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Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan: Between Russia and the West

By Dr Kevork Oskanian.

Since their independence, the three South Caucasian states have come to adopt widely divergent strategic responses to the complex structural realities underlying their region's security landscape. Following the 2003 Rose Revolution, Georgia became unequivocally pro-Western: the goals of EU and NATO integration were firmly inscribed in two National Security Concepts, adopted in 2006 and 2011, which were recently confirmed in a rare bi-partisan parliamentary resolution uniting the otherwise fractious supporters of President Saakashvili and Prime Minister Ivanishvili. Over the past ten years, Armenia's pro-Russian orientation has, if anything, deepened, with Moscow gaining control of Yerevan's strategic industries and extending its basing rights till 2044; the Sargsyan regime has nevertheless maintained some elements of a 'complementary' foreign policy, most importantly an active engagement with the European Union, and, to a lesser extent, NATO. Azerbaijan's oil reserves, meanwhile, have allowed it to continue what it calls a 'multi-vectoral' approach, combining positive relations with Western states (mostly in the field of energy) with generally friendly interactions with Moscow.

The current year is particularly significant in shaping the continuity or change of these policies in the face of a fast-moving regional context. The United States appears to have largely disengaged from the South Caucasus since the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and the famous 'reset' of relations with Russia in the following year. The days when Sergei Lavrov could credibly, and somewhat denigratingly, refer to Georgia as Washington's 'pet project' are long gone, and NATO membership is certainly discounted as a possibility in the short and medium-term by most observers. In Moscow, following the musical-chairs exercise between Putin and Medvedev, an externally assertive and internally repressive leadership is actively pushing the idea of a 'Eurasian Union' between the states of the former Soviet space. And in the region proper, all three (globally recognised) states are due to hold presidential elections – which, in Armenia, have already been won by the incumbent, despite of accusations of electoral fraud by the main challenger in the race. Will Yerevan, Baku and Tbilisi be able to continue on their chosen foreign policy paths following their ballots, in a fast-changing regional and global environment?

In Azerbaijan's case, the answer seems clear: despite of some unrest in recent months, the opposition in Baku would seem unable to mount any kind of credible challenge to the Aliyev regime in the short to medium-term. On the contrary, confident in oil's ability to ensure the acquiescence of Western capitals and of its own population, Baku has started actively challenging the role of pan-European and Western institutions in the monitoring of its commitments to Council of Europe and OSCE human rights and electoral standards, using a combination of assertive diplomacy and references to 'national sovereignty' reminiscent of discourses heard in Moscow. The request to downgrade the status of the local OSCE offices, the arrest of an individual connected to the US-based National Democratic Institute, and pressures on other "fake"i.e. foreign-funded NGOs seem to fit into this overall pattern, echoing similar actions by authorities in Moscow.

The Aliyev regime's coveted hydrocarbon reserves will probably allow it to continue testing the limits of its commitments to democratic reforms: Azerbaijan may or may not be in good stead with Western human rights institutions like the CoE or OSCE, oil and gas will continue flowing through the pipelines nonetheless. Its increasing challenges to these Western IGOs and NGOs are therefore not necessarily a move away from its previous, multi-vectoral approach, of balancing the West with Russia, in favour of Moscow. Neither should too much be read into the closure of the Russian radar station at Qabala last year: it will be easily replaced by a similar facility in southern Russia, and much of the resonance given to it in Azeri media was more an assertion of independence aimed at domestic audiences than a serious challenge to Russian regional predominance. Azerbaijan's foreign policy will therefore be marked by continuity, of walking the tightrope between West and East, testing the limits of Western acquiescence to human rights abuses and regularly asserting independence in relation to Moscow, without, however, seriously challenging either side. In the immediate future, this attitude should also ensure Baku's unwillingness to deliberately restart a war over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, even if Azeri threats to take the region by force in the absence of a final solution in its favour should not be taken lightly over the longer term.

While Armenia does have a slightly more assertive opposition than its arch-rival, its pro-Russian strategic orientation is, generally, not a matter for internal debate-the overwhelming majority of Armenia's politicians don't see an alternative to Yerevan's links to Moscow. There are notable exceptions, most importantly, Sargsyan's main challenger in the latest presidential vote – Raffi Hovannisian – who is on the record as suggesting that Armenia pull out of the Russia-centred CSTO alliance. It remains to be seen if he will be followed in this in other opposition groups, and, in any case, it does not appear his post-election challenge to Serj Sargsyan's re-election will succeed any time soon. The main questions regarding Armenia's strategic orientation will therefore continue to centre on rapprochement with Turkey, and on the extent to which Armenia will be able to maintain the elements of engagement with Western institutions (like the EU) in light of its pro-Russian strategy. Little is to be expected on the first issue, in the absence of any tangible progress on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict – Ankara has made it abundantly clear in recent years that any progress in its relations with Yerevan would depend on an amelioration of relations with Baku. The cancellation of planned flights between the Armenian capital and the eastern Turkish city of Van is just another example of this stance, which is unlikely to change fundamentally in the immediate future.

