25 Years On: South Caucasus

A map of the contemporary South Caucasus: Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)


Throughout their history, the territories of contemporary Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan have been pushed and pulled by the imperial ambitions of their larger and more powerful neighbors: the Russian Empire (later, the Soviet Union) to the north, the Ottoman Empire (later, Turkey) to the south-west, and the Persian Empire (later, Iran) to the south-east. However, Russia eventually established dominance in the region, with Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan each becoming union republics of the USSR in the twentieth century, Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the South Caucasus, sometimes also known as Transcaucasia, has seen some of the highest levels of violence and tension in the post-Soviet space. The Georgian government has sought to weaken separatist movements in three of its regions, Adjara, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, which resulted in a brief war with Russia in 2008; meanwhile, a bloody conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan has continued without resolution since 1988. Despite the fact that Washington and Brussels have consistently sought to promote liberal democracy, the market, and EU integration in the region, the future of the South Caucasus remains largely unclear, given these numerous and unresolved territorial disputes.

A Brief History

Given its key geostrategic location between Eastern Europe and the Middle East, the South Caucasus is home to a diverse mix of ethnicities, religions, and cultures. The Georgian people are a Caucasian ethnic group native largely to the territory of modern Georgia. The Armenian people are an Indo-European ethnic group who historically inhabited what is now eastern Turkey and western Azerbaijan, in addition to contemporary Armenia; since the Armenian Genocide of 1915, most Armenians live either in Armenia proper or in diaspora, mostly in the US and Russia. Finally, the Azerbaijani, or Azeri, people are a Turkic ethnic group who live primarily in north-west Iran, in addition to contemporary Azerbaijan; interestingly, there are actually more Azerbaijani people living in Iran today than in Azerbaijan proper. The Georgians and Armenians were among the first nations in the world to be Christianized, with both having converted to the religion in the fourth century; the Azerbaijani people, on the other hand, largely profess Shiite Islam.

The territories of contemporary Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan were all conquered by the Russian Empire in the early 1800s. After this initial conquest, they largely remained in Russia’s sphere of influence until the Soviet dissolution in 1991, except for a brief period in the late 1910s when all three declared their independence from the collapsed Russian Empire. Reflecting their close historical ties, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan at first formed one united republic within the USSR, appropriately called the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic (TSFSR). In 1936, however, the TSFSR dissolved and Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan each became union republics in their own right. Although the centralized power of the USSR largely kept interethnic relations peaceful, by the late 1980s, Moscow had largely lost control. Across the country, anti-Soviet and pro-independence protests were breaking out and interethnic tensions in some regions were on the rise; this was especially the case in the South Caucasus.

In 1988, conflict broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, a region of Azerbaijan with an ethnic Armenian majority; the issue remains unresolved to this day. In 1988-1990, a series of pogroms (mass killings) against ethnic Armenians took place across Azerbaijan. In response to these events, the Soviet government declared a state of emergency in Azerbaijan and deployed Soviet troops, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of civilians, now referred to as Black January. In Georgia, meanwhile, similarly heavy-handed tactics by the Soviet armed forces against protesters culminated in April 9, 1989 with the deaths of several dozen people in the capital of Tbilisi, now memorialized as the Day of National Unity in Georgia. The events of April 9 greatly contributed to the mobilization of public opinion against the Soviet government in Georgia, and exactly two years later, on April 9, 1991, Georgia declared independence from the USSR. Armenia followed suit in September, and Azerbaijan in October. By December 1991, the Soviet Union had collapsed completely, leaving in its wake a group of fifteen newly-independent states.

Where is the South Caucasus Heading?

In the post-Soviet period, the political histories of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan have largely diverged. Georgia, once notoriously corrupt even by Soviet standards, underwent a popular revolution, commonly called the Rose Revolution, in 2003 that ushered in a new type of politics that largely promotes liberal democracy and the market. Having suffered a war with Moscow in 2008, Georgia has sought to ally itself with Washington and Brussels and is currently pursuing both NATO and EU membership. Armenia, on the other hand, has continued to look to Russia for security and backing in the war with Azerbaijan, even going so far as to join Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union initiative in 2015. Russo-Armenian relations are generally warm, and the Russian language remains more widely spoken today in Armenia than in either Georgia or Azerbaijan. For its part, Azerbaijan has sought Turkish backing in the conflict with Armenia; the two countries share a common ethnic and linguistic background, with the former president of Azerbaijan referring to relations between them as being those of “one nation with two states.” It seems that, for the foreseeable future, the countries of the South Caucasus will continue to pursue divergent political goals and forge disparate alliances with greater powers.

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