Unifying the Caucasus

Image by 10b travelling

The South Caucasus is a tribally divided region, rich in natural resources, that could wield considerable influence if unified, and could economically compete with Russia and the West.

When asked to describe “the Caucasus”, most people reply with a blank stare. Some might guess you are referring to one of the more unusual facets of the American presidential electoral process found in certain states like Iowa. Actually, it’s not politics, but geography that defines the Caucasus – an area dominated by the Caucasus Mountains that ropes through portions of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The North Caucasus is a group of regions in southeastern Russia. The South Caucasus is made up of independent states: Georgia, Turkey, Iran, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

Overlapping these territorial definitions are a plethora of “nations” born of tribal ethnicities while centuries old rivalries, temporarily frozen during the Soviet era, run aplenty. Armenians refer to their historic enemies as “Turks”, “Tatars”, or as the author has heard, “descendants of the Siberian steppe people”. Turks are Turkic people, former members of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. Tatar is a more vague term, generally referring to Russian-Turkic people who migrated within Mongolia and Kazakhstan during the 13th century and fought for Genghis Khan; though the Chinese have a different name for these nomads: Dudan. And who are the Siberian steppe people? Basically they were nomadic Tatars who occupied Southern Siberia in and around the 5th century and currently populate Azerbaijan.

If this weren’t confusing enough, the tribal peoples of the Caucasus became heterogeneously mixed through forced migration fuelled by Stalin’s paranoia.[ref] A total of 1.1 million Soviet Germans, 1.2 million Western Ukrainians and Western Belorussians, and a substantial proportion of the Balkar, Chechen, Crimean Tatar, Ingush, Kalmyk, Karachai, Meskhetian and Soviet Greek populations, were deported. Furthermore, during post-war collectivization, substantial numbers of Baltic ‘kulaks’ were also sent into exile. It is estimated that nearly 3.3 million people were exiled or resettled between 1941 and 1948 The deportations, often by cattle truck, took place in appalling conditions, and hundreds of thousands died en route. (Boobbyer, Philip, The Stalin Era, Routledge, 2000, pgs. 129 – 130).[/ref] The defined states (as they are today) did not emerge until the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, which was immediately followed by the formation of the Soviet Union in the early 1920s. Then in 1989 the Berlin Wall tumbled down and the search for a post-Soviet identity began. As a result, the long suppressed and abused people of the Caucasus re-ignited historic tribal rivalries and numerous conflicts followed in the early to mid-1990s, most of which are still in the process of resolution.

The Caucasus is rich in natural resources, notably, but not limited to, natural gas and oil – making it a target for Russia and the West to invest in, and arguably exploit the chaotic, tribal separatism.

The current status-quo in the South Caucasus reads like a war theater soap opera. Armenia is at odds with Turkey because they believe Turkey did not fight fair in World War I. Azerbaijan has a blockade on Armenia because Armenia won the war over Nagorno-Karabakh in 1994. Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia are involved in joint oil and natural gas contracts with the West through BP. Georgia and Armenia are both Christian. Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Iran are Muslim. Armenia and Iran have virtually no trading partners and share a border, and so regardless of their religious differences, they are friendly with each other. But there is one common denominator – they all resent Russia, which made some of these states into Soviet Republics. Moscow is unhappy that the West is investing in the region’s natural resources (that formerly were Soviet), evidenced by its invasion of Georgia in 2008, attacking directly along the route of the BP operated BTC pipeline. Russia has exploited Armenia’s isolation to secure exclusive uranium mining contracts, and based on that premise alone, the countries of the South Caucasus could unite if they followed the well-known proverb: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

As Russia rises as a world power, the borders of the South Caucasus become more precarious, as exemplified by the most recent Russia-Georgia war in South Ossetia. In order to have a fighting chance, the countries of the South Caucasus need to band together and wield power stronger than the sum of their parts. Building a South Caucasus bloc would not be easy. First, they would have to put aside their historic disputes to form an alliance crossing many cultural, religious, and geopolitical boundaries. Second, Russia would almost certainly oppose such an association, and would likely try to prevent the formation of a rival economic bloc on its borders. Russia might also fear that a South Caucasus Group could inspire a North Caucasus Group, meaning an independent Chechnya. However, Western investors might find this arrangement more favorable, viewing stability as paramount. If the South Caucasus became unified and stable, they would have access to their pooled natural resources. Western nations could pursue investments and trade agreements, which may appear favorable in light of instability in the Middle East. The gains made by the South Caucasus countries in such an arrangement could mean increased economic security. The South Caucasus Group could be modeled after the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which promotes economic growth and regional security. ASEAN is made up of member states: Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. And if quantified as a bloc, their economy is the ninth largest in the world, valued at approximately $1.8 trillion, which is larger than Russia’s $1.465 trillion.

A major obstacle to such a group is the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan which, like the former Yugoslavia and others, exploded into ethnic conflict after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Rarely reported on in the West, Nagorno-Karabakh has remained a frozen conflict since 1994, meaning a cease-fire was agreed to but no peace agreement was signed. The conflict remains unresolved and the lack of resolution keeps the region from moving forward as a unit. Though there would be several obstacles to overcome, the current status-quo in the South Caucasus prevents long-term peace and prosperity. A South Caucasus Group could be the answer.

Image courtesy of 10b travelling

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About Elizabeth Austin

Elizabeth Austin has a Master’s in International Affairs from the American University of Paris (AUP), where she was awarded an AUP Travel Grant and completed her thesis field work in the South Caucasus. She then studied Russian Language and Literature in a year-long, multi-level course. Elizabeth also has a Master’s in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews, where she completed her dissertation field work in Cambodia, and she is a graduate of New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. Elizabeth has contributed articles to International Policy Digest and Global Politics Magazine, and book reviews to E-International Relations.

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