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Southern Caucasus Today – Arindam Mukherjee

The 20th Century

Between the two WWs was first created the Transcaucasian Republics. This comprised of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan – three soviets south of the mountain and bordering Iran. They later became individual republics of the Soviet Union. Then Germany tried to possess North Caucasus during WWII – the portion north of the mountain range if you check the map. That’s considered to be Russian backyard. And Germany, riding high on attacking Soviet Union wanted Baku for oil and gas. We all know how the German tour to Russia went. So by the time the War ended, Caucasus was back to being Russian/Soviet again. This arrangement continued till the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Post-Soviet Era

Northern Caucasus – the Russian side of the mountain – remained with Russia even after USSR dissolved. There, areas like Chechnya, Dagestan, North Ossetia, or Ingushetia continued to simmer and create trouble for Moscow; some traditional, some orchestrated (West to Wahhabi, all players included). The south Caucasus bordering Iran became independent as Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, and still carry the tagline of being the ‘most unstable’, ‘most volatile’, or ‘most troublesome’ former soviet territory.

Georgia

There was a colour revolution. Of course. President Eduard Shevardnadze – the father of RT anchor Sophie (yes, I know; I too like her a lot) – was warm-hearted enough to allow NGOs to operate during his time. And NGOs did what they do the best. This one was called Rose Revolution. And had links to our very own Open Society Institute. That was in 2003. Shaakashvili was propped to sit on the throne as the President. And as is the nature of the hangover of these colour revolutions, he quickly sucked up to NATO and USA. This was the time when the two separatist territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were getting restless to separate. Emboldened with his new friendship, and a military budget around $1 billion – money spent to buy ‘friendship’ of Old Uncle, Shaakasvili attacked Abkhazia. But here’s the thing: by then, the St Petersburg Boys were firmly entrenched in Moscow. So their representative Vlad Putin took four days and mopped the floor with the Georgian army, destroyed his naval and air-defence systems, seized tonnes of weaponry ammunition combat vehicles and tanks, and used the war as the right time in history to announce “We are back” to the rest of the world.

As of today, South Ossetia and Abkhazia remain out of Georgia’s banner – and that should be enough for you all to understand the camp that Georgia cheers for, or the relation its government shares with Russia.

Armenia

Same story. Traditional Russian ally, and then, suddenly there is a Soros backed ‘revolution’ there. And Armenia takes an anti-Russian course. And that is not it, they do that while demanding support and aid from Russia; taking a lesson or two one presumes, from Pakistan. That is all fine, except that Russia under Putin is a seasoned client when it comes to that, thanks to its love-hate with Belarus. And while Belarus is crucial like Pakistan is to Uncle, Armenia is of lesser geopolitical importance to Moscow. Hence when Armenia get a little overconfident over Nagorno-Karabakh – a region within Azeri border to which they have a really long claim, and trouble breaks out between them and the Azeris, Russia choose to remain put. Azeris, with the help of Turkey drubb the Armenians, and now things are back to an uneasy normal. Armenia couldn’t persuade Russia to intervene under the same reason why Turkey couldn’t get NATO to intervene after it shot down Russian planes over Syria. However, Armenia remains a Moscow ally under the CSTO, and Moscow is expected to intervene militarily if there is a threat to its internationally recognized political boundaries. And if you think that Putin might want to squeeze a thing or two off the Armenians before that, you could probably be right.

Azerbaijan

Traditionally a part of the Persian Empire, Azeris are close cousins of the Iranians, and Azerbaijan is majorly Shia Muslim in its orientation. (The Azeris are tilted towards NATO; so, no Soros backed colour revolutions here). As is the nature of peripheries, this portion exchanged hands (Persia, Iran – Russia, USSR) a few times before becoming a part of USSR, and finally going on their own post Berlin Wall. That has stayed put till date. Azeri relations with the Russians have been through a series of ups and downs – too many to track down here. Heydar Aliyev – the 3rd President was good friends with Putin during his lifetime, given their shared KGB background. And the relation between these two countries post Heydar’s death have remained steady despite a few disagreements here and there. That’s the key reason why Russia chose to remain non-committal during the Sept 2020 flare up between these two neighbours. There are many treaties signed between the two nations. Russia is a major arms supplier to Azerbaijan. There is a major economic relation on too.

The Big Picture

And if you thought that this is an incredibly old patch of land that has been exploited historically by the bigger powers since a very long time, and is now busy with their own conflicts, you are wrong. Because even today, COLLECTIVELY, Caucasus is an extremely crucial area with EVERONE being interested in it. EU wants this area to ‘tame’ down and civilize so that they don’t poise a threat to the normal life and habits of the average mainlander, and probably shop from EU. Russia considers this to be its sphere of influence because of the geo-proximity and the balance of power. Turkey sees this region as a part of its broader Turkestan plan. Iran considers Azerbaijan as its extension and remains worried about the Wahhabization that is taking place at the one end, and the call of Azeris of Iran to secede at the other. All along, the Azeris favour Turkey over Iran. And finally, Old Uncle considers this area to be a vital point to expand NATO to Russia’s doorstep, and access the Caucasian oil and gas to feed EU and reduce their Russ-dependence for energy. This, they are doing under the banner of GWOT. Add to that the ancient tribal hangover (Lezgin, Talysh, Islamic ethnic Georgians, ethnic Armenians, Mingrelians, Ossetians… groups and subgroups enough to confuse any outsider) and the constant tension in between them. (And I am currently discounting north Caucasians like the Chechens, and their tales in this essay).

Complex, isn’t it? I sincerely don’t want to bore you any further, but there are two things that must be mentioned before I finish this round: Turkey and BTC.

Turkey   

Out of the many nations and powers that are keen about the Caucasus, Turkey is the one to watch out for. For two reasons: One, it is generally considered to be a representative of the West for a few reasons and purposes; and two, it has its own imperial designs – ones that may or may not be aligned to the West. About the first point, US / Western interests, in a way, are straightforward. They have an interest in Caucasus to push border tensions around Russia. Russia – geopolitically – can only be bled through east Europe and Caucasus. Caucasian oil and gas are their next interest. Turkey is the best geostrategic bet for that resource to find its way to EU, and that could reduce EU’s energy dependence on Russia. With Syrian war, the latest third entry in their interest series is the screening of immigrants. EU has an ageing population and is somehow of the opinion that immigration could be a solution to address the deficit in working class, thus impacting their economy (it is a whole different level in stupidity – and not within the scope of this essay). And Turkey is the self-appointed screening ground of these immigrants. A major advantage, given the way Turkey has been extorting money from EU (through Merkel precisely) to keep holding immigrants and not release them all over the mainland, and releasing them now and then none the same.

Turkey’s personal interest in the Caucasus is an interesting story. The current leadership has always had big religious plans. The issue was with KSA being the official custodian of Islam. Now with KSA trying to diversify (even only for the time; even only for optics), Ankara wants to seize this moment when KSA’s focus wavers momentarily, to try and assume the mantle of the global caretaker of the religion. There are a host of initiatives that they have taken over the past few years (one can look them up easily); and Turkey’s ambition about creating a greater Turkestan region is the latest addition in this picture. Caucasus is a part of the proposed empire. Obviously. So Turkey is on an overdrive.

It has visibly decent ties with Azerbaijan; it helped them too during the latest conflict with Armenia. Talking of Armenia, that’s a thorn for Turkey. You see, Turkey has tried its best to sweep the history of Armenian Genocide under the carpet, but it keeps peeping out now and then. Needless to say, that their relations are not good. Encircling Armenia could be a workable idea. Armenia – to balance Azeri dependence on Turkey – has strengthened its ties with Iran. The third nation of south Caucasus – Georgia, is also trying to tilt towards the West and Turkey after their 2008 experience in losing territories to Russian intervention.

Things however get a little complicated when we consider the relations that their patron nations share with each other. With the Syrian war, Turkey, Iran, and Russia have developed a relation whose choke points and pressure release valves have multiplied in complexity. Not to mention the love-hate that Turkey currently shares with the West (there was even a coup attempt as you all know). But there is this one thing: Turkey is still the BEST BET for the West when it comes to reaching the Caucasus gas to EU. That remains a game-changer as long as the Western planners consider Heartland/Rimland Theory to be one of the pillars of their collective energy and international policies.

That renders certain advantages to Turkey. It knows that whoever is in power in Ankara – through coup or election – West’s dependence would remain. The current leadership being opportunistic enough to use the religious banner as a tool to hide his imperialistic ambition is thus bent on taking full mileage. How are the policymakers in the West viewing this? They are not bothered. Turkey’s proposed expansion – if that comes to pass – would be a good source of disruption along the entire length of central Asia. For the West, that’s a good thing. Conflicts – especially those far away from home – are good business. As long as they prevent big regional (and proximally located) powers like China, or Russia from coalescing it is all the better.

All things put together, that makes Turkey a nation to watch out.

BTC

What can I say? The picture of BTC is perhaps the greatest representative of globalization. A pipeline 1768 kms long, one that passes through numerous conflict zone, completely overrules environmental or legislation concerns, remains out of bounds of sovereign governments and their laws, looks down upon geography, and thus politics of it. This is the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, one that dissects Azerbaijan originating from the Caspian port, skirts Armenia carefully to proceed to Georgia, and moves neatly into Turkey, ending close to the US airbase in Incirlik. It moves over conflict zones of Nagorno, Karabakh, Dagestan, South Ossetia, Abkhazia (areas mentioned already in this essay), and almost looks like a portion of the World Government (if there ever was a term): untouchable by governments of countries no matter what it does or where it goes.

BTC could be a chapter in itself; but I have to leave it here considering the length of this piece. Had to bring it up because this was supposed to be the story of the West’s end of dependence on the Persian Gulf, and as a part of US global geopolitical strategy, a kind of masterstroke to wrestle Caucasus away from Russian influence. How that fares presently is again a different topic, but this kind of a project ($3.6 billion; putting aside the billions invested in exploration, payoffs, buy-outs) in a conflict ridden area like Caucasus spells out its strategic importance in bold letters.

So that’s a little bit about Caucasus for you all; a potboiler that has the entire Eurasian landmass engaged in ways more than one since centuries. Those are interested might continue reading on related affairs, but for now, looking at the length of the essay, let's call it a day.

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