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Series: Central Asia and Japan: Part 7 (Final) South Caucasus The South Caucasian Countries Their strategic nature and complexity as a crossroads for civilizations and energy | Yoko Hirose Associate Professor Faculty of Policy Management, Keio University, Visiting Scholar The Harriman Institute, Columbia University [Date of Issue: 31/October/2013 No.0224-0908]

Date of Issue: 31/October/2013

Series: Central Asia and Japan: Part 7 (Final)
South Caucasus
The South Caucasian Countries
Their strategic nature and complexity as a crossroads for civilizations and energy

Yoko Hirose
Associate Professor Faculty of Policy Management, Keio University
Visiting Scholar The Harriman Institute, Columbia University


The South Caucasian countries are not well-known in Japan but possess great strategic significance and unlimited potential. Having moved beyond a volatile period of conflict and political instability, their development prospects are strong.


Overview of the South Caucasus

The South Caucasian countries comprise Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, all of which became independent after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Geographically, they are bordered by the southern side of the Caucasus Mountains, Russia, Iran, Turkey, the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. In Japan, they were formerly widely known as the "Zakafukasu" from the Russian name "Zakavkazie". Because "za" means "over", reflecting the perspective of the Soviet capital of Moscow, the people of the South Caucasian countries turned against that name after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the region is currently known as the South Caucasus or the Transcaucasus.

The South Caucasus region lies at the crossroads of a number of civilizations, with many cultures, ethnic groups and religions intersecting there. Because of its access to the natural resources of the Caspian Sea, the region has enjoyed great strategic significance historically and also today, strongly influencing international politics.

Armenia once included within its territory Mt. Ararat (now part of Turkey), the provenance of the Noah's Ark legend, marking the South Caucasus as the historical center of the world.

The South Caucasus has myriad attractions, frequently appearing as the stage in literary works. There is its stunning natural environment, including the Caucasus Mountains, the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. Ethnic music, ethnic dance, literature, film, carpets, paintings and other art are all part of the region's wonderful culture. Renowned products from the South Caucasus' rich food culture include Georgian wine and brandy, cheese and caviar from Armenia, as well as a type of yoghurt famous in Japan as "Caspian Sea yoghurt". With a number of villages in the region boasting long average life spans, the diet of the South Caucasus is attracting attention for its potential in terms of extending people's lives.

The South Caucasus is, however, seldom reported in Japan, where it is not well-known. On the few occasions it does appear in the media, the subject matter is generally restricted to terrorism, conflict or drugs; introductions to the birthplace of various sumo wrestlers and martial artists; villages with long average life spans and the food culture supporting these; or the natural resources of the Caspian Sea. Because terrorism and conflict tend to get the most coverage, Japanese people seem to have been left with the strong impression of the South Caucasus as a dangerous place.

There are certainly many conflicts in the region. Because of its strategic position throughout history, it has suffered constant invasions by other powers, and the complex ethnic distribution has also been an unending source of conflict. At the same time, it is that very complexity that has created the appeal of the region.

Complex ethnic and religious distributions and conflict

As noted above, the South Caucasus has a complex ethnic distribution. According to some experts, the South and Russian-ruled North Caucasus together account for more than 100 ethnic groups. There are also surprisingly large ethnic disparities within this limited land area. Even the language families range widely, including Indo-European (Armenians, etc.), Altaic (Azerbaijanis, etc.), and Caucasian (Georgians, etc.). Moreover, there are ethnic groups that speak multiple ethnic tongues within those language families.

Ethnic distribution of the Caucasus region
The South Caucasus is also religiously diverse. While most people in the region are either Christian (Armenia, Georgia) or Muslim (Azerbaijan), Armenia in particular became the first nation to adopt Christianity (the Armenian Church) as a state religion in 301, followed by Georgia (the Georgian Orthodox Church) in 337. The Shiite Muslims are the dominant Muslim sect in Azerbaijan, but there are also Sunni in the north. There are also many other faiths in the South Caucasus, including the Russian Orthodox Church and Judaism.

This level of complexity in terms of ethnic and religious distribution makes it impossible to coordinate ethnic distribution with national borders. As is clear from Figure 1, there are many cases where ethnic distributions and national borders indeed fail to match, often causing conflict and destabilization. Then there are also a number of cases where intense conflict beginning in the final days of the Soviet era has produced "unrecognized states" outside Azerbaijan or Georgian sovereignty. In Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh was previously the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast within the Azerbaijan SSR of the Soviet Union and comprised predominantly Armenians. In Georgia, Abkhazia was an autonomous republic with more Georgians than Abkhazians during the Soviet era, while South Ossetia, formerly the Ossetian-dominated South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast, is divided off from North Ossetia in Russia on the northern side of the Caucasus Mountains. Previously known as "frozen conflicts", since Russia and Georgia went to war over South Ossetia in 2008, the term "protracted conflict" is becoming more frequently used to describe the relationship between these enclaves and their host states. The Russia-Georgia War prompted Russia to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as sovereign states, and with four other countries bowing to Russian pressure to grant the same recognition, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are no longer entirely unrecognized.

