The South Caucasus as a Crossroads Region: How Outside Interests Shape One of the World’s Most Volatile Regions

By: Travis Cady

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Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan are encircled by three regional powers – Russia, Turkey, and Iran. (Map sourced from Wikimedia commons)

There is a proclivity in international relations to regard the South Caucasus states; namely Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, as a single geopolitical region. However, to consider the three states as a cohesive group based on common customs and history is an increasingly obsolete perspective. A more practical approach to thinking about foreign relationships towards the South Caucasus is not to consider it as an enclosed region, but instead as a series of countries overlapped by the interests of surrounding powers. By and large, the South Caucasus States and their geopolitical interactions are defined in relation to their extra-regional alignments with their larger neighbors.

While there are certainly geographical and historical reasons to view the three states as a cohesive region for the purposes of historical and anthropological research, for the prerogatives of international relations it makes more sense to view the region as a series of interwoven interests tied to major surrounding powers. The South Caucasus States are atypical in that they tend to identify more with external poles through both active policy and popular will than with each other. There is very little political cohesion among South Caucasus States in the form of a common identity against an external “other”, a phenomenon that is seen in other regions categorizations (i.e. The Middle East, East Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, etc.) In fact, much of the foreign interaction with and intervention in the South Caucasus as a region is for the purpose of preventative maintenance, or more specifically the prevention of destabilizing conflict that might serve one particular pole more than another. It makes sense to approach the South Caucasus as a type of crossroads region that is vital first and foremost for managing the interplay between major powers that circumvent it, namely Russia, Turkey, and Iran.

Disunity and Conflict in the South Caucasus

Since the fall of the Soviet Union the South Caucasus states have been seen largely as pieces on a geopolitical chessboard by their relatively powerful neighbors. These power interests can be divided between the Turkey to the West, Russia to the North, and Iran to the south. Historical affiliations with these neighboring powers, particularly the former Soviet Union and the Ottoman Empire, shaped all three in different ways. Ethnic ties link each state in different capacities with Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the West. There are also significant divisions along religious lines, with Shia Islam prominent in Azerbaijan, and versions of orthodox Christianity in Armenia and Georgia. Since the 1990s the South Caucasus have not coalesced as a region, tending more towards infighting and distrust.

This general disunity is manifested in an outwards-looking foreign policy embraced by all three South Caucuses States and a penchant for internal conflict and mutual distrust, especially between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. While it is certainly true that Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the prime threat to regional stability, is a localized dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan, its status as a frozen conflict is largely maintained by extra-regional intervention for the purposes of maintaining a tentative status-quo. Russian support of Armenia through trade and military technology, as well as its military presence inside the country and its monitoring of the border zones, helps to maintain the cease-fire and was bought largely through Armenian concessions to a Russian military presence in its midst. This dynamic, of course, lends Armenian political support to Russia to the detriment of its neighbors, who view Russian incursion as a real threat to autonomy. American support of Armenia, thanks in large part to the sizeable Armenian Diaspora inside the US, also upholds the status quo, albeit motivated by less geopolitically strategic designs.

Turkey, in recent years, attempted to play a greater role in the South Caucasus. The limitations of Turkey’s “zero-problem” policy, the complex and divergent nature of its three eastern neighbors in terms of national objectives and political structures frustrates a regional approach. Instead, western interest and investment are increasingly banking on Azerbaijan’s energy sector and the Georgian energy corridor to bring oil and gas east. EU and western inroads into the economic, political, and security frameworks of the South Caucuses, particularly in Georgia, are increasingly powerful interests in the region, although Turkey still acts as a geographical gateway. Iranian designs on the region, by contrast, have been mostly bilateral in nature and largely economically oriented, primarily as a means of easing the burden of western sanctions. With the lifting of sanctions, however, it is possible to see a more politically active Iran in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Overall, the Russian, Turkish, and Iranian approaches to the region are linked to each of the three South Caucasus states in different ways.

Georgia: One Eye West, One Eye North

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Tbilisi, Capital of Georgia (Image taken from Wikimedia commons)

Georgia is the most wholly “Caucasian” state of the South Caucuses. Thomas de Waal explained Georgia’s peculiar situation in that Georgia has always been much more of a world of its own” as opposed to Armenia and Azerbaijan, which “always look outward” and “have a foot outside the caucuses” Its ties to its southern and eastern neighbors are largely economic and encouraged by Turkish and Russian interests. While Armenia and Azerbaijan have had constant conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, Georgia’s primary preoccupation over the past 25 years has been a struggle to maintain its independence against a slowly encroaching Russia. Sharing the longest border with Russia of the three formerly Soviet territories, Georgia has the most to fear from Russian designs on its autonomy either through direct territorial acquisition, as seen in the Abkhazia and South Ossetia conflicts, or via indirect pressure on its existing political system. As such, Georgian policy has been a balancing act of placating the Russian bear while courting Western interest as a counter to counter the northern threat. As Oscar Sierra explores in a comparison of Russian and EU approaches to the country, Georgia is also caught between the threat of Russian coercion and the pull of Western institutional economic and security frameworks, although it is still wary of transitioning fully into western political norms.

