bilateral political and cooperation agenda. Although Georgia, as noted above, has been a frontrunner for women’s rights in the region, planned legislative changes on rape (introduction of the consent principle) are currently stalled. The recent Gender Equality State Concept employs a narrow definition of women’s rights and avoids mentioning sexual and reproductive health or gender identity. While the Georgian legislation on LGBTQI rights protection is relatively progressive, implementation falls behind. According to Equality Movement, one of Georgia's leading LGBTQI organizations, "the state still doesn't provide adequate care, support, and protection for the vulnerable part of the LGBTQI community adequately, and it's manifested in the social vulnerability, poverty, and many forms of unequal treatment toward LGBTQI community members." Moreover, the right to peaceful assembly is not comprehensively guaranteed for Georgia's LGBTQI community. What is more, Georgia’s current state policy appears to be moving in the wrong direction: In a recent step backward, Georgia's new Human Rights Strategy "has removed mention of protecting the rights of queer people." Germany’s feminist foreign and development policy should seek to actively contribute to the protection of women’s and LGBTQI rights in Georgia, e.g., advocate for the inclusion of LGBTQI rights issues at least in the follow-up Human Rights Action Plan, and work towards LGBTQI cooperation projects with state institutions in fields such as health care, education, and social services – following a needs assessment that involves affected communities. Moreover, Germany should take a leading role in the diplomatic engagement to ensure Women’s and LGBTQI rights in Georgia, including the freedom of assembly.

Lastly, a feminist foreign and development policy towards Georgia should take on a more active role in peace promotion and conflict prevention. Germany's past engagement in the field has been limited. While Germany is one of the main donors to Georgia's Peace Fund, peace promotion has not been the focus of Germany's development cooperation activities in the country. Again, the German government should consult local feminists and peace activists, including those from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, to understand their needs and priorities.

Moreover, the German Foreign Office should work to guarantee a human security approach in EU policy towards the conflicts. For instance, the Georgian CSO Social Justice Center criticized the EU's recent decision not to recognize Russian travel documents issued in Georgia's occupied regions, arguing that it would lead to the further isolation of the residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Listening to such voices, Germany could promote the idea of de-isolation and exchange between the two regions with Georgia and the West at a time when Russia has become an increasingly lousy option for residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. More specifically, as part of an active peace commitment, Germany could raise the old idea of genuinely status-neutral documents for residents of the occupied territories. Hence, through development cooperation and political/diplomatic activities, Germany could increase its contribution to peace and conflict prevention in Georgia in line with the feminist value of active peace commitment.

Armenia: Engaging Civil Society in Bilateral Cooperation, Supporting Women's and LGBTQI Rights, Promoting Peace

To begin with, the drawing up of a new German-Armenian development cooperation portfolio and country strategy provides a unique window of opportunity to approach bilateral cooperation in a feminist way right from the start. As the OECD notes, CSOs are "important agents of change" for development cooperation. In line with the need to engage more with civil society to strengthen empathetic reflexivity and accountability, a feminist foreign and development policy should promote the broad participation of civil society in shaping the new bilateral agenda. Guaranteeing the involvement of diverse civil society groups, based on the value of intersectionality, will ensure that the new agenda adequately addresses existing needs in the country.

Secondly, German foreign policy and development cooperation should work towards the protection of women's and LGBTQI rights in Armenia. Unfortunately, there is a large room for improvement – not only in practice but also in the legislation. According to Human Rights Watch, "Armenian law does not effectively protect survivors of domestic violence." In 2017, when the former government adopted a law on domestic violence under pressure from the EU, it enshrined "traditional values and restoring peace in the family" in it, which women’s rights activists criticized as violating international standards. Armenia signed the Council of Europe's Istanbul Convention against violence against women and domestic violence in 2018, amidst mobilization from the Church and the political right, but has not ratified it. Awareness of protection issues within law enforcement and social support for survivors remain low.

Moreover, according to Pink Armenia and the Eastern European Coalition for LGBT+ Equality, there are no "effective legal remedies to litigate and get protection from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity" in the country. Indeed, the last years have been politically difficult for the Armenian government due to the war and continuing aggression from Azerbaijan, which might have contributed to a desire to avoid additional domestic controversy. Hence, context-sensitive international support for women's and LGBTQI rights in Armenia is even more crucial and should become an essential item of Germany's feminist foreign and development cooperation policy towards Armenia. Like in the case of Georgia, gender equality and LBGTQI rights should form part of Germany's diplomatic and cooperation agenda in Armenia.

