By Isabelle McRae

The Caucasus is not exactly the focal point of security and defense in Europe or the UK. But, it would be a miscalculation to say that it is not relevant for the wider public. The dynamics playing out in the neighbourhood can shed light on the priorities of surrounding geopolitical actors like Russia, Turkey and Iran. This month especially has seen a lot of action involving the three countries in the region—Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia—and their shifting relationships with external guarantors. Here is a brief update on what has been going on:

The week before last, the Centre for Geopolitics was due to host a talk with Professor Hans Gutbrod from Ilia State University about political commemoration in the Caucasus. Unfortunately, the connection went bad and our speaker dropped from the webinar. We don’t know what happened exactly, but we assumed it had to do with the dozens of news crews nearby his house, covering the protests of 20,000 people in the streets of Tbilisi over the past weeks. Users on X and Telegram had reported widespread internet outages around the city. The highly controversial ‘foreign agents’ bill is slated to pass through Georgian Parliament, despite mass demonstrations. The irony of hosting a talk on history at a rather historical moment was not lost on us.

The Foreign Influence law would require organisations receiving 20% of international funding to be labeled as foreign agents. The legislation has brought the Russian issue to the fore, as it is seen as a way to crack down on dissent and promote Russian interests in the country. Although it was blocked last year in a previous attempt, the ruling Georgian Dream party seems set to pass the bill.

The EU, which granted Georgia candidate status last year, has come out to say such policies would be incompatible with EU membership. Anti-Russian sentiment is at a high pitch, with Western-looking Georgians anxious about a Russian-oriented government and the implications for civil society. Meanwhile, the Georgian Dream party claims the new law would increase transparency and secure Georgian independence from foreign meddling. The heat is manifesting in street clashes as well as political ones: last week the opposition leader decked the leader of the Georgian Dream party in Parliament.

As the war in Ukraine lurches into its third year, the EU has resolved to become more geopolitical with its neighbours. On April 5th, an enthusiastic Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan met with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Brussels. The trilateral meeting ostensibly focused on economic development, with the parties promising a 280 million euro funding package to Armenia. Azerbaijani President Aliyev signalled his displeasure for being sidelined from such talks in a call to Anthony Blinken. These shifting alliances and decoupling from Russia amongst the three Caucasus states is, I think, something to watch.

Around the same time as things were kicking off in Tbilisi, on April 17, Russian troops withdrew from Azerbaijan. The peacekeeping force of 2,000 soldiers was due to remain in the Karabakh territory until 2025. A bilateral decision for them to withdraw back to Russia was taken quietly at some point in the days prior. With Karabakh Armenians gone, and the region back under Azerbaijani control, there was not much peace to keep. In the original peacekeeping agreement in 2020, it was clear the parties didn’t want an Abkhazia or South-Ossetia-type of situation. Although many experts on the South Caucasus never expected Russia would actually leave, they did. Aliyev firmed up the development with a visit to Moscow on April 22.

Armenia, for its part, has distanced itself from Russia since its defeat in Karabakh in September 2023. Prime Minister Pashinyan recently raised the prospect of leaving the Russian-led security grouping CSTO. Over the past several months Moscow has flagged concerns about Armenia’s re-alignment with the West, comparing Armenia to Georgia and Ukraine in concerning terms. But, it is quite likely that troop withdrawal from Azerbaijan was tied to other reasoning – the need to redeploy in Ukraine, the generally lack of purpose in maintaining troops in Karabakh. Russia’s political intentions in the region do not need to be affirmed by boots on the ground to be effective. Such boots in nearby Ukraine and Georgia are enough of a threat.

By all accounts there is a new status quo in the South Caucasus. Azerbaijan’s victory has gathered many well-founded critics, the humanitarian situation has been deeply troubling in Armenia, and the question of what happens with the border and with Karabakh is crucial. However precarious it may seem, there is far more cause for hope that this new norm can lead to a peace agreement and, ultimately, a regional alliance that benefits Armenia economically, normalizes relations with Turkey, and is amenable to Azerbaijan.

Indeed, Aliyev seems ready to respect Armenia’s territorial integrity. Domestically, Azerbaijan has nothing to gain from further conflict. There is growing sentiment that it’s time to focus on developing the economy, strengthening security and moving on from the state of war which has plagued the country since its inception.

There are also appearances that need to be kept up. Azerbaijan has ties with the West it cannot afford to lose. Although Aliyev often touts his country’s independence, supported by its closest ally Turkey, Azerbaijan’s relationship with Europe is, and continues to be an important commercial partnership. Especially now, with COP29 months away and the spotlight of international scrutiny shining on the small, oil-producing nation. Meanwhile, there is the geopolitical consideration of Iran. Disturbing Tehran would create far more problems for trade and economy in both Armenia and Azerbaijan than anyone wants.

The situation in the Caucasus may perhaps always take two steps forward and one step back. This tension is explicit now in Georgia. But to the south, there is movement towards cooperation and delimiting the border. On April 19, Azerbaijan and Armenia came to an agreement for Armenia to return four villages of Tavush on the border, which it has occupied since 1990s conflict. The agreement, coming after 8 rounds of talks, signifies good faith. With the full peace agreement still on the horizon, such growing cooperation is something to be hopeful about.

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