Small Wars Journal

Eurasian versus Euro-Atlantic integration in the South Caucasus: Successes, failures, and stalemates

Sun, 11/08/2020 - 4:57pm

Eurasian versus Euro-Atlantic integration in the South Caucasus:

Successes, failures, and stalemates


Paolo Pizzolo



This paper aims to investigate to what extent the rival projects of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union on one hand and the Eastern Partnership promoted by the European Union on the other have been successful tools in integrating the countries of the South Caucasus region. It argues that, due to security issues and economic dependence, the Eurasian integration has been successful in the case of Armenia, but unsuccessful in relation to Georgia and Azerbaijan: in the case of Georgia, its Euro-Atlantic inclination and its territorial parcellation after the 2008 war averted the country’s likelihood to join Russian-led organizations, although the breakaway of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has likewise impeded or slowed down Euro-Atlantic integration. At the same time, it argues that the European integration process in the region has been successful in the case of Georgia – which signed an Association Agreement (AA) including a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with the EU in 2014 –, but a notable failure in the case of Armenia after the country’s decision to withdraw from European integration negotiations and to join the Eurasian Economic Union in 2015. Finally, in the case of Azerbaijan, neither the Eurasian nor the European integration have been so far successful, since, relying chiefly on the autonomy granted by its natural resources, the country decided to pursue a multilateral and non-aligned foreign policy based on diplomatic pragmatism.




Positioned at the centre of Eurasia’s juncture, the South Caucasus region represents a natural crossroad that connects on the east-west axis Central Asia and Europe and on the north-south axis Russia and the Middle East. For centuries its geostrategic location made it the theatre of rivalry between regional powers including the Persian, Ottoman, and Russian Empires. Deeply affected by its geography, the South Caucasian territory turned into a zone of continuous migration, dynamic connection of civilizations, languages, religions, and a pivot of trade and transport routes, but also one of the most fragmented and conflictual regions in the world. Also, being situated at the intersection of Eurasia’s major energy transport corridors, the region enjoys a central geo-economic rank, acting as a connector of the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea and benefiting – in terms of exploitation and transportation – from some of the world’s most promising hydrocarbon reserves. The importance of the region has further increased thanks to transportation and energy projects of the 21st century. The wider Black Sea-Caspian basin area, which envelops the Caucasus, is increasingly relevant for energy production, transportation and distribution, serving as a corridor to connect Europe with Central Asia and the Middle East (Nuriyev 2008, 158). Specifically, the Black Sea region has the potential to become a gateway between the Balkans and the South Caucasus, linking the EU – through Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece – to Georgia and the Caspian Sea via energy-rich Azerbaijan.

Today, the South Caucasus lacks political integration, is devoid of a single economic market and embodies one of the most security-challenged and fragmented areas in the Eurasian landmass. The demise of the Soviet Union contributed in creating a power gap in the region, which led on one hand to the rise of dormant local national identities and, on the other, to geopolitical rivalry among relevant regional powers – Russia, Turkey, and Iran –, along with the United States (US) and the European Union (EU). Specifically, the South Caucasus has become a stage for competition between the Eurasian bloc led by Moscow and the Western bloc led by Brussels. Geo-economic calculations, including energy supply from the Caspian basin, attracted the interest of external actors, which turned the area into a rivalrous arena for the control over energy resources.

The Caucasus region – like most areas located between the Black and Caspian Seas – is affected by some structural deficiencies including state weakness, exclusivist nationalism, and unsettled conflicts, which render political and economic regional cooperation complex (Fischer 2009, 338). In the wider Black Sea region, political thinking is still highly dominated by geopolitical narratives that favour national sovereignty over regional cooperation and integration (Ciută 2007)

Presently, the South Caucasus comprises the three countries of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, each differently-oriented in terms of foreign policy and international alignment and each eager to pursue integration projects differently. Though formerly integral parts of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, after their independence in the 1990s they decided to step away both from Russia and from one another, contributing to regional parcellation and division. Georgia signed an Association Agreement (AA) including a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with the EU in June 2014, while Armenia – despite the previous intense negotiations for implementing European integration – eventually joined the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) in January 2015, while Azerbaijan opted for an independent, neutral approach vis-à-vis integration perspectives. In the South Caucasus, Georgia is the only country that strives for quick integration with Euro-Atlantic institutions: Armenia, landlocked and isolated by antagonistic neighbours, relies on Russian support for its security, while Azerbaijan bears an equidistance policy from both Russia and the West, depending on Turkey as a strategic ally (Fischer 2009, 335).

The main political, security, and economic challenges of the region comprise ethnic and separatist conflicts, closed borders, weak state institutions, frail rule of law, high levels of corruption, and poorly developed economies. Most conflicts in the South Caucasus originate from the forced settlement and displacement of peoples during the czarist rule of the region, which contributed in shaping the ethnic regional composition and laid the foundations for the future ethno-territorial conflicts. In terms of security, the unsolved conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh on one hand and the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia on the other are among the most worrisome issues that affect the region. Specifically, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict undermines the very basis of regional stability, harming cooperative attempts among the three South Caucasian states.

The main external actors who exercise an influence in the region are Russia, Turkey, Iran, the US, and the EU. While some have interests in increasing their regional presence, others focus on maintaining the region balanced in terms of power distribution. Local tensions have increased following the decision by countries like Georgia to strengthen their relations with the West and to implement Euro-Atlantic integration. For instance, both Russia and Iran are concerned over a potential enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Western access to the Caspian energy resources, and the political and military presence of the US in the region. Therefore, the South Caucasian states – like most post-Soviet states – face the major question of either gravitating towards the EU and its political-juridical standards or seeking Russian-led Eurasian integration. Somewhat, the South Caucasus is witnessing the overlap between two regional axes, that is an anti-western axis comprising Russia, Armenia and Iran and a pro-western axis made up of Turkey, Georgia, the EU, and Azerbaijan.

Russia is perhaps the main regional actor: The South Caucasus has been considered a Russian sphere of influence for almost two hundred years. Recently, Russia’s foreign policy vis-à-vis the Caucasus has become more assertive, aiming to avert the consolidation of Western influence in the post-Soviet space. Moscow bears a solid influence in the region due to trade, security, energy, soft power and cultural ties, as well as through direct military presence in Armenia and in Georgia’s separatist regions. Russia is often depicted as attempting to reshape a sphere of influence in its immediate neighbourhood through a zero-sum game approach, rejecting an active cooperation with Western external actors and often manipulating unsolved ethnic conflicts to preserve its regional status. In general, divergencies between the EU and Russia over issues concerning Eurasian security and partnership in the shared neighbourhood are increasingly widening, turning the South Caucasus into a zone of proxy competition. Given the overlapping interests in the region, all three countries have been affected by the increasing rivalry between Russia and the EU, especially after the 2008 Russian-Georgian war and the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea. Since the creation of the EAEU in 2015, Russia’s regional strategy aims to include – or at least accost – the South Caucasian states to the Moscow-led integration project, which appears – not surprisingly – as a logic response to counter their potential allure to sign AAs with the EU and therefore in line with Russia’s national interest.

