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The Caucasus is among the world’s most divided and incoherent regions. Its three republics — Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia — failed to learn from similarly linked groups of countries, such as the Benelux countries and the Baltic states, which, despite their historical grievances and political differences, united to achieve their common goals of stability, prosperity and democracy.

Is it too late for the Caucasus to change course?

To be sure, when the Russian Empire disintegrated after World War I, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia formed a confederation to face the threats posed by Turkish encroachment from the west, and Soviet incursions from the north. But after a few months, each went its own way as an independent state. Two years later, all were absorbed into the Soviet Union.

In 1991, when all three became independent again, similar proposals of confederation and union were floated. Nothing of the sort was realized. What divides these countries today is not religion, ethnicity, culture, history or traditions; it is the differing visions, prospects, ambitions, convictions and aspirations they espouse and pursue.

To the extent that political and economic institutions determine the nature of a region’s international role, the Caucasus is more comparable to the counties bordering North Africa than the Baltics or Old Europe.

Its political systems are unstable; its economies are more oligarchical than liberal; territorial disputes are resolved by force; and its foreign policy vectors point in different directions.

Of the three, Georgia is the most democratic. The fact that its people have twice forced a change of government — first through the 2003 Rose Revolution, which imposed the popular will on an unelected government, and then again last year through the ballot box — has given them a sense of empowerment.

For their part, Armenians came close to forcing a change of government through street protests on three occasions — but failed each time. No election since independence has brought a change of government.

And in Azerbaijan, no serious attempt to change the government has been made. Indeed, power has simply been transferred dynastically, from Heydar Aliyev to his son, Ilham Aliyev, who, after assuming office in 2003, amended the constitution to make himself president for life.

These contrasting experiences have led to starkly different — and dangerously divisive — foreign-policy approaches. In terms of security, Georgia aspires to NATO membership; Armenia is a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization; and Azerbaijan maintains strong security arrangements with Turkey and Israel, while purchasing modern military hardware from Russia.

Likewise, Georgia recently signed an Association Agreement with the European Union, while committing to economic and institutional reforms that will strengthen the country’s ability to take on the body of EU law.

Armenia has indicated its readiness to join the Russian-led Eurasian Union, along with Belarus and Kazakhstan, and has already formed a customs union with these countries. Azerbaijan has stayed away from both.

Regardless of the nature of its formal relations with each of the three republics, Russia casts a long shadow over the Caucasus. Whatever these countries decide, they must remain cognizant of the “Russia factor,” the perceived significance of which inevitably influences their foreign policy orientation.

Georgia views Russia as its main adversary, despite its own contribution to the two countries’ mutual animosity. But its leaders should recognize that eventual integration into European security and economic structures cannot fully compensate for the absence of any relations with Russia. If Georgia is to prosper in a sustainable way, it must build normal bilateral ties.

Until then, Armenia’s options will remain limited. For Armenia, Russia is a strategic partner by choice, while Georgia is a geopolitical partner by default. Russia is a hugely important country for Armenia; Georgia is slightly more important. When bad weather shuts down the Lars passage between Georgia and Russia — which is also Armenia’s land link to Russia -Armenia suffers. If the Georgia-Armenia border closes down, Armenia chokes.

That is why Armenia’s key geopolitical challenge is not so much normalizing relations with its neighbors as preventing those neighbors from ganging up against it. Here, Georgia’s rejection of the highly lucrative economic, energy and financial incentives offered by Turkey and Azerbaijan to isolate Armenia is crucially important.

Azerbaijan views Russia as a partner with which it can bargain, particularly in the strategic energy games being played by Russia and Europe.

What the Aliyev government has not recognized is that, by signing off on several gas pipelines to Europe, Azerbaijan has largely relinquished its bargaining chips. Stability and prosperity in Azerbaijan will require Aliyev to stop depending exclusively on energy exports — and to help bring an end to the longstanding Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azeris and Armenians.

In the Caucasus, nostalgia for the security, predictability and economic benefits of the Cold War era is not a guide to wise policy. But blind belief in Western alternatives, which sometimes seem like a panacea for the region’s security and economic challenges, does not offer a solution either.

If all three countries considered realistically what’s possible under current circumstances, they would recognize that a cooperative, unified approach would be best for everyone.

Unfortunately political leaders — particularly in autocratic systems — often do not identify their countries’ best interests with their own.

Vartan Oskanian, a member of Armenia’s National Assembly and a former foreign minister (1998-2008), is the founder of the Civilitas Foundation. © 2014 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)

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