Namiq Abbasov: The Limits of Regional Cooperation in the South Caucasus

The article examines historical attempts at regional cooperation in the South Caucasus as well as the reasons for past failures, and possible prospects for trilateral cooperation in this so-called region. It is argued that the South Caucasus has tremendous potential for regional cooperation, which will facilitate peace and security in tandem with the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The article claims that the capture of internationally recognized territories of Azerbaijan by Armenia is not only a hindrance for regional cooperation, but is also one of biggest blows to Armenian national interests, since the capture pushed the state out of regional projects and has made it dependent on Russia as a security guarantee. Moreover, It is emphasized that role of civil society will have a very low impact on the development of regional cooperation for peace and stability, unless trilateral economic interdependence is achieved through interstate relations.


As a part of the international subsystem, the South Caucasus occupies a strategic part of Eurasia between the Caspian and Black Seas and is an essential corridor for transportation and communication connecting Asia and Europe as well as being a key transit route for the delivery of Caspian hydrocarbons to Western markets. It plays the role of a vital bridge for transpiration of energy resources from landlocked Caspian Sea states to European markets. Moreover, the South Caucasus is a fragile and unpredictable area and a strong candidate for the emergence of hot wars that will devastate regional economic developments leading to increased insecurity and instability.

It is common knowledge that the South Caucasus is a center of ethnic and territorial conflicts; approximately twenty percent of the area consists of disputed territories. The Russian-Georgian confrontation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and the Azerbaijan-Armenian conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh have tremendous negative impacts on the development of regional cooperation and maintenance of peace and security. Therefore, peace and stability are in danger in the region due to substantial security challenges, particularly frozen conflicts handed down from the Soviet Union.

Besides, regional and international players have a considerable role in the troubled region, as it has been a center of geopolitical confrontation among regional players, Turkey, Iran and Russia as well as the United States, all pursuing different interests and approaches. From the Russian perspective, the South Caucasus constitutes a part of its “near abroad”. Although the United States has interests in Caspian oil and gas resources, it is not interested in engaging in the political affairs of the South Caucasus, since it is not a top priority for the US foreign policy agenda. The EU uses its soft power and economic aspirations to engage in the South Caucasus looking at the region from the perspective of a “common identity”.

When and why regional cooperation?

Although, it is almost a century ago that regional integration and cooperation efforts were attempted in the South Caucasus, when the three nations covering the area agreed to formally declare the establishment of an independent Trans-Caucasian Republic, since then, the realization of regional cooperation throughout South Caucasus has been far from reality. (Avalov & Cooper, 1924; p.324).

In fact, looking at the South Caucasus as a distinct region came to view at the end of the nineteenth century, and stemmed from the development of railways and communications system, since it was reasonable to approach the area from common perspective. The short-lived (only one month) Transcaucasian Federation demonstrated how far the three nations were from each other in terms of their economic and political orientations. It also proved that South Caucasus nations can come together through a shared culture and history, and to form a politically and economically integrated region as an outcome. However, it seems that more time will be required to achieve that desire, since the current situation shows the fragile and unpredictable nature of the so-called region.

The capture of Trans-Caucasia by communist Russia brought new perspectives for regional cooperation artificially developed by the central authority. Consequently, integration of the three states’ economies was promoted through the Soviet Transcaucasian Federation (the ZSFSR -Zakavkazskaya Sovetskaya Federativnaya Sotsialisticheskaya Respublika) that was formally established in 1922. It was believed that the South Caucasus was a ‘single economic organism’ and that, “the Mensheviks, Musavatists and Dashnaks understood this, they understood that Transcaucasia is a single economic whole and when in power, they created not distinct republics but a Transcaucasian Republic” as stated by the chief Bolshevik in the Caucasus, Sergo Orjonikidze. (Waal T. D., 2012, p. 1714)

Despite high hopes, ZSFSR lived for approximately a decade, until 1936, and from then on three Transcaucasian states emerged and they showed a very low interest in regional cooperation. Command economy had huge impact on the limitation of regional cooperation in the former Transcaucasia. Thus, the disintegration of ZSFSR was a starting point for the beginning of the separation of the three republics communication and transportation linkages.

What are the Prospects for Regional Cooperation?

To explore prospects for regional cooperation, one needs to discover the reasons threatening regional peace and stability, stemming from both regional and national factors. One reason is definitely the indifference of the three nations toward each other. Although there is considerable European support for regional cooperation in the South Caucasus, no trilateral steps have been taken by regional states. Each state thinks of its own security rather than the security of the whole region.

Moreover, the different foreign policy orientations of regional states make interdependent relations far from reality. While Armenia follows a pro-Russian foreign policy due to its dependence on Russian energy and weapons, Georgia has completely turned its face towards the western direction, which ended up with the loss of two of its provinces. Georgian aspirations for NATO and EU membership have not been fully supported by Euro-Atlantic organizations as was clearly observed during the Georgian-Russia War, which shows that western powers are not interested /able to confront Russia just for small states. Therefore, Azerbaijan pursues a balanced foreign policy utilizing its energy resources as a strategic tool for balancing Russian influence with American energy interests.