Turkey represents another key regional actor. As NATO member state, during the 1990s the country supported the integration process of the South Caucasus within the Alliance, while backing regional projects, especially related to energy transport. In interacting with the various local actors of the region, Turkey adopted a multilateral, flexible approach characterized by diversification and dialogue with all parties, including rivals like Armenia. On the one hand, Turkey has been seeking constructive relations with Russia, while on the other it attempted to support the creation of liaisons between Azerbaijan, Georgia and the West. Concerned for regional balance of power, after the Russian-Georgian war, Turkey decided both to strengthen its relationship with Georgia and Azerbaijan, and to promote a rapprochement with Armenia.

Along with Russia and Turkey, Iran represents another historical actor in the region. Iran’s strategy towards the South Caucasus is basically a pragmatic one, founded on realism and balance of power calculations. Among Teheran’s regional concerns, two are considered crucial. One refers to the establishment of a strong and independent Azerbaijani state that could nourish nationalistic aspirations among Iran’s Azerbaijani minority in Iranian Azerbaijan. The other, closely linked to the previous, is the potential spread of pan-Turkic ideas stemming from Ankara that could ignite secessionist tendencies among Iran’s Azeris. Accordingly, Iran adopted a policy of close cooperation with Armenia during the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s, despite Azerbaijan being a fellow Shia state – albeit Turkic and not Iranic. Iran has an interest to reduce the influence of external powers, particularly the US and Israel, to balance Russia’s and Turkey’s regional role, to counter potential security threats, to maintain economic and cultural influence, and to participate in setting the legal regime of the Caspian Sea. However, Iran and Russia share the same interest of contrasting the potential enlargement of NATO and the political and military presence of the US, tend to cooperate in dividing up the oil and gas resources of the Caspian Sea, and pursue a common goal vis-à-vis the conflict in Syria.

On the other hand, unlike the previous three, the US represents a new, non-traditional actor that the three South Caucasian states have viewed, since their independence, as a potential counterweight to balance the traditional regional powers.

At the same time, the EU – which has shown a growing interest for the Caucasus since its 2007 enlargement, with the inclusion of Romania and Bulgaria – may also be considered a non-traditional regional actor. Its chief concerns in the South Caucasus refer primarily to energy and security. In terms of energy supply, the EU wishes to extend the regulatory framework of its internal market to create diversified, open and stable energy markets (Pardo Sierra 2011, 1388). The EU considers the energy deposits of the Caspian Sea and the two-fold role of the South Caucasus as resource-rich area and transit corridor as assets to European supply, compensating the reliance on oil from the Persian Gulf and gas from Russia (Nuriyev 2008, 156). In relation to security, the EU acknowledges regional extremism, separatism, terrorism, territorial disputes, arms race and organized crime as direct threats (Ibid.).

The three South Caucasian states have chosen to follow different approaches in relation to integration projects. While Georgia made EU and NATO membership a priority, Armenia decided to turn to Russia by joining the EAEU and Azerbaijan agreed to keep a neutral position between the West and the various regional actors. A vast spectrum of Georgia’s political elite and civil society has been wishing to join the EU, while Azerbaijan showed limited integration ambitions with the EU and Armenia – at least prior to its inclusion in the EAEU – decided to please both the EU and Russia through an active involvement in the negotations for the AA while closely collaborating with Moscow. As of security, Georgia shifted closer to Euro-Atlantic integration by getting some assurance to eventually join NATO’s Membership Action Plan (MAP) in the future, Armenia decided to rely on Russia’s protection through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and Azerbaijan opted for a balanced approach using its natural resources as leverage to implement a national security system based on diplomatic means. Each South Caucasian state has built its own bridge vis-à-vis Europe, with Georgia making use of its traditional Western-oriented elite, Armenia bringing its wealthy diaspora into play, and Azerbaijan exploiting its energy resources (Ibid., 157). At the same time, each country has decided to adopt a different strategy in relation to Russian-led Eurasian integration, either rejecting it (Georgia), embracing it (Armenia), or ignoring it (Azerbaijan).

The paper is divided as follows. The first paragraph will describe the two chief integration processes that the South Caucasus region is currently experiencing, namely the Russian-led EAEU and the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP). The second paragraph will analyse Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic orientation, investigating the country’s main challenges in relation to the Russian-backed secessionist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The third paragraph will consider Armenia’s sudden shift towards the EAEU, highlighting how the choice rested mainly upon security reasons connected to the country’s tarnished relations with its neighbours and to the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Finally, the fourth paragraph will investigate Azerbaijan’s choice to maintain a non-aligned position vis-à-vis Caucasian integration, underlining how the supply of energy resources contributed in allowing the country to uphold an autonomous foreign policy.


Integration processes in the South Caucasus: the Eurasian Economic Union and the European Union’s Eastern Partnership


The first steps towards the integration of the Caucasus date back to the late 18th century to counter the expansion of the Russian Empire in the region (Ismailov and Papava 2008, 284). The first attempt at unifying the various Caucasian peoples occurred through the foundation of the Caucasus Imamate by Imam Shamil (1828-1859), which was eventually overthrown by the Russian Empire. After the break out of the Russian Revolution and the demise of czarist rule, a second attempt followed through the proclamation of the Mountainous Republic of the Northern Caucasus (MRNC) (1917-1920); at the same time, the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic (TDFR) was proclaimed in the South Caucasus, which then split into the Democratic Republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, transformed into Soviet socialist republics in 1920-21. In 1922, the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic (TSFSR) managed to temporarily reunite the three South Caucasian states, which nonetheless split again into the re-established Soviet republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia in 1936. The three countries would gain once again their independence only after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 (Ibid., 284-5).

Today, the South Caucasus is experiencing two competing regional integration projects. One contemplates the inclusion in the Euro-Atlantic economic and security system represented by the EU’s EaP and NATO. The second is Russian-led and based on the inclusion of the South Caucasus into the EAEU, which is often considered Russia’s latest attempt to rebuild a solid interconnection among former Soviet states through economic means rather than military force and to create a geopolitical bloc capable of challenging the EU’s influence in Europe and beyond (Popescu 2014).

The Russian-led Eurasian integration project may be considered as a response to the EU’s EaP, which, since its launch, Moscow perceived as a platform for an EU enlargement in its strategic near abroad, threatening Russian national and geopolitical interests (Egorova and Babin 2015, 87).