Lastly, a German feminist foreign and development policy should demonstrate a more substantial commitment to supporting peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenia lacks Azerbaijan's military power and resources, and the Armenian government has been aware of it at least since the 2020 war. Since then, despite the intense pressure from Azerbaijan and the Armenian opposition, the Pashinyan government has demonstrated a pragmatic and realistic approach to the Armenian-Azerbaijani and Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as well as the Armenian-Turkish normalization process, the latter of which has already yielded some positive results but could benefit from international, feminist support. Moreover, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has shown readiness to speak uncomfortable truths about the status of Nagorno-Karabakh and the corresponding position of the international community. Nonetheless, Germany has avoided clear positioning during Azerbaijan's September 2022 attack on Armenia and its ongoing blockade of the Lachin corridor, which has resulted in disappointment in Armenia and indirectly contributes to Azerbaijan's coercive diplomacy. A feminist foreign policy would take a different approach: The German government should independently and as part of the European Union support Armenia's readiness to compromise while insisting on the need to protect the rights of the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh. Such support would require not only humanitarian aid, as Germany already provides, but also outspoken political positioning and communication and a more targeted policy towards Azerbaijan, as discussed in the next section.

Azerbaijan: Tipping the Balance from Business to Human Rights and Peace; Backing Human Rights Defenders and Civil Society

Economic interests have been highly relevant to Germany's relations with Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan remains Germany's biggest economic partner in the South Caucasus and is in the top 10 of Germany's crude oil suppliers. However, this does not imply that Germany is economically dependent on Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan ranks 95th for German export destinations and 76th for imports, making the country a relatively small partner for Germany. Azerbaijan's biggest trade partner in the European Union is Italy, the main entry point for Azerbaijani gas in the EU due to the termination of the Southern Gas Corridor in Italy’s South-East.

Following Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Azerbaijan has gained economic and political weight for Germany and the European Union as an energy exporting country and a part of the so-called middle corridor for goods transit, connecting the European Union with China. The most apparent sign of Azerbaijan's increasing role is the EU-Azerbaijan Memorandum of Understanding on a Strategic Partnership in the Field of Energy, signed in July 2022, including a ”commitment to double the capacity of the Southern Gas Corridor” by 2027. New distribution possibilities for Azerbaijani gas have emerged with the opening of the Greece-Bulgaria Interconnector in October 2022. However, it remains unclear whether Azerbaijan will be able to mount the proposed increase in export and from which sources. Beyond gas, in December 2022, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Romania, and Hungary signed an agreement to develop a submarine cable for electricity transmission from the South Caucasus to the EU, with funding from Brussels.

Human rights and civil society activists from Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the EU have criticized the EU’s business-focused approach. While Ursula von der Leyen mentioned at the signing ceremony of the gas memorandum that “greater involvement of civil society, and a free and independent media” are necessary to “create the right conditions for investor confidence,” she did not take the time to meet with civil society, which caused disappointment. From a feminist perspective, the EU’s ‘energy first’ approach marks a missed chance and, in fact, supports Azerbaijan’s coercive domestic and foreign policy. The Southern Gas Corridor is Azerbaijan’s only gas export route, and the country’s economy heavily depends on these exports. Thus, Azerbaijan has a strong interest in a productive relationship with the European Union. The EU should have used this leverage and made the deepening of relations conditional on prior improvements in the field of human rights in Azerbaijan, such as the release of political prisoners or improvements in media freedom and the freedom of association. Moreover, it should have signaled that it would not seek to enhance relations as long as Azerbaijan pursues a coercive strategy towards Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In the framework of its new feminist foreign policy, Germany should push for such a human rights and peace-oriented EU approach toward Azerbaijan. Moreover, in bilateral relations, Germany should communicate to the Azerbaijani government that it condemns any further military aggression towards Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh and will advocate for consequences within the European Union should such action occur again. Moreover, it should raise with the Azerbaijani government that it needs to make offers to the population of Nagorno-Karabakh if it seeks to establish lasting peace.

Lastly, a German feminist foreign and development policy should support human rights defenders, peace activists, and independent civil society in Azerbaijan, all of which are subjected to various physical, political, and legal threats. As stated above, the German Foreign Office allows Azerbaijani CSOs to apply for grants; however, in practice, this opportunity is severely limited by the restrictive legal environment for civil society and Azerbaijan’s CSO registration policy. German diplomats have also observed trials of political prisoners in Azerbaijani courts and raised human rights concerns with the authorities. However, given its new feminist foreign policy, Germany should make improvements to the human rights situation and civil liberties a priority in its relations with Azerbaijan – behind closed doors but also in public, that is, through visible and well-communicated support to activists. Importantly, making human rights a priority should also entail a more attentive German asylum policy to ensure the protection of politically active Azerbaijanis in Germany and prevent further arrests of activists upon deportation from Germany.

To conclude, there is ample space for putting Germany’s feminist foreign and development policy to practice in the South Caucasus. Based on the feminist values of intersectionality, empathetic reflexivity, substantive representation and participation, accountability, and active peace commitment, Germany should step up its political support for civil society and human rights in the region, ensure feedback loops to its policies from diverse local groups, become a true ally for gender equality and LGBTQI rights, and put its political weight behind the promotion of lasting peace. Success will not come overnight, but feminists know that feminist goals have never been reached easily.


[1] This data was obtained through direct communication with the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. The numbers do not include funding provided for cooperation through the political foundations, churches, or other non-state actors. Moreover, they do not include bilateral German funding provided for projects with a broader focus on the Eastern Partnership region.

[2] The acronym UNM refers to the United National Movement, the party founded by Mikheil Saakashvili that was in power between 2004-2012.