12 Apr 2010
Moderating Effects of Shared Regional Identity?
In the past two decades the term “South Caucasus” has been used merely as a way of geographically grouping three countries that happen to neighbor each other. In political terms the concept of regional identity could hardly be applied to Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, all with strikingly different foreign policy agendas, strategic alignment patterns and regional cooperation, or lack thereof. So can we really talk of regional identity in the case of the South Caucasus, moreover, of its possible moderating effects?
Well, simply put, yes, if we choose to. What the countries of the region do share in common is history, social transitional culture and mentality, common borders and common neighbors. Let’s take a brief look at those.
The Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Georgians, having lived for centuries side by side, share the common history of being consecutively under the rule of one or another empire, whether Ottoman, Russian, or Persian. Interestingly, according to a number of historians, the concept of modern nationalism was absent in the psyche of the then-rulers of Transcaucasia – the Armenian meliks, the Azeri khans, and Georgian kings, who for pragmatic reasons would have more of an allegiance to one another, while occasionally handing over their own kind.
The Sovietization of the region was a bittersweet period: on the one hand, all the current regional conflicts are direct byproducts of Stalin’s irrational, to say the least, redrawing of the borders within the region. But on the other hand, the Soviet era and the concept of one nation brought the people of the South Caucasus ever closer. Despite the fact that during 70 years of Soviet rule the Armenians continued to dispute the Nagorno-Karabakh’s vertical subordination to Baku, this period witnessed a high number of inter-ethnic marriages and an overall inter-ethnic social cohesion. This could also be explained by the fact that the practicing of religion was banned in the Soviet republics, and it was one less factor differing Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the leadership of the countries constructed national identities of their respective peoples designating one another the role of the enemy. This, however, did not stop the countries from sharing the same economic, social, cultural, and political hardships of the transition from planned to market economy, and from an autocratic government to a democratic one.
Moreover, the countries of the South Caucasus all have borders with one or the other powerful neighbor, whether it is Russia, Turkey or Iran. This, undoubtedly, stresses the security perceptions of the small states of the region, and hypothetically could be a driving factor towards a deeper and stronger cooperation between the three if the existing conflicts could have been taken out of the equation.
A common history, common post-Soviet socio-cultural transitional mentality and lifestyles, common geopolitical positioning – all of these can be constitutive factors of common regional identity and moreover, can have moderating effects, if the leadership of the countries concerned choose to articulate those as such.
The power and weight of a cohesive South Caucasus from economic, political and military perspectives could be unprecedented on the global scale, as it is one of the most significant geopolitical crossroads between Europe and Asia. The region’s social cohesion is more likely to be a top-down development, only if the ruling elites will see possible political dividends in such policies, in which case, this development would potentially be bottom-up as well. Where do we start?