In 2000, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan formed the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC), a regional organization originating from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) aimed at economic integration, which lasted until 2014. In January 2010, Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan launched the Eurasian Customs Union (EACU), which established a common external tariff regime in accordance with the tasks of the EurAsEC. In January 2012, the three countries decided to sign an agreement to shape a full-fledged common economic space, which eventually led to the creation of the EAEU (January 2015), at which Armenia joined as fourth member and Kyrgyzstan as fifth member. The EAEU’s main objective is the establishment of a single market with free flow of goods, services, labour, and capital among its members. Based on the EACU, the EAEU aims at reducing tariffs, establishing free trade zones in the various economic sectors, and facilitating trade. All members are required to adopt common external and internal trade policies and to realize the free movement of goods and services; the initiative also envisages the possibility to adopt a common currency in the future.

As of security, since the 1990s Russia promptly opposed all NATO attempts to enlarge in former Soviet countries. Specifically, Moscow contrasted Georgia’s and Ukraine’s propension to join NATO both through the war in South Ossetia (2008), which led to the parcellation of Georgia’s territory, and through the annexation of Crimea (2014), which secured Russia’s possession of the strategic naval base in Sevastopol and the access to the Black and Mediterranean seas.

Besides, Russia was successful in shaping a sphere of influence in what may be considered a small community of post-Soviet territories that ceded from internationally recognized countries in search for either independence or reintegration with Russia namely Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Crimea, Novorossiya (Donbass).

On the other hand, the EU’s interests in the Caucasus and Black Sea regions include interests for security, especially linked to transport routes for oil and gas, unrecognized entities, terrorist groups, state failure, regional conflicts, organized crime; interest for promoting democratization, respect for human rights, and good governance; and economic interests specifically linked to oil and gas supply (Fischer 2009, 338-9). Moreover, in terms of foreign trade, the EU represents the main trading partner and largest donor of all three South Caucasian states.

During the 1990s, the EU considered the Caucasus as peripheral compared to closer areas like the Balkans or eastern Europe and thus did not engage in significant regional initiatives. However, at the end of the 1990s, it gradually signed Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (PCAs) with the South Caucasus countries and other former Soviet states, which focused on the regulation of economic cooperation, trade, and EU technical assistance to economic reform.

Between 2002 and 2004, in consonance with the 2004 enlargement, the EU implemented the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), a foreign relations tool that moved beyond existing PCA frameworks aimed at establishing greater ties with countries to the east and south of the European territory. The cooperation between ENP countries and the EU is based on three pillars: alignment with the Common and Foreign Security Policy (CFSP), regional cooperation for conflict resolution and border settlement, and conflict prevention and management (Pardo Sierra 2011, 1391). The EU engages with ENP partner-countries through a bilateral approach based on conditionality that applies rewards and support in compliance with EU demands, a regional approach focused on developing local initiatives (e.g. the Black Sea Synergy initiative), and a multilateral approach entailing the launch of joint programs with other international organizations (Franke et al. 2010: 151-4).

The EU’s interest for the South Caucasus increased both because of Georgia’s pro-Western attitude after the 2003 Rose Revolution and because of Azerbaijan’s hydrocarbon, oil and gas industry, which represented an opportunity to diversify energy sources and routes away from Russia.

In May 2009, partly due to the outcome of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, the EU launched its EaP initiative as tool for implementing cooperation and deepening integration with the six post-Soviet states of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova, through trade, economic agreements, and democratic institutions building. The EaP envisaged Association Agreements (AAs), accelerated negotiations on Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTAs), and visa facilitation or liberalization. According to the EU, AAs and DFCTAs – which represent the main incentive within the EaP (Pardo Sierra 2011, 1384) – would create a strong political bond and promote further convergence by establishing a closer link to EU legislation and standards.

Both the ENP and the EaP incarnate unique EU attempts to ensure stability, security and prosperity on its borders (Delcour 2013: 344).

Despite its somewhat limited role in conflict resolution in the South Caucasus, the EU has two Special Representatives (EUSRs) for the Caucasus region. One is the EUSR for the South Caucasus and one is the EUSR dealing specifically with the Georgian crisis, being responsible on the EU side for the facilitation of the Geneva Talks. The EU also deployed a Monitoring Mission (EUMM) that operates in the areas adjacent to the Georgian-South Ossetian and Georgian-Abkhaz administrative boundary lines (ABLs).

Finally, in terms of security, all three South Caucasian countries joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace/Status of Forces Agreement (PfP/SOFA) and Partnership for Peace, Planning and Review Process (PARP).


Georgia: The Euro-Atlantic bridgehead of the Caucasus


Georgia may be considered the most Western-oriented country in the South Caucasus, with the short-term goal of gaining NATO membership and the more ambitious long-term objective of acceding to – or approaching as much as possible – the EU (Mitchell 2008; Asmus 2010). Tbilisi believes that Euro-Atlantic integration could concretely guarantee Georgian security and assure a real independence from Russia. After the November 2003 Rose Revolution that ousted President Eduard Shevardnadze, at the beginning of 2004 Mikheil Saakashvili swept into power along with reformers who accelerated Georgia’s orientation toward Euro-Atlantic integration. This was one of the several so-called “colour” revolutions in post-Soviet states that paved the way for wide-ranging reforms affecting the spheres of human rights, democracy, rule of law, and business (Müller 2011, 65). President Saakashvili promoted a westward orientation in Georgia’s foreign policy and close cooperation with the US, which quickly deteriorated the relations with Russia.

Today, Georgia is a country that faces major issues that challenge the efficacy of the EU’s external action in the country, including high poverty, political instability and armed hostility with Russian-backed separatist regions (Pardo Sierra 2011, 1378).

Since then, the increasing formal association with the Euro-Atlantic institutions has corresponded to Georgia’s chief foreign policy strategy: the integration into Euro-Atlantic security, political, and economic structures represents the top priority on Georgia’s external agenda, with EU membership being the long-term foreign policy goal (Gogolashvili 2009).

Since regaining its independence in 1991, Georgia’s main foreign and domestic policy goal was to overcome Russia’s hegemonic influence and to emancipate from the idea of being its geopolitical backyard. Unlike Armenia and Azerbaijan, which try to keep their relations with Russia and the EU balanced, most Georgian political forces share the same feeling about the country’s pro-Western orientation.

Russia perceived both Georgia’s Rose Revolution and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution – which followed next in 2004 – as subversive manoeuvres carried out by Western agents, prompting its apprehension over a loss of influence in the post-Soviet space (Delcour and Wolczuk 2015, 460). Russia’s reaction to Western policies is its perception of partner countries’ degree of integration with Western organizations such as the EU and NATO, that is, the institutionalization of the pro-Western orientation. Russia fears not so much democratization taking place in neighbouring countries per se, but rather the Western influence which it believes underlies it, that leads to a decrease in Russia’s influence (Ibid., 467).

Clearly, the EaP risks to deepen the existing chasm with Russia, especially if the EaP becomes an alternative to the CIS. Russia may interpret it as an attempt to undermine its influence in the South Caucasus, considering the EaP a form of geopolitical competition.

By temporarily invading Georgia, Russia wanted to punish Saakashvili. The logic behind the punishment was coercing Georgia to accept Russian conditions on the status of the separatist regions, to give up its aspirations to join NATO and to replace Saakashvili as president.