The US’s interests in the region are clear: to take a key part in the exploration of oil and natural gas resources from the Caspian basin through large American oil companies and achieve the diversification of energy routs by penetrating through to Caspian energy resources and decreasing energy dependence on the Middle East . America’s “war on terrorism” increased the geopolitical importance of the South Caucasus, which is likely to decrease again if American-Iranian relations develop positively and Iran gives up its nuclear enrichment (R. Bhatty, 2000).

It is more likely that the Russian presence in the region will have strong dominance over the next five years, since “the US will be more willing to allow Russia to settle conflicts in the region in a manner that will be closer to a Pax Russica, with due consideration of US and Western economic interests. This may be tolerated, even assisted by the US, as it will seek the resolution of as many of the conflicts with religious underpinnings as possible.(Libaridian, 2002, p. 246)

The basic question comes to mind of how to achieve regional integration and cooperation in the aforementioned situation. One way to facilitate regional cooperation is through the integration of the societies of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia via implementation of joint civil society initiatives, which have a very low impact on the development of trilateral interstate relations due to fact that civil societies have almost no impact on the decision-making processes of all three states. Integrating civil societies of regional states believing that it will facilitate trilateral cooperation is like believing that you will put out huge fires with water drops, or pouring soil into ocean hoping that one day an island will be established in the ocean.

The best approach for regional cooperation is using the geostrategic opportunities and benefits of the region jointly instead of unilaterally. Historically, the South Caucasus has been a link connecting the East and West. It is an area that’s power has never originated from the inside, but has been a center of occupation from external powers and a hub of geopolitical confrontation. Transportation, essentially railways have been keys for regional interactions not only in the South Caucasus, but also in the whole Russia Empire.

Historically the Kars–Gyumri–Tbilisi railway line has been the best option for the blossoming of trilateral interactions. Built during czarist Russian Empire it was crucial for connecting Turkey and the USSR. The Kars-Gyumri line was closed due to the Armenian occupation of Kalbachar, a district within the internationally recognized territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. In fact, the full functioning of the Kars–Gyumri–Tbilisi railway line is key to Armenian national interests. The construction of an Azerbaijan-Armenia railway line will make Armenia a center of the railway system in the South Caucasus, which will be impossible, unless Azerbaijani territorial integrity is restored.

The restoration of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity will not only develop Armenian-Azerbaijan relations, but also lead to the opening of the Armenian-Turkey border that was closed due to the Armenian occupation of the Kalbachar district of Azerbaijan. The occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh is definitely against Armenian national interests, since it has hindered Armenian participation in different regional transportation and energy projects and pushed its economy and security to depend predominantly on Russia.

The supporters of close Armenian-Russian relations claim that Armenia strongly needs to keep its close relations with Russia, because Russia gives security guarantees to Armenia regarding Nagorno-Karabakh. It is common knowledge that Armenia is not able to follow its national interests due its economic and military dependence on Russia. It should also be mentioned that the key reason for the lack of peace and security in South Caucasus is the continuation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, without which there would be economic interdependence between Armenia and Azerbaijan through joint regional projects that would avoid hot confrontations between sides similar to the Azerbaijan-Georgian case. “Interdependence exits when there are reciprocal [though not necessarily symmetrical] effects among countries or among actors in different countries”. (Keohane & Nye, 1977; p.8).

It is unquestionable that the South Caucasus states have numerous common interests that finally would lead to regional interdependence through the flow of money, goods and services etc. Interdependence will bring up a situation that “…multiple channels [will] connect societies …and military force will not be used by governments against other governments involved in the interdependent relations” (Viotti & Kauppi, 2012; p.144)


South Caucasus nations will “celebrate” the hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the Trans-Caucasian Republic in 2018 that politically integrated the three nations living in Transcaucasia. It is a fact that three dominant nations of, Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Georgians established a joint state before each group constructed a nation state at the beginning of twentieth century.

However, the current situation in this so-called region means that no considerable progress is expected through to the end of the decade. It seems that there is a long journey to achieve a “united Caucasus” based on a common market, shared interests, and political and economic interdependence that was stressed by former Georgian President Mikhel Saakashvili during his speech at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2010. In short, the South Caucasus has huge potential for regional cooperation, but the current situation shows that trilateral cooperation will not happen, unless the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is solved and Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity is restored.

Avalov, Z., & Cooper, J. E. (1924). The Caucasus since 1918. The Slavonic Review , 3 (8), 320-336.
EDITORIALS. (2008). Proxy War in the Caucasus. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 43, No. 35 , 43 (35), 6-7.
Keohane, R. O., & Nye, J. J. (1977). Power and Interdependence: World Politics in Transition . Boston: Little Brown .
Libaridian, G. (2002). A Reassessment of Regional Politics and International Relations in the South Caucasus. Iran & the Caucasus, Vol. 6, No. 1/ , 6 (2), 237-247.
R. Bhatty, R. B. (2000). NATO’s Mixed Signals in the Caucasus and Central Asia vol.42, no. 3 (Autumn 2000).). Survival , 42 (3).
Viotti, P. R., & Kauppi, M. V. (2012). Internatioal Relations Theory. Denver: Pearson.
Waal, T. D. (2012). A Broken Region: The Persistent Failure of Integration Projects in the South Caucasus. Europe-Asia Studies , 64 (9), 1709-1723.
Waal, T. D. (2002). Reinventing the Caucasus. World Policy Journal, 19 (1), 51-59.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *