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CIS: Is South Caucasus 'Region' An Artificial Construct?
By Salome Asatiani
Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

(May 30, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia are commonly grouped together under a common label -- the "South Caucasus." But evidence of such unity is hard to find on the streets of the nations' capitals.

In Tbilisi, one man, asked whether he considered Georgia part of a regional bloc, said simply, "No, I don't. Georgia is Georgia." Asked if Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan had anything in common, he said, "Absolutely nothing."

In Baku, the sentiment is similar, with a local resident saying: "I don't want Azerbaijan to be in only the South Caucasus -- it should also be in stronger blocs."

And in the Armenian capital, one woman spoke nostalgically of a time when the three countries had a greater sense of unity. "We used to have many things in common," she said. "We were similar in our temperament, lifestyle, and human relationships; similar in almost everything. I never felt like an outsider in either in either Baku or Tbilisi."

And now? "I think that all these things have changed a lot, and they've gotten worse -- in religious matters, and in other ways as well."

What's changed over the years?

Not much, according to regional analysts. To them, the notion of a "South Caucasus" or a "Transcaucasus" has always been an artificial construct imposed from outside.

"Russian people -- or, let's say, the Russian Empire -- logically gave the name Transcaucasus to that part of its empire located beyond the Caucasus mountain range as seen from the north," says Alexander Iskandarian, the director of the Yerevan-based Caucasus Media Institute.

"People who lived in the South Caucasus did not understand this unity, because it hadn't existed before. Prior to this, inhabitants of the South Caucasus had identified themselves as part of wider communities -- as citizens or subjects of the Persian Empire, the Ottoman Empire. Or they identified themselves in more local terms."

Periods Of Union

There are a few examples of the three nations briefly coming together into a single political unit. There was a short-lived federation established in 1918, prior to Sovietization. Later, there was the Transcaucasian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic, which existed within the Soviet Union between 1922-36.

Literature and popular culture played their own role in highlighting the link between the three nations.

Kurban Said's novel "Ali and Nino," first published in the 1930s, was one such example. The novel, set around the time of the Russian Revolution, chronicles the tragic love story between an Azerbaijani man and a Georgian woman.

Soviet audiences, for their part, loved Giorgi Danelia's 1977 film "Mimino," which tells the story of a friendship between a Georgian and an Armenian stranded in Moscow.

And then there are the innumerable jokes about "a Georgian, an Azerbaijani, and Armenian" that abounded during the Soviet era, all based on the general stereotype of Caucasians as hospitable, eccentric, dark-haired, and -- in the case of the men -- thickly mustached.

Also perpetuating the image of South Causasus unity were Soviet-era melodies like the 1950s "Caucasus Table Song," in which three "brothers" -- the cities of Tbilisi, Baku, and Yerevan -- sing a toast to their friendship and future progress.

Tbilisi-based psychologist Gaga Nizharadze claims that such cultural representations and stereotypes -- despite being the result of a kind of artificial homogenization -- ultimately fostered some genuine unity between Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Georgians.

"We have carried out several research projects to determine whether there has ever been such a thing as a general 'Caucasian identity,'" Nizharadze says. "We found that it does exist, although it is very weakly felt. I can speak from my own experience that, when meeting in Moscow for example, people from the Caucasus have some commonalties, be it in subjective terms, or even in terms of looks and appearance -- 'You are all Caucasian.'"

Diverging Identities

But it is also clear that in the post-Soviet years, the three countries have proved more different than alike.

Nation-building efforts that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union led to increased emphasis on religious identities. This exposed differences among the three states, with Azerbaijan a primarily Muslim country, and Armenia and Georgia adhering to different branches of Christianity.

Likewise, newfound nationalism led to intellectual disputes over cultural heritage.

Ultimately, despite their geographic proximity, the three countries have generally fared poorly at interstate cooperation. Azerbaijan and Georgia have forged some energy transport deals, and Baku provided much-needed energy supplies to Tbilisi during its standoff with Russia. But otherwise, relations in the neighborhood have not always been neighborly.

This is due in large part to their markedly different foreign-policy perspectives. While Georgia grows more oriented toward the West, Armenia is seen as more tied to Moscow. Azerbaijan, rich in oil and gas resources, has the luxury of straddling the fence, and even seeking an individual role on the international level.

And then there is Nagorno-Karabakh, the ethnic Armenian exclave based on Azerbaijani territory. Armenia and Azerbaijan fought over the disputed region in a bloody war that lasted from 1988-94, and tensions over the exclave remain extremely heated.

Archil Gegeshidze, a political scientist based in Tbilisi, says the unresolved "frozen conflict" remains the biggest hurdle to regional unity.

"The issue of the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the main problem, entailing differing foreign-policy orientations and different systems of security," Gegeshidze says. "When two countries are at war, it is of course out of place to speak about any regional unity."

Grouped For Convenience?

Despite all the friction, however, the concept of a unified South Caucasus region is still widely held in international politics.

NATO and the European Union, for example, use a single representative in dealing with all three countries as a whole. The EU launched its Neighborhood Policy action plans simultaneously in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, despite the countries' varying records on reform.

And there are numerous examples of efforts to promote regional integration -- the Eurasia Foundation's South Caucasus Cooperation Program and the Council of Europe's 2006 Stability Pact for the South Caucasus, to name just two.

Many analysts cite the states' smallness and minimal global influence as reasons they are often bunched together. Another, according to psychologist Gaga Nizharadze, is that taking a regional approach significantly simplifies things for outsiders.

"It is easier to carry out policies in relation to regions," Nizharadze says. "And for a foreign expert who comes and spends three days in Tbilisi, Baku, and Yerevan, it is difficult to comprehend that in reality he is dealing with different countries, different languages, different religions, and that even historically we have never been particularly great friends. But when seen from London or New York, for instance, this is one geographical area, and it is much easier to deal with it as one."

Baku-based political scientist Rasim Musabekov agrees. However, he believes a regional approach does not necessarily have to ignore the three nations' individual characteristics.

"From outside, for Europe, the South Caucasus is seen as a region. However, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia are each clearly distinguished within it, because their policies are far from identical," Musabekov says. "I think this is how Russia sees it as well. Turkey and Iran are behaving in similar ways. Therefore, in this sense, the 'region' exists only for outside players."

International actors may very well continue the practice of lumping Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia together, leading the three states to set aside their differences temporarily when on the global stage.

But another possibility is that "South Caucasus" may gradually outlive its usefulness, eventually serving only as an example of a failed attempt to paint the three nations with one brush.

(RFE/RL's Azerbaijani, Armenian, and Georgian services contributed to this report.)