After Georgia’s ratification of the AA/DCFTA, Russia introduced the Treaty on Alliance and Strategic Partnership with Abkhazia, which significantly integrates the region into Russia on a political, military, economic and social level, while the Treaty with South Ossetia, signed in March 2015, goes even further, with South Ossetia’s military and economy to all intents and purposes integrated into Russia’s.

With more than half of the population identifying as European and 77 per cent in favour of EU membership, Georgia is the most Euro-enthusiast state involved in the EaP, surpassing even Ukraine and Moldova. As a research found out (Müller 2011), Georgia’s public opinion is largely oriented in favour of EU integration, apparently denying the idea that the project would be endorsed exclusively by the country’s political elite. Specifically, the survey suggests that the perception of Europe is highly positive, but also that maintaining ties with Russia is considered vital, and that a unilateral, full-fledged association with Europe that would completely erase ties with Moscow would not represent the best solution for most Georgians. In this sense, a positive opinion regarding Europe does not necessarily correspond to a negative perception towards Russia, since Georgians appear to seek good relations with Russia rather than to prolong antagonism.

Not surprisingly, the South-Ossetian war strengthened Georgia’s pro-Western orientation, bolstering hope in the EU. Notwithstanding, due to concerns related to national security and territorial integrity, relations with the European Union are considered less important than connections with NATO and Russia.

The EU began cooperating with Georgia since its independence in 1991 through the distribution of basic humanitarian assistance and food aid after the two separatist conflicts and brief civil wars the country faced from 1992 to 1997. Georgia made incremental progress towards formal integration with the EU through adopting the ENP in 2004 and the EaP in 2009. At the end of the 1990s, the EU’s aid shifted to technical cooperation, facilitation of Georgia’s economic and social development under the Technical Assistance for the Commonwealth of Independent States (TACIS) and through the ratification of the PCA. Later, in 2004, the EU extended the ENP to South Caucasian countries with the aim of sharing the benefits of the EU’s eastern enlargement with adjoining countries and averting the appearance of new separating lines in the broader European territory. Accordingly, in November 2006 the EU and Georgia adopted both the Action Plan and the National Indicative Programme (NIP) – which defines priority areas and objectives for the implementation of the former. Finally, the EU introduced some regional addenda to its eastern ENP, including the so-called Black Sea Synergy – launched in April 2007 – and the Eastern Partnership (EaP) – launched in May 2009. The Black Sea Synergy is aimed at boosting regional cooperation in some key sectors between countries that belong to the wider Black Sea region, including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine. On the other hand, as previously noted, the EaP wishes to accost participating countries to the EU, providing an institutionalized forum for bilateral and multilateral discussion, yet without requiring European integration. Moreover, it is worthy to highlight that the EaP does not provide for security guarantees, something that Georgia is explicitly searching for.

Since 1999, Georgia benefited from the EU’s Generalized Scheme of Preferences (GSP) and in 2005 was included in the new GSP+ scheme, which provided for a reduced or zero rate access to the EU market to 7200 Georgian products (Delcour 2013, 348), allowing Georgia not only to enjoy a mere Free Trade Agreement (FTA), but a virtually tariff-free access to the EU (Pardo Sierra 2011, 1384).

In June 2014, Georgia signed an AA, including a DCFTA, with the EU, ratified by the Georgian Parliament in July 2014 and by the European Parliament in December 2014. The agreement confirmed Georgia’s condition as main bridgehead for Western engagement in the South Caucasus vis-à-vis the different paths undertaken by Armenia and Azerbaijan. Through the AA, Georgia expects to benefit from European aid, to ameliorate the quality of its democracy, and to stimulate foreign investment. On the other hand, DCFTAs contain legally binding commitments on regulatory approximation in some key sectors. If implemented, the DCFTA could significantly increase both Georgian exports to the EU and imports from the EU. Moreover, Georgia could strengthen its position in terms of energy security, obtaining further energy independence from Russia (Pardo Sierra 2011, 1388-9). The signing of the AA/DCFTA marked a real turning point in the relations between the EU and Georgia, even if its implementation entails expensive and complex reforms. However, given on one hand the challenges linked to Georgia’s political, economic and social reality, the tarnished relations with Russia, and the problem of separatist regions, and, on the other, the EU’s own issues including enlargement fatigue, economic turmoil, the rise of Euroscepticism, and the psychological impact of Brexit, Georgia's path to membership could be long, if it ever happens.

Nonetheless, European integration remains Georgia’s long-term strategic priority. Recently, in March 2019, the fifth meeting of the EU-Georgia Association Council monitored the progress in the implementation of the AA/DCFTA.

Because of Georgia’s very active pro-Western policy and position as a transit country for energy exports, developments in Georgia became a focal point of Western policy and debate. The US provided support to Georgian military reform and the build-up of the Georgian army, and pushed for Georgia’s integration into NATO, whereas the EU became active through the ENP Action Plan with Georgia and through the European Union Special Representative (EUSR) to the South Caucasus: both initiatives could not avert war in 2008.

Georgia’s foreign and security policy priorities entail enjoying closer ties with EU and NATO and maintaining balanced relations with its neighbours. The strongly pro-Western inclination set Euro-Atlantic integration as top foreign policy priority. Georgia seeks close association with EU, visa liberalization, obtaining Membership Action Plan (MAP) from NATO and securing economic assistance from the West. However, despite the Russian support to the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia seeks to engage in a constructive dialogue with Russia without sacrificing its national interest. Russia wishes to lure Georgia into its political and security realm.

The Russian-Georgian War of 2008 altered the general geopolitical balance in the South Caucasus, underscoring the security risk emanating from the unresolved conflicts in the wider Black Sea region (Fischer 2009, 334). This brief but pivotal conflict has deep roots. Prior to the 2008 Russian intervention, the Georgian-Ossetian and Georgian-Abkhaz conflicts were part of Georgia’s internal issues. As a result of the Georgian-South Ossetian (1991-1992) and the Georgian-Abkhazian (1992-1993) wars, both South Ossetia and Abkhazia managed to gain control over their former Soviet autonomous entities and to proclaim their (widely unrecognized) independence from Georgia. Since 2002, Moscow began a systematic distribution of Russian passports to people in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, so that by 2008 80-90 percent of the population in both entities had gained Russian citizenship, which provided not only considerable political influence but also Russia’s legal foundation to claim the right to protect Russian citizens against Georgian aggression (Ibid., 335). After months of increased tensions, in August 2008, Georgia launched a military offensive against South Ossetia. Leaning on the fact that the majority of South Ossetians enjoyed Russian citizenship, Russia invoked Article 51 of the United Nations Charter and intervened militarily to protect its citizens. Soon after, the war spread to Abkhazia, where Moscow-backed separatist forces and the Russian air force launched an all-out attack on Georgian troops, driving them entirely out of Abkhaz territory.

Following Russia’s official recognition of independence of the two breakaway regions, Georgia faced the loss of around 20 per cent of its internationally recognized territory, while a new balance of power was being established in the Caucasian region.

Despite sharing the same goal of emancipating from Georgian rule, South Ossetia and Abkhazia bear a different long-term objective. South Ossetia may be considered an irredentist region that wishes to unite with North Ossetia – which is a federal subject of the Russian Federation –, thus overcoming the issue of the divided Ossetian people. In this sense, the agreement signed in October 2013 between the governments of South Ossetia and the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania of the Russian Federation on socio-economic, scientific, technological and cultural cooperation represents a relevant turning point in the unification process. South Ossetia’s determination to unify with North Ossetia and – consequently – with Russia implies the country’s hope to be included in the EAEU (Egorova and Babin 2015, 91). However, given the disputed status of the territory, it is unclear how Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan could vote in favour of Tskhinvali’s accession in the economic union, not to mention Armenia (Georgia’s neighbour). Russia decided to establish a special relationship with South Ossetia, providing for economic, political and moral support and undertaking the mission of being the country’s security guarantor and protector from any external military intervention in the region (Ibid., 92).

On the other hand, Abkhazia has independentist claims and aims at creating an Abkhazian independent state for the Abkhazian people, without the desire to join the Russian Federation (Ibid., 90-1). Unlike South Ossetia – which is landlocked –, Abkhazia benefits from its strategic access to the Black Sea that makes it less dependent on Russia and more open to international trade (Ibid., 94). Still, Russia’s influence in the country is particularly highly: Moscow not only finances infrastructure programs and distributes impressive donations, but also provides for security and economic guarantees in exchange for upholding Russian national interest and preserving a balance of power in the Caucasus region. Despite expressing the willingness to maintain its independence from Moscow, Sukhumi also expressed its interest in joining the EAEU (Ibid., 96).

Despite the closure of Russia’s bases headquartered in the Georgian sites of Batumi and Akhalkalaki, Moscow maintains its military presence in the two breakaway regions. Using Georgia’s rhetoric on its Euro-Atlantic integration as leverage, Russia benefits from Abkhazia and South Ossetia as outposts for its military forces to preserve a balance of power and to counter any NATO-led initiative in the South Caucasus. Thus, the Georgian-Ossetian and Georgian-Abkhazian frozen conflicts are unlikely to be solved without Russia’s direct involvement.

After Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s secession, the Georgian Parliament adopted a 14-point Resolution (March 2013) that underlined once again Georgia’s will to join NATO and EU, rejected the two regions’ independence, stated the impossibility of keeping diplomatic relations with countries that recognized their sovereignty, and excluded Georgian membership in Russian-led organizations such as the EAEU, the CIS, the CSTO, or the EACU.

Given its reluctance or incapacity to resolutely support Georgia during the conflict, the West lost regional credibility as a security counterbalance to Russia. Nonetheless, in October 2008, the EU deployed the EUMM in Georgia and participated as direct mediator with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the UN, the US, Russia and Georgia and the de facto officials from Abkhazia and South Ossetia within the framework of the Geneva Process (GP) peace talks, the first multilateral forum established on the basis of the ceasefire plan proposed by the EU.

Georgia’s relations with NATO began shortly after its independence when the country joined the North Atlantic Cooperation Council in 1992 (succeeded by the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council) and the Partnership for Peace in 1994. Georgia’s official NATO membership candidacy was agreed at the 2008 Bucharest Summit and reconfirmed at succeeding NATO Summits. In 2010, a NATO liaison office was established in Tbilisi to support Georgia’s reform efforts and carry out a programme of cooperation. Though not providing for a MAP, NATO’s 2014 Wales Summit decided to extend to Georgia a substantial package that included the creation of a training centre, the participation in NATO military exercises inside and outside Georgia, the expansion of the abovementioned liaison office, and the modernization of Georgia’s defence and security sectors. Finally, Georgian defence capabilities were further reinforced after NATO’s 2016 Warsaw Summit and 2018 Brussels Summit.

Today, Georgia’s NATO membership remains momentarily frozen. The possible inclusion of Georgia in NATO raises the problematic issue of welcoming a country that – due to its breakaway regions – does not enjoy full territorial integrity, thus putting at stake the stability of the entire alliance. However, at the same time EU integration has been somewhat prioritized.


Armenia: From integration with Europe to allegiance to Russia


For much of its history, Armenia has been a prisoner of its complex geography. Located in the middle of the Caucasian junction, the country has been historically overcome by larger regional powers and neighbouring empires. Today, Armenia faces several key challenges and pendant issues including its overdependence on Russia, the question of the unsettled Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the troublesome relation with its Turkic bordering countries, and the liaison with the worldwide diaspora.

Armenia’s historical borders are difficult to define. Throughout medieval and modern history, the Armenians represented a Christian nation surrounded by Muslim populations, without a proper Armenian state. Historically, the concept of Armenia referred to a vast geographical-political area comprising a notable part of eastern Anatolia, the Middle East and the Caucasus.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Turkish nationalism played an important role in shaping modern Armenian identity. The events of 1915 – which Armenians refer to as a genocide – resulted in mass displacement of Armenians from Anatolia, the murder of thousands of Armenians, and the formation of a vast Armenian diaspora, mainly in the US and France.

At the same time, a significant number of Armenians were living under Russian rule, in what was then the Russian Empire. In 1922, as previously seen, the part of Armenia under czarist dominion was incorporated into the USSR.

After the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, the once again independent Armenia was recognized within the borders of the former Armenian SSR. However, motivated by nationalism and irredentism, many Armenians believed in the need to forge a Greater Armenia that included all Armenians. This led, for instance, to supporting the birth of a second Armenian polity in the Caucasus, namely the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) – renamed Republic of Artsakh since 2017 –, an autonomous region within Azerbaijan inhabited by an Armenian ethnic majority.

Today, Armenia represents the country that enjoys the greatest ties with Russia in the South Caucasus. In 2013, Armenia made the fundamental decision to abandon the process of European integration and to embrace Eurasian integration instead.

Despite the sudden Eurasian turn, the relations between Armenia and the EU have been deep and prolonged. Thanks to the PCA, the EU and Armenia granted each other most-favoured-nation (MFN) treatment. Like Georgia, Armenia benefited from the EU’s GSP and GSP+, offering duty-free or reduced-tariff access to the EU market (Vasilyan 2017, 35).

In May 2009, Armenia became one of the eastern European countries involved in the EaP, with the key aim of creating the conditions to accelerate political association and further economic integration with the EU.

In July 2010, Armenia and the EU began negotiating an AA to replace their PCA. As part and parcel of the AA, in February 2012, the EU and Armenia began talks over the DCFTA for the implementation of a long-term economic partnership.

However, despite three years of negotiations, in September 2013, President Serzh Sargsyan announced Armenia’s decision to reject the signature of the AA/DCFTA, join the EACU and participate in the formation of the EAEU, yet without precluding dialogue with European institutions (Ter-Matevosyan et al. 2017, 340).

The Treaty aiming for Armenia’s accession to the EAEU was signed on 9 October 2014 and came into force on 2 January 2015, when Armenia became an official member of the Eurasian Union. The factors that framed the country’s geo-strategic U-turn are threefold. The first – which may be regarded as the most important – concerns security (Vasilyan 2017, 32): since Armenia views Russia as the only guarantor of its national security, pressures from the Russian government played a relevant role for interrupting EU negotiations and signing up the EAEU. Second, Armenia’s economic and energy dependence on Russia represented a significant push towards Russian-led Eurasian integration (Ter-Matevosyan 2017, 341). Finally, geopolitical volatilities originating from the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, the Turkish and Azeri blockade, and the marginalization from regional projects likewise contributed to outline Armenia’s preference.

Armenia feared that the prolongation of the negotiations with the EU could make Russia’s position change in relation to the guarantee to the security of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, fearing Russia’s neutrality over Nagorno-Karabakh (Vasilyan 2017, 42). The potential scenario of a withdrawal of the Russian troops in Armenia as a security guarantee against an Azerbaijani attempt to take back Nagorno-Karabakh was a key reason in discouraging Yerevan to continue with its AA.

What Armenia valued as pivotal was its need for a safe security arrangement with Russia regarding its conflict with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

If we consider Russia’s topmost role in Armenia, the country’s decision to join the EAEU is not at all surprising. Russia is Armenia’s main trading partner, provides for the greatest share of FDIs, and represents the key sponsor in the sectors of energy supply, telecommunications, transportation, finance, insurance, and mining (Ibid., 36) Moreover, Armenia’s economy is highly dependent on remittances originating from labour migrants in Russia (Ter-Matevosyan et al. 2017, 350). Struggling with a blockaded economy, the remittances received from Russia and the exports to Russia represent an important asset for Armenia (Vasilyan 2017, 42) and the guarantee for Armenian migrants to work legally in Russia was a significant pull toward the EAEU (Tarr 2016, 16).

In terms of energy supply, Armenia has been excluded from the regional pipeline projects stretching from Azerbaijan via Georgia to Turkey and Europe – namely the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline, and the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP). Consequently, Armenia relies entirely on energy imported from Russia and Iran (Vasilyan 2017, 37), which remain Armenia’s main lifeline.

By joining the EAEU, Armenia shifted the core of its external trade policy to the Eurasian Union, accepting the application of the common external tariff, though with around 800 exemptions until 2020 (Kostanayan 2016, 1). The EAEU markets are very familiar with Armenian entrepreneurs and migrant workers due to cultural ties, shared industrial culture, prolonged collaboration with the same standards and norms, and absence of linguistic barriers, generating a favourable environment for the reception of Armenian products, although – interestingly – Armenia does not share a common border with other EAEU member states.

Armenia is one of the unique cases in the world that has 80 per cent of its land borders closed. Due to the absence of normal diplomatic relations and the sealed borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan, the only open borders are the ones with Georgia and Iran, making Armenia exceedingly dependent on them, as, for instance, 70 percent of Armenian foreign trade passes through Georgia (Ter-Matevosyan 2017: 344-5).

Apart from the government, the Armenian diaspora in Russia also supported Armenia’s inclusion in the EAEU. Likewise, the majority of Armenia’s public opinion showed to endorse Eurasian integration.

As seen, security was the main factor that contributed in shaping Armenia’s decision to implement Eurasian integration. Today, Russia provides entirely for Armenia’s protection and defence. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Armenia believed in the need to continue to participate in Russian-led security organizations and consequently accepted to join the CIS and the Collective Security Treaty (CST) – which later evolved into the CSTO – as a precondition for Russian political and military support during the early 1990s conflicts. The friendly relations with Russia allowed Armenia to defend itself and to act as supporter of Nagorno-Karabakh’s self-determination – despite Moscow’s role as arms supplier to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. After the 1994 ceasefire, in 1995 Yerevan signed a treaty on Russian military bases in Armenia, followed by the 1997 treaty on friendship, cooperation, and mutual assistance that allowed Russian military control of Armenia’s borders with the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan and with non-CIS member states, namely Turkey and Iran. Given Russia’s veto power for the establishment of foreign military bases in CSTO member states and its possibility to intervene under a CSTO Rapid Reaction Force mandate, Russia may circumscribe Armenian chances of cooperation with NATO and provide armed support to Armenia in case of political turmoil and uprisings.

Being a full-fledged CSTO member – the only in the South Caucasus –, Armenia wholly relies on its military alliance with Russia, which ensures the equipment of its troops and keeps a military balance at the border with Turkey, Azerbaijan’s regional ally. Also, Armenia benefits from Russian credits to purchase weapons, which may obtain at discount prices. As CSTO member, Armenia enjoys a limited partnership with NATO, although it participated in some of the Alliance’s peacekeeping missions. Moreover, by discarding the planned AA with the EU, Armenia has also truncated the development of its partnership with NATO.

Armenia and Russia have operated closely for the creation of the Caucasus Unified Air Defence System and a joint Russian-Armenian military group. However, beyond formal military cooperation, Russia possesses its own armed bases in Armenia, namely the 102nd military base in Gyumri – the lease of which is extended to 2044 – and the 3624th airbase in Erebuni Airport in Yerevan. Moreover, Russia contributes in safeguarding Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Iran through its the Border control division of its Federal Security Service (FSS). Finally, Armenia is also included in the united air defence system of the CIS.

Against the principle of territorial integrity, Armenia has not declared support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and backed Crimea’s choice to join Russia, supporting the right to self-determination for the peninsula’s population – supporting the application of the same principle also for Nagorno-Karabakh.

Apart from Russia, Armenia enjoys friendly relations with Iran. Both Armenia and Iran fear the potential advent of a Greater Azerbaijan – that could unify the Azerbaijani regions of Iran with the Republic of Azerbaijan – and pan-Turkic irredentism. Given its landlocked condition between Azerbaijan and Turkey, Armenia depends on Georgia and Iran for external trade. Furthermore, it believes that Iran could counterbalance as regional actor both Turkey and somewhat Russia. Iran and Armenia have been active cooperating in the energy, transport, communication, agriculture, and healthcare sectors.

Today, the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the difficult relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan represent major factors of instability in the South Caucasus. As previously noted, the Republic of Artsakh – also known as Nagorno-Karabakh Republic between 1991 and 2017 – is a de facto independent country inhabited by an Armenian ethnic majority that is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. This political entity – which is economically and politically dependent on Armenia and the Armenian diaspora – was created as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh War (1988-1994), an ethnic and territorial conflict that took place between the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh backed by the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan. Armenian revanchism and irredentism – which still today represents a relevant narrative aimed at creating a Greater Armenia that would comprise the former Soviet regions of Nagorno-Karabakh and Nakhichevan in Azerbaijan and Javakhetia in Georgia, as well as the eastern Anatolian regions in Turkey – fuelled the break out of the conflict.

