The South Caucasus: A Political Earthquake Zone

 By Tanya Melich

Since gaining their independence from the Soviet Union 20 years ago, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia have struggled to prove to themselves and the outside world that they can determine their own fate.

Such hopes are fading.

These tiny South Caucasus countries live in a political earthquake zone, surrounded by the region's giants—Russia, Turkey, and Iran. In exchange for peace and modest prosperity for themselves and their citizens, South Caucasus leaders appear to be making major governmental decisions that benefit Russia and—to a lesser extent—Turkey. (Any benefits to Iran are harder to ascertain.)

These regional giants are ratcheting up the action. They want to control the region’s oil wealth and exploit its potentially rich minerals. They know that profits lie in transporting Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan’s oil to European markets and that the easiest pipeline routes are through the South Caucasus. They also know that political leverage will go to those who control the oil spigot to Europe.

The Southern Caucasus countries haven’t broken the cultural hold that Russia has on them, nor have they made it clear that’s what they want. Each country has a different response to its former Soviet master, and the middle-aged and elderly exhibit a depression that comes from having lived in a police state. To them, no one from the outside can be trusted, but better the Russians than some group they don’t know.

Most say how glad they are to be free of the Soviets but then wax nostalgic about the excellence of the Soviet educational system and how they love Lermontovo’s poetry and Pushkin’s novels.

The predominant language heard in all three countries is Russian. Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia have separate languages and unusual alphabets, and few can speak either of the other two. Most business transactions among these three groups are in Russian and occasionally in English, especially in Georgia which mandated that schools teach English as the second language.

Even after the five-day war against Russia in 2008, most Georgians know their future depends on reasonable relations with their neighbor. Georgia lost its areas of Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia when both declared their independence and are now home to Russian troops guaranteeing it.

Present tensions between the two countries revolve around Russia's attempt to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). Unanimous consent is required for WTO entry. Georgia, a member, refuses to accept Russia into the WTO without an agreement providing trade transparency on Russia’s borders with Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Georgia.

The parties are furiously negotiating, and an agreement is expected. Russia is thought to prefer peace with its neighbors as it prepares for the 2014 Winter Olympics, which are being hosted in Sochi on the Black Sea and next to the Georgian border.

But, after the Olympics, no one knows what Putin might do to consolidate Russia's influence over Georgia.

For the moment, Russia and Georgia barely speak. Georgia has friends in the West, but that friendship is limited to student exchanges, foreign aid, and investments. The country’s other main leverage is through control over the pipelines that cross its land.

Some Azeris also have a schizoid confusion toward Russia. In 2011 Azerbaijan’s singing duet won the Eurovision Song Contest, and as a result, the contest will be in Baku in 2012. For the occasion, the Azeri government and oligarchs have built three gigantic glass buildings topped with a tulip design for the Contest’s performances.

What is strange is that these wild, unsacred Disneyesque showcases are directly across the street from the most sacred space in Azerbaijan, the Martyrs Lane. This memorial honors the Azeris who demonstrated against the Soviets in 1990 and were mowed down by Soviet troops who originally came to establish order between the Armenians and Azeris of Baku. It was the beginning of the new Azerbaijan state. 

Yet it is not the Russians, but the Armenians that contemporary Azeris hate.

The memorial also commemorates those Azeris who died from 1992 to ’94 in the conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. When a ceasefire was established, the Armenians had won the territory but over a million people from both sides lost their homes and 20,000 had died.

Armenians and Azeris lived together in both countries for centuries. But now the border is closed, and neither side speaks to each other. The hatred is palpable. 

My Baku guide told me that it was just a matter of time before oil-rich Azerbaijan goes to war to get back Nagorno-Karabakh. Both Azerbaijan and Armenia have bought arms from Ukraine.

Armenia seems to feel the same. Our guide in Yerevan often talked about how much she hated the Azeris, and while she did not want it, she expected war. Implicit in the conversations of people in both countries was the assumption that only the Russians would be able to keep the peace.

Armenia is a sad place. Its population is around 3.2 million, and with its stagnant economy, many are leaving. It has no official relations with Turkey and none with Azerbaijan. Armenia is landlocked and, except through Georgia, has no way to export its produce. Tourism is its only viable industry and even that is modest. The country survives because of the vitality of the Armenian diaspora, thought to be at least five million people, based in Russia, Europe, and North America.

There are few signs that the region is working toward a sustainable peace although there are half-hearted conversations that the EU will help when a crisis occurs.

In mid-October, the Atlantic Council Task Force on Georgia “argued for intensified domestic reform and a new sense of common purpose and clarity from the United States and Europe to work toward a democratic Georgia embedded in the institutions of the West.”  

These are admirable goals, but for the foreseeable future, Georgia and its South Caucasus neighbors have their hands full. They will try to stop Russia from gobbling them up and try to entice Turkey and Iran to help them.

The wiser leaders of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia know they are stuck with their neighbors. They continue—in the long tradition of their part of the world—to balance the anger of their citizens for war against Russian, Turkish and Iranian ambition.

They have a difficult challenge. Don’t be surprised if war breaks out in one or several of these countries when the Sochi Olympics are over.


Tanya Melich just returned from the Southern Caucasus. She is a political analyst and author with decades of experience in U.S. politics including providing foreign policy research for U.S. political candidates. She is a former staff writer for the Foreign Policy Association. 

[Photo courtesy of Bohan Shen]

[CORRECTION: The initial version of the piece misstated the population of Armenia. It is estimated at around 3.2 million.]

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