Ethnic conflict has undoubtedly been a major barrier to development in the region. Not only do many foreign companies avoid the region because of the possibility of conflict, but dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia rules out the construction of infrastructure that straddles both countries. This includes not only roads and railroads, but also a pipeline to transport Azerbaijan's natural resources, which, because it cannot be laid across Armenian soil, has had to take the long route through Georgia, with Georgia conversely reaping the benefits. Foreign companies cannot operate in both Azerbaijan and Armenia, instead being required to choose one or the other. Conflict is consequently a major impediment to local development, as well as being extremely restrictive in terms of the three countries' diplomatic policy.

Politics and economy

Politics in the three South Caucasian countries changed enormously following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Due partly to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Azerbaijan experienced a succession of coups d'état post-independence that threw the political situation into chaos. However, once Heydar Aliyev, a former KGB officer active in the Kremlin during the Soviet era, became president in 1993, the country shifted to authoritarian but stable political rule. In 2003, Ilham Aliyev took over the presidency from his father, making Azerbaijan the first hereditary state among the former Soviet republics. Authoritarian rule has continued there, attracting ongoing criticism from the West over the oppression of opposition groups and human rights issues. Thanks to Caspian Sea oil and natural gas, however, the country's economy has boomed in the 2000s. The capital Baku is the picture of a modern city. At the same time, looking ahead to when natural resources become depleted, Azerbaijan urgently needs to diversify its industry. Moreover, not only are the rural areas of the country being left behind, but there are still many refugees from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as well as internally displaced persons, with many challenges lying ahead for Azerbaijan.

Due to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Armenia too had had many periods of political instability, including coups d'état and the parliament shooting incident, but its three presidents to date-
Levon Ter-Petrosyan, Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan-have maintained a certain level of stability. Kocharyan and Sargsyan are both from Nagorno-Karabakh. However, as evidenced by repeated criticism by the West over the administration's handling of the post-election protest movement, the country has a long way to go until democratic maturity. Armenia has a name for products like brandy, but has no main industries and remains heavily dependent on Russia in many areas. At the same time, economic development is proceeding steadily, with the country addressing industrial diversification with the aim of developing still further.

Georgia has perhaps undergone the most major change. Immediately after the Soviet Union dissolved, domestic conflict saw Georgia too thrown into great political turmoil. In 1992, Eduard Shevardnadze, formerly the Soviet Union Minister of Foreign Affairs, came home and was appointed chairman of the Georgian state council, becoming president as of 1995. Opposition to his authoritarian style of government brought about the Rose Revolution in 2003, ushering in new president Mikhail Saakashvili on a platform of pro-West, anti-Russian policy. Saakashvili subsequently also developed authoritarian leanings, however, which, coupled with the above-noted outbreak of war with Russia in 2008, drew increasing opposition. The Georgian Dream coalition led by the affluent Bidzina Ivanishvili won the 2012 parliamentary election, with Ivanishvili confirmed as Prime Minister in a complete rewriting of the political landscape. Ivanishvili is working to improve relations with Russia. While Georgia too has no particular industries, becoming the transport route for Azerbaijan's resources has profited it greatly. Georgia is also channeling resources into infrastructure development, including the development of the Black Sea coast as a tourist area. While there are few foreign firms operating in Georgia and the country remains heavily dependent on assistance from the US, it continues to enjoy steady economic growth and has good development potential.

Relations with Japan

Unfortunately, it has to be said that relations between Japan and the South Caucasus remain weak. Armenia in particular has no embassy in Japan (the Russian embassy handles Armenia's affairs in Japan), and Japanese firms have an extremely limited presence.

At the same time, the people of the three South Caucasus countries are pro-Japan and have great respect for Japan's culture, economy and history. Japan has provided steady humanitarian assistance to the three countries. For example, because even in resource-rich Azerbaijan, conditions are extremely bad outside the capital of Baku, Japan has worked actively in areas such as water-related infrastructure development. Japan's good faith in this regard has won solid local appreciation.

While the three South Caucasus countries have trodden a rocky path since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there is no doubt of their enormous potential. I hope to see Japan's interest in the region grow, sparking a multi-faceted exchange centered on economy and culture that in turn deepens our relationship with the South Caucasus.
(October 2nd.2013)

Note: Presidential elections were held in Azerbaijan on 9 October, returning incumbent leader Ilham Aliyev for a third term with approximately 85 percent of the vote. Georgia's presidential elections are scheduled for 27 October.

(original article : Japanese)
(For the Japanese version of this article)


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