Book review by Richard Giragosian

Richard Giragosyan
Teaser Image Caption
Richard Giragosyan

Despite the obvious strategic significance of the South Caucasus, this region received far too little scholarly attention and even less English-language analysis.  Against the backdrop of the paucity of analysis, a recent publication has sought to correct such a glaring oversight.  And as an important contribution to a now expanding body of work on the region, the South Caucasus Regional Office of the Heinrich Boell Foundation has published a collection of sixteen innovative and interdisciplinary analytical essays.

The publication, entitled “South Caucasus at a Crossroad: Thorny Realities and Great Expectations,” was the product of an international conference, the “South Caucasus at a Crossroad: 10 years of the Heinrich Boell Foundation in the Region,” held in Tbilisi in June 2013 to mark the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the Boell Foundation in the region.  Most importantly, the collaboration and cooperation among the authors of the “South Caucasus at a Crossroad: Thorny Realities and Great Expectations” stands as a model for objective research and scholarship.

The book consists of four main sections, beginning with an opening essay by Mino Lejava, the Director of the Heinrich Boell Foundation South Caucasus Office, and an introduction by Salome Asatiani, followed by a broader focus on “The West and the Region: Views from Outside and Within” that is supplemented by separate, section-by-section analyses of the internal situations in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. 

In the book’s opening essay, Lejava notes that “the South Caucasus region has never been as fragmented as it is now,” with changing borders and existing cultural divides only growing deeper.  Highlighting the impressive achievements of Georgia, Lejava further stresses that over the last decade, Georgia has attracted international attention only twice: due to the 2003 “Rose Revolution,” which was marked by a “turbulent but peaceful transfer of power,” and as a result of the brief but deadly war between Georgia and Russia in 2008. 

She also noted an “important event” in the region that “preceded the dramatic developments” in Ukraine: the sudden and surprising decision by the Armenian president in September 2013 abandoning the country’s Association Agreement with the European Union in favor of committing Armenia to seeking membership in the Russian-led Customs Union (later to be reconfigured as the Eurasian Union).  Lejava also noted that the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh were “attentively watching the sensational developments in Ukraine, as they will doubtless have an impact on the future” of such unrecognized republics.   Concluding her essay, she added that one of the key questions to be addressed was whether the South Caucasus crossroads would also “become a fork in the road” and a point of divergence for the population.

In her introduction, Salome Asatiani, who also served as the editor of the volume, began by noting the history and background of grouping the three countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia into two competing frameworks: one based on “political geography,” which classifies each country as components of a unified South Caucasus region, and a second approach based on “political teleology,” viewing them as “participants of a large-scale post-Soviet transformation” or “transition.”  This recognition is important and far too overlooked when assessing the diverging directions and deep diversity of these three countries.  In addition, she also warns of the dangers of applying such “broad-brush approaches” that are “too sweeping and superficial.”

The first part of the book, focusing on the broader context of “The West and the Region: Views from Outside and Within,” opens with an assessment by Jana Kobzova entitled, “Measuring the European Neighbourhood Policy in the South Caucasus.”  In this essay, Kobzova offers an important and welcome degree of constructive criticism of the EU’s neighbourhood policy, starting with a realistic premise that the EU has been both unable to be a strategic actor and inadequate in “providing all the necessary tools” to achieve strategic success, most notably in the South Caucasus.  After tracing the evolution of the European neighbourhood policy and the Eastern Partnership, in which Ukraine was always the priority, only to have later attention devoted to Moldova and Georgia, Kobzova then appropriately warns of the difficulties in the implementation, and not simply the ratification, stage of reforms inherent in the Association Agreements with the EU. 

Kobzova stresses that “with the lack of commitment on the EU’s side to push for its own objectives, the eastern neighbours are mostly left to their own devices and asked to deliver at their own pace,” leading to a disappointed delivery of reform or returns on EU investment.  Moreover, as the author notes, there are three fundamental shortcomings in the EU approach to the region.  First, there has been far too little emphasis on “hard security,” which is the region’s dominant concern, and far too much focus on “soft security.”  Second, without the promise of EU membership, there is little real incentive for these states.  And third, the EU has invested too much in “capacity building” of sate institutions, often neglecting more worthy funding for civil society and independent actors.

The second contribution in this section on the West is by Lincoln Mitchell, with a piece entitled, “Dropping in to See What Condition the Transition is in the US, Democratic Development and the South Caucasus.”  Mitchell outlines the regional reality by characterizing the South Caucasus as a region where “democracy, to the extent it exists at all, is more of an aspiration than a reality.”  The author defines Azerbaijan as a country locked in “that grey area between authoritarian and semi-authoritarian,” while Armenia remains a country “best understood as a semi-competitive semi-authoritarian regime.”  Georgia, despite being hailed as the “best hope for democracy and the freest country in the region,” also falls short, and “still cannot be considered a consolidated democracy.”

Mitchell presents an accurate analysis of US policy in the region, which he identifies as being driven by “Caspian oil, proximity to Iran, proximity to Russia and the hope for the advance of democracy.”  He further adds insightful points regarding the limits of US policy and power, noting that US leverage is actually declining, especially in the face of competing concerns and changes in priorities.  As for democracy promotion, he also correctly stresses that democracy has always been a “secondary goal” at best in the region, while pointing out that the trend of a “scale down” of US expectations and involvement is “exacerbated by decades of stalled reform and lost opportunities.”  And despite broader stability, the author concludes that the US “ability to do more” is very limited indeed.

