Vol. 4, No. 9 (May 01, 2011)

The international dimension of security dynamics in the South Caucasus

Michael B. Bishku
Professor of History
Augusta State University, Georgia, United States

The three countries of the South Caucasus are part of a larger borderland that includes the unstable republics in Russia’s North Caucasus.  Moreover, this borderland links Eastern Europe to the Middle East and involves regional powers like Turkey, Iran and Russia, as well as powers further abroad like the European Union and the United States.  As a result of the large number of players involved, the security dynamics in the region are especially complicated.

This is not the first time the three countries of the South Caucasus have found themselves in this situation.  After World War I, all three were briefly independent and in the years since 1991, each has attempted to learn from the experience of that time in particular about the need to balance relations with their immediate neighbors through ties with powers further away, including not just the states enumerated above but also with the countries of Central Asia, the Arab world and Israel.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Federation has retained the ability to exert pressure on the region as the 2008 Russian-Georgian war dramatically showed.  At that time, the US and the EU did little to defend Georgia and that country’s Middle Eastern neighbors remained neutral, in large measure a reflection of European dependence on Russian oil and gas and US interest in working with Russia on issues like Iran and North Korea.  And Israel imposed significant limitations on arms transfers to Georgia fearing that Moscow might retaliate by lifting its own restrictions on weapons sales to Iran and the Arab countries.

Unlike in the immediate post-World War I period, the post-Soviet countries in the South Caucasus recognize that it is important not to place too much faith in the willingness and ability of outside power to defend them.  Despite that, the political survival of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan is not in doubt, but the continued territorial integrity of at least two of the three is, because of conflicts over Nagorno-Karabakh and Moscow’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

People in the South Caucasus now remember that Russia and Turkey colluded in ending the independence of the South Caucasus republics 90 years ago and to reduce the territorial extent of both Georgia and Armenia.  The three regional states even now, however, do not cooperate with one another as a group, a lack that has reduced their attractiveness to outside groups like NATO.

Since 1994, Georgia and Azerbaijan have received equipment, infrastructure, and military training from the US and Turkey through NATO’s Partnership for Peace program as well as military experience by serving alongside Turkish peacekeepers in Kosovo.  Although Georgia was rejected—along with Ukraine—for NATO membership in April 2007, the Georgians were able to secure Russia’s agreement to withdraw from the last of three military bases in Georgia proper at the time.

Several weeks before NATO’s decision on Georgian membership, Russian leader Vladimir Putin announced that Moscow would develop relationships with the governments in place in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in a way short of recognition but modeled on American involvement with Taiwan.  Moscow had been infuriated by the American and Western decision to recognize Kosovo as independent, and that added to Russian calculations regarding Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  Azerbaijan too has no foreign military bases on its territory—there is only a radar station for which Russia pays rent—but Armenia is a member of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization and has two Russian military bases within its borders.

In part because of this constellation of forces and despite four UN Security Council resolutions, Armenia continues to occupy 20 percent of Azerbaijani territory.  No foreign state recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh de jure.  In the United States, the Armenian diaspora lobbied in 1992 for Section 907 of the Freedom for Russia and Emerging Eurasian and Open Markets Support Act which prevented Azerbaijan from receiving direct aid from the American government until 2002.  Meanwhile, Armenia received about 100 million USD annually.

Armenia continues its military alliance with Russia despite Armenian economic losses of some 600 million USD as a result of the Russian-Georgian war.  It does so in part because of other economic calculations: Armenia does not have the agricultural resources of Georgia or the energy reserves of Azerbaijan, and it has also been excluded from the most important projects involving the transportation of oil and natural gas or the redevelopment of railroad routes.  And it is the case that Armenia has the smallest foreign direct investment (FDI) of the three South Caucasus republics, while due to mounting debts many of its industries have been sold to Russian interests. 

Azerbaijan in contrast has the largest FDI, largely as a result of energy structures like the Azerbaijan International Operating Company (AIOC), the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, the Shah Deniz natural gas project—in which both Russia and Iran are investors—as well as the South Caucasus, or Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum (BTE), gas pipeline.  Azerbaijan is also a member of the Saudi-inspired Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and receives financing for projects from that organization’s Islamic Development Bank, as well as from the Economic Cooperation Organization, which includes the former Soviet Central Asian states, Turkey and Iran. 
Given all these circumstances, Russia can exert political pressure in the South Caucasus whenever it feels its interests are threatened, but the three countries in the region have been expanding their ties with neighboring states in order to develop a counterweight.  Armenia is limited in that regard because of its lack of diplomatic ties with Turkey, but Armenia can and does rely on its diaspora.  Georgia and Azerbaijan in contrast seek military ties with Turkey and the West as they also work to expand economic relations with those countries, with Azerbaijan doing so in parallel with stepping up its economic and political cooperation with Russia.