The South Caucasus: A common future?
Religious leaders from Armenia and Azerbaijan made a call in Baku for a peaceful resolution of the Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Garegin II, stated that problems between states should be solved in accordance with international law and the rights of the nations and emphasized his faith in the common future of the South Caucasus.
Clearly, the current situation in the region – the “frozen” Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, Russia’s decision on the acceptance of independence of Georgian rebel regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, since 2008, the Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and, more dramatically, Washington’s “double-standards” toward Azerbaijan – raises a crucial question: “Is there a common future for the south Caucasus states?”
Obviously, the region’s current political systems and practices emerged in the turmoil of a collapsing superpower and have been deeply affected by this. Furthermore, if in the Baltic countries, home to another troika of former Soviet republics, the history, proximity to friendly neighbor nations and the generally accepted notion of European identity helped to mitigate the negative consequences of the post-Soviet transition to sustainable independence, the externalities in the south Caucasus acted to make the transition significantly harder.
Contrary to some existing stereotypes, there seems to be little that inherently divides the peoples of the south Caucasus. Even if the most recent historic example of integration was the short-lived “Trans-Caucasian Federation” of 1917-18, it is, at least, a symbolic recognition of the regional identity and an attempt to establish and maintain a separate regional political entity. Especially, the Caucasus gathering under one roof, the formulas concerning economic or political integration have been raised. The formulas of The Common House of Caucasus, United States of Caucasus, the Caucasus Stability Pact, etc. are intended to put an end to the main source of the fragmented structure of instability in the region.
The contemporary example of strong regional partnership between Azerbaijan and Georgia, two nations with very different dominant ethnic and religious groups, shows that not only a cooperative arrangement within the south Caucasus is possible, but also that it is, clearly, in the interest of its participants. Moreover, the Azerbaijani-Georgian cooperation has had a strong impact on the wider region, among other things, the largest infrastructure project, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, or BTC, pipeline, and by having served as the core for the GUAM, the Organization for Democracy and Economic Development.
Such cooperation is not based on history, but rather on the ability of both Baku and Tbilisi to overcome existing obstacles for a vision of a common future of the Caucasus. For the south Caucasus’ common future to be fully realized, however, Armenia must be a part.
Presently, Armenia stands largely separate from its two Caucasian neighbors and, unable to develop relations with Turkey, generally, acts more as an observer rather than a participant in the emerging partnerships in the region. It seems that if Azerbaijan and Georgia are fixated on the regional future, the Armenian thinking is still preoccupied by its past. Thus, not much room is left for thinking about the present; perhaps, a common trend for transitional periods.
As the regional projects expand and develop further, Armenian non-participation increasingly turns into a limitation for integration in the south Caucasus as a whole and destructive isolation for Armenia itself. Should the current tendency of entrenching positions both in Baku and Yerevan continue, with time it might be even more difficult to bridge the differences and help Armenia to become a fully integrated member of the south Caucasus region.
Comprehensive integration in the south Caucasus, thus, can be achieved through the formulation and acceptance of a common political identity based on the interests of the Caucasian states and their citizens.
However imperfect, Azerbaijani-Georgian relations provide evidence for the feasibility of such integration and a model of recognition through the accommodation of both the interests of the individual states and of the entire region.
Another important element of the partnership between Baku and Tbilisi is the ability to overcome mutual historic and more recent emotional grievances as well as an understanding that all unresolved issues could be addressed through bilateral negotiations. Arguably, only such accommodation can serve as the basis for sustainable regional identity. One psychological factor that seems to underpin any such identity is the appreciation of the Caucasus being a common neighborhood for all of its citizens. Without an appreciation of this commonality, a regional cooperative arrangement is not likely to be effective.
Finally, the recent developments in the region since the events of 9/11 and particularly since the August 2008 conflict between Russian and Georgian forces have demonstrated once again that the geopolitical realignment of the region has not yet ended and the rivalry of outsiders over the region’s future still continues.
Zaur Shiriyev is a foreign policy analyst based in Azerbaijan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.