Focused Discussions, Regional Studies

Re-Emerging West Asia Working Group I

Re-Emerging West Asia Working Group I

On January 10-11, 2015, CIRS held the first Working Group under its research initiative on “Re-Emerging West Asia.” Included in the meeting were academics representing the South Caucasus states of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia, as well as scholars from Iran and Turkey. Over the course of two days, the participants discussed a number of relevant issues and identified existing gaps in the literature. Topics discussed during the meeting included, amongst other things, the new geopolitical competition in the South Caucasus and the role of external actors, energy diplomacy, soft power politics, and a variety of societal and ethnic dynamics in the region.

Opening the discussion, participants considered the changing geopolitical environment in the South Caucasus, the rise of competition between external powers, and the emergence of new actors. China has exhibited an increasing interest in expanding its role in the region, an example of which can be seen in the People’s Liberation Army’s agreement with the Armenian military. In Georgia, the Orthodox Church has been receiving Russian money, whereby this and other engagements with civil society demonstrate an interest by Russia to shape domestic policies in its neighborhood. Pipeline politics have also encouraged political and financial connections between Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan in influencing the regional geopolitical competition. While scholarship on the region has tended to view the North and South Caucasus as two distinct areas, Working Group participants suggested that these regions share similar economic and political conditions. Additionally, cross-border and transnational connections such as the Lezgian population in southern Dagestan and northern Azerbaijan continue to draw the involvement of external actors like Russia.

Between the Persian Gulf states, the Middle East, and the Southern Caucasus, economic factors and regional crises may provide comparative points for academic consideration. Comparisons can be drawn between the rentier dynamics in Azerbaijan and the Gulf states. Similarities in governance have also led scholars to speculate whether an event similar to the Arab Spring could take place in Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, one should be cautious when assuming too much similarity between these two regions, as the historical influences shaping their political pathways have been quite distinct. On the issue of religion and ethnicity, Azerbaijan views “Muslim identity” as a threat to its ethnic identity whereby in the case of Georgia, religiousness emerged as a countermovement to Sovietism.

Such sentiments have allowed movements such as the Gulen schools in Central Asia and the South Caucasus states to flourish in receptive societies. Fethullah Gulen’s Islamic movement became active in the 1980s when Turkey entered its liberal economic phase. In 1992, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Gulen-inspired businessmen and teachers opened their first school in Azerbaijan followed by another in Kazakhstan. The opening of such schools came at a time when several Central Asian and South Caucasus states had a dire need for better quality education, which the secular curriculum of the Gulen schools provided. Prior, to the demise of the Gulen movement’s relationship with the AK party in Turkey, Turkish foreign policy was aligned with Gulen’s vision, perceiving of it as one of the best representations of Turkish soft power in the region. The schools led to the creation of an elite community that was proficient in Turkish and sympathetic to a moderate Islamic ideology, creating significant educational and societal connections between the two regions.

Conventionally, Turkey’s shift in foreign policy in regards to soft power has focused on the AKP’s engagement of state and non-state actors in the Balkans and the broader Middle East. Little is mentioned in soft power literature that focuses on Turkey’s soft power activities in the South Caucasus. Another research gap is that while there are many studies focusing on soft power and non-state actors, more work needs to look at state actors’ effect on soft power. Such studies should focus on the construction of foreign policy narratives, political values and cultural exchanges. Moreover, the subjects of soft power should be better studied in terms of their attraction to soft power, the limitations soft power holds and the relationship between soft and hard power. Participants problematized the difficulty in studying Turkey’s soft power in the South Caucasus considering the differences that exist from one country to another. For instance, there has been a level of resistance to Turkish soft power in Central Asia due to the Islamic undertones it holds.

In terms of hard power, Turkey utilized its role as an energy transit state to sell gas to European markets. Discussant argued that Turkey’s centrality and its geopolitical position as an energy hub has led it to have a more streamlined trading philosophy. Yet, one of the main components of an energy hub requires it to have an open and well-regulated market, something that the AKP party struggles with considering their strong emphasis on trade centrality. Energy was also used a political tool in Azerbaijan and Georgia. In the 1990s, the major goal for energy diplomacy was the implementation of pro-western policies and the consolidation and promotion of support for the regime, a strategy that was only successful up until the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Participants outlined several emerging trends that needed further study, such as Azerbaijan’s economic relationship with East Asia, the possibility of supplying energy to Iran and Iraq and future transit options for the South Caucasus with the newly proposed Nabucco pipeline.

Discussants observed that US policy towards regional development in the South Caucasus has deprived Iran from playing its natural role in the region and expanding its interaction with neighboring states. Based on the developments that took place after the formation of the Islamic Republic, we can see different discourses in Iranian foreign policy towards the Caucasus and mutual perceptions that arise from both the Iranian and Azerbaijani sides. From an Iranian viewpoint, the lesson that was learnt from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is that without the engagement of Russia, security issues can rarely be solved. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, despite the common culture and mutual past shared between Iran and Azerbaijan, relations between the two countries have remained strained over the situation of Azeris in Iran. The Azeris constitute a significant part of the population in Iran, however Azeri ethnic identity and the use of Azeri language, alongside other ethnic languages, has not been taught or practiced in schools in Iran. In return, the Azerbaijani state has counteracted these efforts by embarking on a historical mission to create a national awakening in order to understand their identity and embrace their independence from Iran. Discussants questioned to what extent is the salience of the Iranian-Azeri relationship contingent on the political relations, considering that the ethnic dimension only reappears when relations become strained between the two countries.

In the case of the South Caucasus states, post-Soviet Armenia has been characterized by crime and corruption which have allowed a few businesses to gain exorbitant amounts of power. These oligarchs are closely linked to the state. Selected individuals and companies act as ‘commodity-based cartels’, controlling the export and import rights for key products such as sugar, oil, alcohol and cigarettes. In return these oligarchs deliver to the state assured ballots and votes. Trade embargoes and closed borders have allowed for the corruption of Armenia’s economy and the strengthened the dominance of the oligarchs. Discussants observed that oligarchs in Armenia enter parliament for status and immunity, not understanding the potential power they may have in drafting legislation or by impeding the law. Moreover, more scholarly interest should focus on comparisons of Georgia and Armenia considering their similar variables but radically different political reform strategies.


Participants and Discussants:

  • Hamid Ahmadi, Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies
  • Haya Al Noaimi, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Leila Alieva, University of Oxford
  • Meliha Benli Altunışık, Middle East Technical University
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Bayram Balci, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
  • Michael B. Bishku, Georgia Regents University
  • Richard Giragosian, Regional Studies Center
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Elaheh Koolaee, University of Tehran
  • Alexander Kupatadze, University of St Andrews
  • Jeffrey Mankoff, Center for Strategic and International Studies
  • Dionysis Markakis, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Gareth Winrow, Independent Research Analyst and Consultant


Article by Haya Al-Noaimi, Research Analyst at CIRS