When the war broke out, the Armenians of the then Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO), within the Azerbaijan SSR sought unification with the Armenian SSR, which perceived the region as a kin-state. After the Soviet collapse, the crisis evolved into open armed confrontation between the newly independent Armenia and Azerbaijan. After the military campaign of 1992-1994, virtually one-fifth of Azerbaijan’s territory was seized by the Armenian armed forces, including all of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven other Azerbaijani districts located outside the autonomous region (Lachin, Kelbajar, Fizuli, Jebrail, Zangelan, Aghdam, and Gubadli) that have been transformed into a buffer zone. During the conflict, Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian Republic and the diaspora fought side by side. In 1993, the UN Security Council adopted four resolutions (822, 853, 874, 884) directly associated to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, underscoring the need for the immediate cessation of military activities and an unconditional withdrawal from all occupied regions of Azerbaijan. In May 1994, a cease-fire agreement accepted by Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities stopped the hostilities thereafter, although both in 2008 and 2016 violations of the cease-fire regime occurred.

Diplomatic initiatives to solve the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh have included efforts by the EU, the OSCE, and the Council of Europe (CoE). Specifically, since 1992 the OSCE Minsk Group has been a top mediator in the peace process. In November 2008, short after the Russian-Georgian War, Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan signed the Moscow Declaration over Nagorno-Karabakh, which emphasized the need for a settlement of the conflict based on the principles of international law and the importance of the OSCE Minsk Group to continue its mediation efforts (Pashayeva 2009, 63). As of the EU, it supported the efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group, though maintaining a balanced – and somewhat ambiguous – position between Armenia and Azerbaijan, unlike its clear-cut position vis-à-vis the Russian-Georgian War.

Although the conflict is not officially finished – albeit stalemated –, the Armenians have so far obtained victory. Obviously, Armenia joined the EAEU without Nagorno-Karabakh and – like all EAEU members – it officially recognized Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. However, when conducting peace talks with Baku, Stepanakert wishes to enjoy the same international status of Yerevan.


Azerbaijan: the choice of not choosing


Positioned at the intersection of the east-west and north-south transportation corridors and enjoying both a vast amount of hydrocarbon energy reserves and the largest population of the region, Azerbaijan – a pro-Western and secular Muslim country – is perhaps the most relevant South Caucasian state in geo-strategic terms. Its unique position on the junction of the West and East contributed in the development of a synthesis of the values and features of both cultures (Nuriyev 2008, 156). As Zbigniew Brzezinski once affirmed, despite the limited size, with its vast energy resources Azerbaijan represented “the cork in the bottle containing the riches of the Caspian Sea basin and Central Asia” (Brzezinski 1997, 129). Indeed, Azerbaijan represents a hub that connects energy and transportation infrastructure between Asia and Europe.

Implementing its own version of realism, Azerbaijan balances actors like Russia, Iran, Turkey and the West by making sudden political choices in situations of ambiguity.

Azerbaijan feels the direct effect of the complex, rivalrous geopolitical reality of the Caucasus. In relation to the overlapping regional interests of Russia, Turkey, Iran, the US and the EU, the Azerbaijani political elite decided to pursue a balanced interest-based policy (Nuriyev 2008, 157), opting for maintaining a pragmatic strategy based on neutrality and nonalignment without neither declining nor accepting any demanding economic and military partnership. Unlike Tbilisi – which, as seen, believes in the priority of Euro-Atlantic integration – or Yerevan – which chose to adhere to Russian-led Eurasian integration –, Baku engages in an impartial foreign policy, abiding by the principles of international law among which the respect of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and non-interference in internal affairs of third countries. Azerbaijan’s multilateral commitment is highlighted by the country’s multiple ties with the West, Russia, and the Islamic world, expressed in Azerbaijani’s participation to various international platforms including the CIS, the CoE, the EaP, the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC), the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), the Turkic Council.

Azerbaijan could afford to adopt this neutral, unbiased foreign policy mainly due to Caspian energy riches and an experienced political leadership (Nuriyev 2007), guaranteeing the protection of Azerbaijani’s national security and the development of significant economic scenarios.

As previously noted, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, independent Azerbaijan faced the consequences of the unsolved conflict with neighbour Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region: until today, this conflict acts as a brake on the development of the entire South Caucasus, discouraging regional peace and security.

Although Azerbaijan’s strongest regional ties are probably with Turkey – somewhat its regional protector – and Russia, its relations with Iran deserve a special consideration. Azerbaijan, a Shia-majority country, is historically and culturally close to Iran, even though the former represents a secularized polity and the latter an Islamic theocracy. The main obstacles that trump the cooperation between Azerbaijan and Iran comprise potential pan-Turkic inclinations, the idea of a Greater Azerbaijan that could foster irredentism in Iran’s Azerbaijani province, Iran siding Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Azerbaijan’s ties with the US, NATO and Israel. Still, both countries mutually oppose Sunni-inspired integralist groups. Interestingly, the only land route to Azerbaijan’s exclave of Nakhichevan passes through Iranian territory.

Relying on the autonomy given by its energy resources, Azerbaijan has rejected regional integration initiatives originating both from the EU and from Russia, though increasing trade and investment both with the EU and the EAEU.

Among post-Soviet countries, Azerbaijan has been one of the most unwilling to participate in Russian-led integration projects and has accordingly refused to join the EACU and the EAEU.

The inclusion of Azerbaijan in the EAEU would offer the country a greater access to the Russian market for the non-oil sector, but, on the other hand, would impede the implementation of an independent energy policy – for instance vis-à-vis the EU – and would harm the relations with traditional allies like Turkey. Most of Azerbaijan’s political elites, along with society, are not in favour of EAEU membership, fearing it would put an end to Baku’s independent foreign policy.

Though belonging to the CIS, Azerbaijan is not a member of the CSTO. When the CST expired in 1999, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Uzbekistan refused to sign the renewal, withdrew from it and did not join the CSTO created in 2002.

Instead, Azerbaijan was a top promoter behind the establishment in 1997 of the GUAM alliance – named for Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova – (later renamed the GUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development), serving the purpose of countering Russian influence in the region. In 2011, Azerbaijan joined the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), a forum of 120 developing countries that are not formally aligned with or against any main power bloc, becoming the second post-Soviet member after Belarus. This choice emphasized the country’s desire to maintain a neutral position in international relations.

Still, Azerbaijan’s bilateral relations with Russia are strategic and cover many areas, including economic, humanitarian and military cooperation. Russia is the top exporter country to Azerbaijan, engages in a strategic partnership, supplies weapons, and exercises soft power through the widespread use of the Russian language. However, despite the good relations with Azerbaijan did, Russia has decided to continue selling arms both to Yerevan and Baku, maintaining a balance between the two countries.