The final two essays in this section, “Uneasy Tension Between "Security" and "Democracy" Approaches to the South Caucasus” by Manana Kochladze and “Shaping Bridges of Western Engagement in the South Caucasus” by Adrian Brisku, offers a unique perspective on the evolution of Western (namely the US and the EU) in the region.  Kochladze recommends the weakness and danger of applying a “one size fits all approach” to the region, and Brisku notes the need for Western engagement to be “more substantial,” more practical and more “tangible,” with a focus on seeking to remain the “only normative model for the South Caucasus.”

The section of the book focusing on Georgia is comprised of five essays offering a varied set of analyses on a broad range of issues.  In his piece, “Georgia's political trajectory and after the 2012 election,” Ivliane Haindrava notes the country’s 2012 parliamentary election as a defining moment and watershed for Georgia’s political development, as it “marked the first peaceful change of government through elections” in Georgian history.  Nevertheless, Haindrava also assesses the excesses and mistakes of the Saakashvili Administration, which he defines as a period of “authoritarian rule that has been replaced by an ideologically amorphous coalition.  For his part, Charles Fairbanks addresses “challenges to post-Soviet societies’ modernization” and argues that “the West, in general, has been unable to adequately address the complexity of local societies in the region, for instance through fostering dialogue with conservative and religious groups.”  His article, “Weighing What We Do for Democracy in the South Caucasus. The Complex Case of Georgia,” also warns that the West is seen in a single and one-dimensional way, without the nuance of diversity.

And in her essay, Salome Asatiani offers fresh insight into the specific character of intensified cultural wars and value-based conflicts in Georgia today, arguing that “despite the turbulent political transformations and bloody and rosy revolutions of the last twenty years, liberal values and democratic principles have still not become an integral part of societal consensus,” although “largely defined by religiously imbued nationalism.”  In the essay, “Local self-governance vs. street activism. Theoretical configuration and the Case of Georgia,” Davit Losaberidze assesses the “process of transforming the quasi-civil society of the Soviet era into a real, and better functioning and more representative civil society based on “modern democratic values.”  The author notes, however, that “unfortunately, Western programmes aimed at supporting democracy in developing countries are not creating a civil society but instead are creating civil society organizations.”

Focusing on the Georgian capital Tbilisi, Lado Vardosanidze, in “Prospects and Struggles for Tbilisi’s public spaces,” notes the reality that the city  has “inherited the tendency of turning public spaces into ideologized ones, and in the post-Soviet years, experienced the detrimental effects of unchecked privatization” of the public space.  He traces this to the failure and weakness of the community and civil society.  But the author concludes that the city’s “public spaces will retain their unchanging role in the forefront of major processes in Georgian society.”

Turning to the book’s three essays on Armenia, there is a good linkage of issues, beginning with an analysis of Armenia’s “Challenges of Geopolitics and Democracy” by Tatul Hakobyan.  In his piece, the author opens by sketching the complexity of the South Caucasus as one “region” and focuses on Armenia’s difficult and daunting geographical challenges of “isolation and blockade.”  Following Hakobyan, in her essay, “From ideologies to technologies. An anthropological overview of elections as an indicator of modernization and counter-modernization of Armenian society,” Gayane Shagoyan notes the “specific difficulties inherent in the post-Soviet modernization,” pointing to the example of elections in Armenia to show “the power of the lingering Soviet political legacy,” where the Armenian “authorities are merely pursuing an imitation of modernization.”  The final analysis, “Active Citizenship and Public Spaces in Armenia Yerevan and Beyond” by Arpine Galfayan, assess the struggle for public space and the environment-based activism and mobilization in the post-Soviet Armenia.  She notes that from this perspective, “the seeds of activism were manifest in 2004-2005, and by 2007 this activism grew larger and more organized.”

The final section, focused on Azerbaijan, features several impressive analytical essays, with Kenan Aliyev presenting a critique of the narrative of “transition” in “Democracy In Azerbaijan: A Sombre Picture .”  He notes that the real problem stems from the over-concentration of political power within one dynastic clan, making power ever more personalized in Azerbaijan.  The next essay, “Challenges of democracy in Azerbaijan 2003-2013” by Rahman Badalov, presents the fact that the post-Soviet political trajectory was marked by a destructive and damaging transition from totalitarianism to “managed democracy.” 

In “Elusive modernity Azerbaijan’s post-Soviet modernization,” author Sergey Rumyantsev argues that the main obstacles to the modernization of Azerbaijani society include, first, the “growing influence of Islam” and the fact that “loyalty to traditions and Islam is more important for most residents of the country than their aspirations towards struggling for their freedoms and rights.”  The second obstacle is what the author defines as “ethnically-imbued nationalism,” which he argues has become nationalism as a “dominant ideological configuration”

In the final piece, “Thorny Intersections: Urban Planning and Property Rights in Baku,” author Zohrab Ismayil assesses the transformation of Baku, complete with “large-scale construction and grandiose projects that add glamour to the city’s image, but are often carried about at the expense of ordinary citizens’ property rights.”