Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

The South Caucasus Republics and Russia's Growing Influence: Balancing on a Tightrope

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

The South Caucasus Republics and Russia's Growing Influence: Balancing on a Tightrope

Article excerpt

With the breakup of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War, three republics in the South Caucasus-Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia-achieved independence from Russia for the second time during the twentieth century. Their first experience was contentious and short-lived, had little support of the major European countries and the United States, and was brought to an end by the newly formed Soviet Union, with the tacit approval of the Turkish government in Ankara. Located at the crossroads of Russia, the rest of Europe, and the Middle East, the republics' political and economic security has depended on the balancing of relations with both their regional neighbors and with the major powers. Their foreign policy has been shaped by matters of territorial integrity, historical memory, ethnic brethren residing abroad, and trade routes.

This article will examine the relations between the South Caucasus republics and Russia and how the former countries have attempted to lessen the latter's influence through ties with other major powers and neighboring countries. The South Caucasus republics' position with regard to Russia is somewhat similar to that of the Latin American states in the Caribbean Basin visà- vis the United States throughout much of the twentieth century. Perception of national interest would serve as justification for intervention in the affairs of the smaller neighboring states. The 2008 Russian- Georgian war has shown that the United States and others are reluctant to become directly involved in conflicts in what is regarded as "Russia's backyard." Two centuries of Russian and later Soviet control over these territories are in part responsible for this attitude. Also, the European Union is quite dependent on Russia for energy resources-33 percent of oil imports and 40 percent of gas imports1-while Turkey- which is also dependent, 29 percent of oil imports and 63 percent of gas imports2-and Israel are not willing to jeopardize political and economic ties with Russia over South Caucasus disputes.


Geographic location has necessitated that each South Caucasus republic balance its relations with Russia and other countries. This has not been an easy task-especially given the limited cooperation between the republics themselves and in the cases of Armenia and Azerbaijan, being in a state of war over Nagorno-Karabakh. One method employed by the South Caucasus republics is having (or seeking) membership in both regional and international political, economic, and military organizations.

Ethnic brethren residing in Russia and other foreign countries is another consideration in foreign policy. Most ethnic Georgians outside their country live in either Israel or Russia and their number in the latter country, some half a million, is roughly one-third the populations of both ethnic Armenians and Azeris in Russia.3 There are more than twice as many ethnic Azeris residing in Iran (some 15 to 20 million) than in their home country and about half as many (roughly 50,000) as the ethnic Georgian population in Israel.4 Besides those in Russia, ethnic Armenians in the diaspora-much larger in number than Armenia's population-reside in North America, Europe, and the Middle East, especially in the United States, Canada, France, Ukraine, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey. Azeris and Armenians live in areas of eastern and southern Georgia.5

Of the three republics, Georgia has the worst relations with Russia and the closest ties with the West. In 2008, as a result of its war with Russia, Georgia withdrew from the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), whose membership includes all of the former Soviet republics except for the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Along with its South Caucasus neighbors and Russia, Georgia is a member of the Istanbul-based Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) organization that also includes Turkey, Greece, Ukraine, Moldova, Albania, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania. …

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