On the issue of its relations with the EU and (or?) Russia, Armenia seems to be nearing a decisive crossroads: Brussels is holding out the prospect of the country signing an Association Agreement in the near future, which would in effect be incompatible with membership in Russia's Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC), or an even deeper 'Eurasian Union'. While avoiding membership of EurAsEC has been a longstanding Armenian policy (first justified through the requirements of WTO membership, which Armenia joined in 2003, well before the Russian Federation), the question is in how far this stance can be maintained in the face of Moscow's renewed push for integration in the FSU. Two possibilities emerge: either Moscow is so confident of its dominant position in Armenia that Yerevan could get way with not joining EurAsEC, in light of the negligible marginal advantage this would afford Moscow; or Russia will insist on Yerevan following its lead, destroying one of the last elements of complementarity in Armenia's foreign policy. Only time will reveal Putin's openness to his only remaining South Caucasian ally's surviving European aspirations; in any case, in view of its extreme strategic dependence on the Russian Federation, Yerevan would seem to have very little leeway if Moscow chose to press its case.

Tbilisi is where domestic and international conditions combine to create the greatest uncertainty regarding future policies vis-à-vis the West, and Russia. On the domestic level, much of this uncertainty relates to the country's competing factions' attitudes towards Moscow, complicated by an internal constitutional arrangement that is bound to shift in the coming year. On the international level, questions remain as to Moscow's openness to co-operation with Tbilisi in spite of the latter's stated intention to continue its Euro-Atlantic integration strategy. Finally, there is the contradiction between Georgia's continuing insistence on Abkhazia's and South Ossetia's re-integration into its body politic, and Russia's seemingly irreversible recognition of these entities as independent states.

The winner of last year's parliamentary elections, the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, has stated his intention of improving relations with Moscow while maintaining Georgia's pro-Western strategy and striving for reunification with both separatist entities. With Georgia turning into a mixed parliamentary republic when constitutional changes take effect later this year, his control of the legislature will become even more significant in determining the country's foreign and security policies. His party's victory in upcoming presidential elections, in October this year, would further strengthen his hand. But external policies have already been subjected to significant changes, even before these significant domestic transformations. The appointment of Zurab Abashidze – generally respected as an interlocutor in Moscow, Sukhumi and Tskhinvali - as the new prime minister's envoy to talks with the Russians was one such move, so was the announcement of a strategy of engagement, in several fields, with the secessionist statelets, instead of the policy of isolation applied by the Saakashvili administration since the 2008 war. It must be stressed, however, that Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream party have vehemently denied accusations from the president's camp that they intend to abandon Georgia's post-2003 policies of Euro-Atlantic integration, signing up to a joint parliamentary resolution strongly affirming the country's Westward strategic gaze.

The key question remains whether such a strategic outlook would at all be compatible with improved relations with Moscow? In any case, it would go against Russian policies that have been well established in the post-Soviet era, and that vehemently oppose any Western encroachment on Moscow's "sphere of special interest". The initial optimism accompanying Georgian-Russian talks in Geneva has somewhat receded in recent months; the main indication of a potential warming of relations has been the possible readmission of Georgian wines and produce into the Russian market, whose required formalities are proceeding at snail's pace. Russia has moreover made it clear, in response to expressions of concern from Sukhumi and Tskhinvali, that it does not consider dropping its recognition of what have, in essence, become its protectorates.

In short, improving relations with Moscow while striving for NATO membership would require squaring several circles. Even if the current Saakashvili-Ivanishvili standoff is resolved in the upcoming October presidential elections and constitutional alterations, difficult choices would have to be made. On the one hand, acquiescing to Moscow's demands by dropping Georgia's NATO aspirations (or pushing them into the indefinite long-term) would make Ivanishvili vulnerable to accusations of a sell-out on the domestic level. On the other hand, maintaining a pro-NATO course would most probably cause continuing consternation in Moscow, while offering little in terms of direct (security) benefits for the Georgian state. Considering the far lower ideological commitment of the 'pragmatic' Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream to the latter (and his hitherto furious denials notwithstanding), a strategic readjustment in favour of the local hegemon, Russia, would seem to be a distinct possibility in coming months and years, especially in the absence of stronger American regional engagement. It remains to be seen whether such a scenario could make it through the inevitable domestic backlash it would provoke.

In sum, except in Georgia, the foreign policy landscape in the South Caucasus seems to be marked by continuity, at least given current conditions. But, as events in 2008 showed, the region remains plagued by insecurities and conflicts that remain fundamentally unpredictable. An unexpected event, a renewed conflagration in Nagorno-Karabakh, for instance, or sudden internal political unrest in any of the three recognised states might invalidate anything that is being said today about the future. But known unknowns and unknown unknowns being a feature of international politics, this is one uncertainty no one will be able to address any time soon.

Dr Kevork Oskanian, Visiting Lecturer, Department of Politics and International Relations,University of Westminster. April 2013.