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Russia and Caucasus Observatory

Caucasus Essentials Pt.3 – The Caucasus today: a region still on the cleavage

by Giovanni Zorra*

Nowadays the Caucasus is one more time on the cleavage. Not anymore between culture, religions or languages. This time between past and future.

Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia have a troubled past which still influences deeply their politics and self-perception of their peoples. Regional and ethnic issues are open wounds which do not stop bleeding.

But times are changing for the Caucasus too. Caucasian countries are not a periphery; they are small but active international actors, developing busy networks with Europe, USA, Arabic countries, China, Iran, etc.

Nowadays Caucasian civil societies want to move on, leaving behind at least some of those slags coming from a past of stagnation and war. Politics perceives this tendency, and seams to be ready to partially satisfy this new mindset.

Unemployment, environment, youth policies, social inequalities, economic reforms, are nowadays on political agendas, even if applied in a very different way in the three countries, seen their different political systems and economic potentials.

War is frozen and still there, but it is not considered anymore a good reason to stop imagining improvements in people’s life. Furthermore, social and economic development is nowadays seen as a long-term strategy to prevail in frozen conflicts: they cannot defeat our enemy with weapons, but they can try with prosperity.

Russia remains in its cumbersome position, always promoting a double-faced approach charged of pros and cons, which never allows governments to take clear position without expecting consequences.

Russia is militarily supporting breakaway regions in Georgia, as well as Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh, but it remains the first trade partner for the three Republics, with a great amount of public and private capitals invested in several sectors. At the same time, besides political reasons, there are some economic frictions, due to rivalry (for example about oil and gas) and sanctions enforced in the recent past.

The main Russian goal in the region is to remain crucial for any military and international agreement, knowing that as long as Caucasian countries will remain divided, there will be space for Russian intervention and interests.

American and European presence were strong in the 90s, basically moved by a containment strategy towards Russia and by an interest on oil and gas reserves in Azerbaijan. They supported diplomatically and militarily the respective governments, promoting the development of democratic institutions and an increasingly effective autonomy from Russia. The most relevant success was for sure the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline (often defined as the most relevant Western geopolitical result in the 90s); but also the establishment of “democratish” dynamics in two of the three countries can be considered a remarkable result.

European Union plays a peculiar role in regional diplomacy: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia are part of the Eastern Partnership and they participate to several European projects (one above the others the Erasmus+). Another important aspect of its involvement in the area is the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM), one of the rare “boot-on-the-ground” mission promoted by the Union finalized to the monitoring of the “borders” between breakaway regions and Georgia.

Nowadays Western activism in the region is resized. Mostly because the situation is somehow normalized and there is not any imminent risk for peace and for its geopolitical interests.

In addition, there were some steps back in containment strategy towards Russia: NATO does not appear anymore capable of an enlargement in this region, as it was only few years ago thanks to Georgian enthusiasm (Georgia contributed to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). At the same time its military cooperation remains constant and its rhetoric strong.

As we can expect, relations between Caucasian countries are not bright, but sometimes they become even sclerotic.

Georgia is in good relations with Armenia, even if they openly their occupation; Tbilisi does not like Russian influence on the neighbour, but it accepts that Russian supplies cross their territories thanks to special trains and even to an old soviet gas pipeline.

Azerbaijan trades happily with Georgia, even if it is an essential partner for Armenia. Baku is in friendly relations with Moscow, and their Presidents (respectively Ilham Aliyev and Vladimir Putin) are in a close political and personal relations, forgetting that Russia provides an essential support to Armenian occupation in Nagorno Karabakh.

Armenia depends on Russian military aids and finds in Iran a strong trade partner; at the same time, interested in keeping good relations with Georgia and Western powers which have strong relations with Azerbaijan, Armenian governments never recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as a country, even if it is de facto under their control.

These complex and apparently contradictory relations are a constant in the Caucasus. Any change must be based on compromise and multilateralism, otherwise the only scenario would mean war. And no one can realistically undertake it. This makes of the Caucasus an interesting training ground for diplomacy, where ideology and desire of vengeance are nowadays blunt weapons.

The direct consequence is that, day by day, Caucasian Countries are moving beyond ideology and desire of vengeance, although not without doubts and reflections, culpable mistakes and some Machiavellianism.

Is future written for Caucasus? Difficult to say. What we can do is to remain on the cleavage, keeping this small but dense region in our view.

Suggested readings:

Herzig Edmund, “The New Caucasus”, RIIA 1999
Asmus Ronald D., “A little war that shook the world”, St. Martin’s Press, 2010
Verda Matteo, “Azerbaijan, an introduction to the country”, Epoké, 2014

*Since he was a teenager Giovanni has always been interested in politics. Over time he has developed a peculiar interest in public institutions and their functioning, which has resulted in the decision to graduate in European Affairs. Nowadays, Giovanni is working as researcher for the University of Bologna in the field of public administration. His main themes of interest consist of Eastern Partnership (specifically Caucasus), geopolitics of energy, cybersecurity, EU politics.

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