Book review by Kornely Kakachia

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As the geopolitical significance of the South Caucasus region increases, so too does the need for comprehensive analysis of its political, social and economic frameworks. With contributions from multiple authors, the book entitled “South Caucasus at a Crossroad: Thorny Realities and Great Expectations” provides solid understanding of the prospects of regional development in a South Caucasus ridden by historical conflicts and political tensions. It examines the complexities of the political environment in Caucasian states where the politics of the region has been dominated by nation and state building process, and in which regional identity appears to be more of an exception than a norm. The collection presents an interesting and informative overview of the state of debates in the region and allows the reader to compare different issues and topics, developments, trends and scenarios and their respective impacts on the South Caucasus.

With its original approach, the book provides a timely and carefully crafted analysis and nuanced expose of the pivotal shifts in the region. Thus, it undeniably brings a new vision of the South Caucasus which some pessimists call “a failed region” while optimists still pin their hopes on emerging regional identity. Consequently, the authors’ attempt to reassess present progression and the potential of this important region is valuable. It also enhances our understanding of the causes and consequences of the current state of affairs in the South Caucasus and extrapolates likely scenarios in the region’s development. The book will benefit scholars, students and those interested in issues of regional studies.

The book is organized in four parts which are complementary to each other. In the first part, authors Kobzova, Mitchell, Kochladze, Brisku introduce the internal and external framework of the evolving regional policy context and some of the region’s most important policy issues and partnerships. Concentrating the region’s complex dependence on external actors, the book offers a wealth of analysis and keen observations on EU and US engagement with the South Caucasus and explains the domestic and international constraints within which policy decisions are made. It also traces the complex image and origins of “Westernism” in the region, as the governments of the region have increasingly turned to the West as the guarantor of state security.  Describing the challenges and policy implications for political actors in the South Caucasus States, authors elucidate the key obstacles these states face with their numerous geopolitical twists.  

The second part of the book focuses on Georgia’s democratic progress after its 2012 parliamentary elections and describes the challenges which were exacerbated by a difficult cohabitation process between the newly elected government and outgoing regime. Acknowledging that the elections marked an important crossroads in Georgian politics, this part highlights many uncertainties that remain regarding Georgia’s new policy, which may also contain some risks to the country’s long term strategic interests. Prof. Charles Fairbanks’ essay explores some shifts in church-state relations in Georgia that have challenged principles of secularism and Westernization and asks question whether Western efforts have adequately addressed the complexities of the local societies. He pinpoints that fear of Saakashvili government was major reason why Georgian Orthodox Church resistance was so limited which has often been overlooked by many researchers. However, after the change of old regime surprisingly, the Church stood firm to defend its own interest against new authorities.  It also showed that it is backed by powerful social forces and is no longer afraid of government restrictions. This part is followed by Salome Asatiani’s well-informed analysis on the Church’s self-perception as a powerful symbol of the country’s sovereignty and national identity. She conducts an interesting study of the complementary relationship between Authoritarian Modernization under Saakashvili and an unintended rise of nationalism under his successors, the Georgian Dream government. Finally, Davit Losaberidze assesses the interrelations of local self-governance against street activism and convincingly displays a link between the two. Urbanist Lado Vardosanidze, using the example of Tbilisi, explains the correlation between the city and public space and its impact on the urban development. 

The third part of the book presents a comprehensive study of the complexities of Armenian politics and the complex interplay between Armenia’s security and its Foreign policy choices. Tatul Hakobyan explains reasons for Armenia’s foreign policy dependence on Russia and its inter relations with other immediate neighbors. She also provides detailed and logical accounts on domestic constraints to democracy and struggles between democracy and authoritarianism. Gayane Shagoyan sheds some light on the degradation of institutions and politicization of the education system in Armenia. The author reveals the complexity of imitation of politics, “Re-Sovietization” and the relevance of public political culture. Arpine Galfayan explores the active link between citizenship and public spaces in Armenia and gives an inside view on the current tendency in terms of designing and using public spaces.

In the fourth part, the authors provide an overview of Azerbaijan's internal political dynamics – its politics, institutions, elites and economic configurations. In his critical essay, Kenan Aliev gives reasons for the failure of the democratic transition in Azerbaijan which he blames in part on international institutions and regulatory mechanisms. Rahman Badalov highlights the “inside and outside “challenges of democracy in Azerbaijan. He renounces the term “managed democracy”, instead using the term “internal colonization” introduced by Russian researcher A. Etkind. He also analyzes other reasons for the stalled transition of Azerbaijan. Sergay Rumiantsev offers an interesting insight related to the prospects of Azerbaijan’s modernization and its transformation from an authoritarian to a liberal society. He hopes that western educated young people, residing in countries with developed civil society, may transfer liberal values to Azerbaijan but he is less optimistic about possible liberalization of the political system in the short-term. Zohrab Ismayil discusses the significant changes in urban development in post-Soviet Azerbaijan and explores the correlation between urban planning and property rights In Baku. He offers a bold and persuasive argument that challenges much of what we already know about this topic.

Overall, the book provides a comprehensive analysis on recent developments in the region which is timely and significant, particularly for those interested in the region’s politics. The book has a number of strengths: objectivity, it is widely researched through the use of multiple sources and both the editors and authors are experts in the area.

Finally, this book is structured in a way that that allows the reader to follow and comprehend its argument. It takes its place among the must-read resources on South Caucasus politics with its comprehensive approach to the subject and coherent style enriched with cases from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.