On June 14–15, 2015, CIRS held a second working group meeting under the “Re-Emerging West Asia” research initiative. This project’s geographic focus includes the countries of the Persian Gulf, the Levant, and the three South Caucasus states. Scholars gathered around the table to receive critical feedback and commentary on draft chapters that have been written for the project. At the meeting a range of topics were covered, including a historical overview of the region’s geopolitics, pipeline politics, civil society, the power of non-state actors, and finally, the rise of oligarchs and white-collar criminal networks in the South Caucasus.
Opening the session was a discussion on the impact that history and empire has had on the structure of the region. West Asia has been defined by the rule and collapse of three great imperial powers, and more recently, the problematic rise of the transnational Islamic State. While the post-Soviet countries of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia have remained mostly internally stable after the fall of the Soviet Union, a new regional hegemon to replace the USSR has not emerged to create a new regional order. The modernization project has been difficult due to the need for an ideological and cultural hegemony that can be extended to large sections of the populations. During the course of the discussion, scholars suggested that there is a need for a more nuanced definition of nationalism in relation to the modernization project in the South Caucasus. Discussants also stressed the need to highlight the different experiences of autonomous regions in West Asia have had with the colonizing powers, and the impact this has had on territorial bids for self-determination in the post-Soviet era.
Russia’s soft power relations in the South Caucasus thrives through religious institutions, such as the orthodox churches in Georgia and Armenia, as well quasi-governmental organizations that are equivalent to the role of NGOs in civil society. Project participants suggested that Russia engages in the South Caucasus region by reaching out to close constituencies in order to gain their support. Discussants mentioned the existing contradictions between certain post-Soviet countries’ support of Russia as a state but dislike for the Putin government currently in power. These inherent contradictions highlight the differences between European value-based engagements in the region in comparison to Russia’s engagement model based on political coercion. Participants also stressed the need for further elaboration on alternative forms of soft power such as ethnic nationalism, the Russian language and the diasporas which reside within Russia today.
In the post-Soviet era, issues of ethnicity in Iran and Azerbaijan have influenced political and social relations. Working group participants suggested that in the case of Azerbaijan ethnicity has been used as a political lever in devising policy, whereas in Iran, ethnic issue have taken a back seat in terms of foreign policy relations. This can be explained by understanding the roots of state legitimacy whereby Azerbaijan finds it in its nationalism as opposed to Iran which bases it more on religious sentiment. In the case of the Kurdish question, both Iran and Turkey have struggled with providing this ethnic population with the legitimacy that it needs. More recently, the encroaching power and seizing of territory by the Islamic state in areas such as Kobane has meant that Turkish-Kurdish relations will have to be re-examined in light of these new regional security threats.
In regards to the pipeline politics of the region, the South Caucasus is an area where Turkey, Iran, and Russia have competed for centuries. The significance of this region does not only lie in its natural resources but also the multiple routes that connect the South Caucasus with the larger Caspian Sea reserves. Power leverage differs between the three countries whereby Iran has ample energy resources and is in a good geopolitical position, Turkey has no resources but has a unique location and soft power, and finally Russia has both energy reserves and hard power. In recent weeks, with the recent voting developments in Ankara, Turkey’s newest proposed pipeline project ‘Turkish Stream’ has been facing issues of third-party access to the trans-Adriatic pipeline.
Until the recent elections, the AKP party in Turkey were able to present themselves as a new political force with a distinctive foreign policy in the region. The AKP’s focus, in regards to the Middle East, was on desecuritization and the consolidation of Turkey’s regional status in relation to its neighbors. Turkey was able to brand itself by using soft power through its foreign aid programs and more recently, its acceptance of over 1.5 million Syrian refugees. Participants questioned whether AKP’s behavior could be classified as “Neo-Ottomanism” and whether neighboring countries buy into this narrative. Additionally, discussants emphasized the need for a more thorough analysis of the refugee crisis Turkey is facing and the distinctions between it and other Middle Eastern states who have instead chosen to close down their borders.
Participants also discussed issues of white-collar crime and the rise of oligarchs, noting that the emergence of the economic elite in Armenia has largely distorted reform efforts within the country. More interestingly, during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict the state relied on these oligarchs for consistency in terms of tax collection and the provision of services. Discussants argued that in addition to oligarchs’ influence in the political economy some also resorted to violent means to realize their demands. In the case of Georgia, even though their economic variables are very similar to those of Armenia a divergence has taken place when comparing the corruption levels in the two countries. According to the World Bank, corruption and white-crime levels dramatically plummeted after the 2004 Rose Revolution. Even though the occurrence of the revolution itself does not explain the plummeting of crime and corruption level, the revolution was able to temporarily break down the corrupt structure in place and allowed younger and newer people to assume positions in government.
Participants and Discussants:
- Hamid Ahmadi, Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies
- Haya Al Noaimi, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
- Meliha Benli Altunışık, Middle East Technical University
- Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
- Richard Giragosian, Regional Studies Center
- Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
- Elaheh Koolaee, University of Tehran
- Alexander Kupatadze, School of International Relations at St Andrews University
- Anatol Lieven, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
- 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
- Mahmood Monshipouri, San Francisco State University
- 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