Georgia’s relations with its South Caucasus neighbors are, therefore, largely contingent on its relations with its two major poles. Trade routes to Armenia are the primary economic pathway to the southern state due to the Turkish and Azerbaijani sanctions against it. Russia’s interest in supporting Armenia as a lever against their potential energy competitor, Azerbaijan, means Russian pressure to maintain a trade corridor with the isolated country is ever present. Alternatively, Georgia’s relations with Azerbaijan are driven by its position as an energy transit state for oil and gas en route to Turkey and the EU. Maintenance of the eastern pipelines, largely supported by Western investment, is vital to stem Georgian reliance on Russian energy, and thus Georgia’s policies with its fellow South Caucasus are shaped by its need to placate its extra-regional poles.

Azerbaijan: Balancing Between Three Regions.

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Baku, Capital city of Azerbaijan (Image taken from Wikimedia Commons)

Ethnically and Religiously, its somewhat odd that Azerbaijan is more closely associated with the South Caucasus than with its southern neighbor, Iran. Made up of a majority of Shiites, compared to the largely Orthodox Christian Georgian and Armenian populations, Azerbaijan seems more similar at first glance with Iran than any of its other neighbors. Despite these common threads Azerbaijan and Iran have not maintained close relations. Houman Sadri makes the point in his article on Iranian relations in the South Caucasus that Azerbaijan defies this Huntingtonian paradigm because of its Soviet past and its post-Soviet tradition of strong, authoritarian leaders. The small Caspian nation has historically been wary of Iranian attempts to foster closer cultural ties out of fear of increased Iranian influence among the Shiite population, influence that could undermine the authoritarian Aliyev regime, which has been in power since Azerbaijan’s independence from the Soviet Union. However, Azerbaijan is still forced to maintain working relations with its southern neighbor in large part thanks to its Nakhchivan exclave, separated from western Azerbaijan by Armenia and, therefore, cut off from direct domestic support. In return for Iranian energy and economic support to Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan exports natural gas to its southern neighbor. But the relationship, like Iran’s connection with Georgia and Armenia, is largely based on mutual economic gain as opposed to any real political cohesion.

President Aliyev jealously guards his control over the oil and gas wealth of the country and is adept at maintaining a solid hold over what population that could be ethnically vulnerable to Iranian influence. Consequently, Azerbaijan’s prerogative is the development of its energy resources with the aid of Western investment. The Aliyev regime continues to play a careful balancing game between Russia, Turkey, and Iran while positioning itself as a prime energy supplier to the EU. With less fear of direct Russian intervention within its borders Azerbaijan is attempting to become an indispensable part of Turkish and EU energy security and is also negotiating with the Turkmenistan for a expanded natural gas network. As such, a great importance is placed on the security of Azerbaijani claims in the resource-rich Caspian Sea and the viability of its Turkish and European energy investments and pipeline infrastructure. Fears of Iranian or Russian intervention in Caspian waters, or the disruption of the oil and gas pipelines transiting Georgia, are the primary economic concerns of Azerbaijan.

Armenia: A State Born from Conflict

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Yerevan, capital of Armenia (Image taken from WikiMedia Commons)

Armenia experiences great animosity from its eastern and western neighbors, Azerbaijan and Turkey, while at the same time enjoying a significant amount of support from Russia and Iran. In fact, the very existence of Armenia is predicated on the intervention and support of extra-regional powers. Until the mass expulsion of Armenians from Ottoman lands in 1915 the population was widely spread across Turkey and much of Central Asia. As a result of the forced exodus of Armenians, the Armenian Republic was formed in 1918, although it was quickly usurped by the Soviet Union. Regardless, the existence of the Armenian state today and the concentration of the Armenian population is by and large a result of relatively recent historical events. Historical animosity against the Turks remains a defining trait of Armenia, and a major contributor to Armenia’s geographical isolation from western trade routes. Consequently, much of Armenian trade comes from Russia by way of Georgia or south from Iran, with whom Armenia shares much more friendly relations than Iran holds with the more ethnically similar Azeris.

The prerogative for a consolidated Armenian state manifested in 1988 in a push for control over the Nagorno-Karabakh region and, thanks in large part to the Russian-enforced cease-fire the autonomous region is de facto in Armenian hands, to the dismay of Azerbaijan. The identification as Armenian in opposition to Azeri is strong, and grounded in the last century of political strife. It is not a stretch to claim that Armenia as it currently exists is a product of initially Ottoman and Soviet, and later Turkish and Russian, making. Armenian policy to this day reflects these relationships, from reliance on Russia and other supporting external benefactors. Thus, Armenia is Russia’s gateway into the southern reaches of the South Caucasus, and Armenia could very well play a spoiler in Russian push for influence in the region through renewed conflict with Azerbaijan.

What This Means for Policy

When engaging with the South Caucasus from a foreign policy perspective, approaching them as a cohesive region with internal norms is a mistake. The South Caucasus region is better considered a region in a negative sense in that its contingent states are outward-looking and their inter-regional relations are marked by friction and animosity as opposed to a shared heritage. As such, it makes sense to interact with this region in a bilateral fashion, approaching each state not as a regional partner with its South Caucasus neighbors, but instead as security-seeking agents molded by the overlapping interests of extra-regional power players in conjunction with inter-regional security concerns. In order to maintain a practicable relationship with each state, these complex relationships must be understood, and foreign policy should be tailored first and foremost, in regard to the repercussions that each South Caucuses state must consider as a member of the crossroads between several extra-regional powers.


IMG_6264 (1)Travis Cady is the managing editor of ExPatt Magazine and a master’s candidate at the Patterson School specializing in International Commerce. He is currently a working as a researcher on global energy security. He previously graduated from the University of Louisville, studying political science and philosophy, and has traveled in both Europe and Asia. His interests include international trade networks, regional security, and diplomatic relations.

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