Due to its oil and gas reserves, pipeline diversity represents a key strategic objective for Azerbaijan. Today, Azerbaijan embodies a fundamental energy route from the Caspian Sea thanks to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum (BTE) gas pipeline. Moreover, Azerbaijan is a key actor for the EU’s Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) initiative aimed at supplying natural gas from Caspian and Middle Eastern regions to Europe, reducing dependency on Russian gas. The SGC’s route from Azerbaijan to Europe consist of the BTE Pipeline (also known as South Caucasus Pipeline, SCP) – transporting gas from Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz II field across Georgia to Turkey –, the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) – transporting gas from Turkey to Greece – and the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) – transporting gas from Greece to Italy via Albania – which is expected to be operative by 2020. Additionally, Azerbaijan exports oil to Georgia via the Baku-Supsa Pipeline and to Russia via the Baku-Novorossiysk Pipeline to Russia.

The Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey axis is pivotal for west-east energy and transportation routes, since Azerbaijan produces natural resources, Georgia acts as transport corridor and Turkey has access to world markets and international partners, chiefly the EU. The productive interaction between Azerbaijan and Georgia in the energy sector reinforced regional cooperation in the South Caucasus, while Armenia – due to the occupation of Azerbaijan’s territory – was excluded from all regional energy and transportation opportunities, despite Russia’s supply.

Azerbaijan was the first country to join the Transportation Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia (TRACECA), which represents an international transport programme involving the European Union and several Eastern European, Caucasian and Central Asian states aimed at strengthening economic, trade and transport relations.

Finally, Azerbaijan has further consolidated a collaboration with Georgia and Turkey through the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway.

Cooperation between Azerbaijan and Georgia ha proven the viability of regionalism in the South Caucasus. Azerbaijan is among the major trade partners, energy suppliers, investors, and taxpayers of Georgia, while Georgia ensures secure passage to run oil and gas pipelines, railroads, highways and electricity grids. Armenia has been left behind from regional cooperation because of its occupation of Azerbaijani territories.

In terms of security, while Armenia relies on Russia, Azerbaijan – despite its nonalignment – considers Turkey, a NATO country, its primary protector. Unlike Georgia, Azerbaijan does not wish to implement a Membership Action Plan (MAP) with NATO, since it would be incompatible with Azerbaijan’s participation to the Non-Aligned Movement. Still, Azerbaijan joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace Programme (PfP) in 1994, cooperated with the US in the war against international terrorism, and took active part in post-conflict peace building operations in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Also, after the Ukrainian crisis the relationship between Azerbaijan and NATO increased, also because Baku supports Kiev’s territorial integrity, relating it to its own territorial integrity vis-à-vis the Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan’s relations with the EU are mainly based on energy cooperation since the EU views the country as strategic for the diversification of energy supply to Europe. Azerbaijan views the West as a natural partner for the energy market, the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process and the democratization of the country (Nuriyev 2008, 158). Azerbaijan adhered to the ENP in 2006 and to the EaP in 2009.

The ENP Action Plan requested Azerbaijan to comply with democratic standards, especially in the areas of free and transparent elections, and legislative and administrative restructurings (Franke et al. 2010, 159), offers economic rewards in exchange for reforms.

However, Baku accuses Brussels to apply a double-standard approach while officially condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea but not openly accusing Armenia of the occupation of Azerbaijani land. The EU’s failure to explicitly recognize Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity in unambiguous terms, as occurred with other EaP countries with territorial disputes – namely Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine – has been problematic when formulating political agreements like the now abandoned AA.

By 2013, Azerbaijan decided to terminate the negotiations for EU association. Natural resources granted Azerbaijan the chance to afford more independence from the EU, therefore rejecting membership (Ibid., 156). Between 2013 and 2014, however, Azerbaijan and the EU signed a Visa facilitation Agreement, a Readmission Agreement and a Mobility Partnership.




The South Caucasus post-Soviet region is currently witnessing the clash of interests by relevant international actors that are using integration as a tool to gain influence or hegemony. On one hand there is Russia, that attempts to take back under its sphere what it considers its historical backyard; on the other are the EU and NATO that try to implement a strategy aimed at subtracting the South Caucasus from Russia for their own benefit.

The main integration projects, namely the Russian-led EAEU and the EU’s EaP, have resulted either in a success, in a failure, or in a stalemate.

In the case of Georgia, Euro-Atlantic integration, partly stalled and slowed down by major issues like the secession of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, may be considered a success in theory but a stalemate in practice, given the fact that the country has signed the AA/DCFTA with the EU and may benefit from a NATO MAP in the near future but that there is still no clear date for the implementation of both. After the 2008 war, however, it is more likely that Georgia will be integrated in the EU rather than in NATO, since the Alliance cannot easily afford to include a country that does not have full de facto control of its territory. At the same time, insofar as South Ossetia and Abkhazia are not concerned, Georgia’s Eurasian integration resulted in a failure. Indeed, Georgia represents the most troublesome South Caucasian country for Russia, since it is the most pro-western. Despite Russia’s reliance on soft power strategies like the lever on the common Orthodox faith or the Eurasianist ideology it appears that Georgia’s allure for the West is too strong to overcome.

In the case of Armenia, European integration has resulted in a total failure, since despite the protracted negotiations for the AA with the EU, Armenia eventually decided to embrace Russian-led integration, which resulted in a noteworthy Eurasian success. Armenia’s decision to join the EAEU in 2015 was dictated mainly by concerns over national security, since a potential downsizing of Russian military support could have implied worrisome consequences vis-à-vis Armenia’s relations with its neighbours and the frozen conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Moreover, integration in NATO was averted by Armenia’s full membership in the CSTO and its military partnership with Russia.

Finally, in the case of Azerbaijan both Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian integrations may be viewed as failures. Leveraging on the autonomy and allure granted by its natural resources, the country decided to pursue a neutral, autonomous foreign policy based on pragmatism and realism. Nonetheless, in the longer term, the question is whether Azerbaijan can afford to maintain a non-aligned position.

The fact that the three South Caucasian states chose different opportunities concerning integration projects contributes significantly to regional fragmentation. Some cooperation between the EU and Russia seems one of the only possible solutions to overcome the divergences between the two integration projects. Still, little has been undertaken so far given the current tarnished EU-Russian relations after the Ukrainian crisis. Given the ethno-religious-linguistic complexity and the relevant economic assets of the South Caucasus, it is expected that the region will always suffer from geopolitical contraposition and be exposed to the likelihood of conflicts. Perhaps only economic and political integration could help the South Caucasus to overcome the issues inherited by its history and geography and ensure a cohesive common space that would grant economic development and enduring peace.

Key words: Eurasian integration; European integration; South Caucasus; Eurasian Economic Union; EU Eastern Partnership



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About the Author(s)

Paolo Pizzolo is a Research Fellow at LUISS Guido Carli University of Rome. He holds a PhD in Political Science and International Relations.



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