Tuesday, 02 May 2017 00:00

The Raucous Caucasus Featured


Article, The American Interest, May 2, 2017

Svante E. Cornell, 

The Raucous Caucasus

The United States must restore its leverage and credibility in the restive region caught between Russia, Turkey, and Ira


The news from the Caucasus that reaches the United States these days is mainly bad news. We hear reports of widespread corruption, human rights violations, or clashes between warring nations. In the case of the Russian North Caucasus, jihadi terrorists fight regional governments run by pro-Russian thugs. Why, then, should such a small sliver of territory, with perhaps 20 million people, deserve treatment in a net assessment survey? The answer is that the importance of the Caucasus has never lain in its numbers or size, but rather in its role as a geographic, cultural, and geopolitical crossroads. As in the days of the Mongols or Tamerlane, or of the rivalries between the Czarist, Ottoman, and Safavid empires, so today the Caucasus is a meeting point, a bridge or a barrier, between east and west and north and south—between Europe and Asia, and between Russia and the Middle East.

Locked up under Russian rule since the early 19th century, the Caucasus has slowly but surely regained its place on the world scene. That process remains mired in a series of unresolved conflicts between its component nations, which seem increasingly to flare up at the least opportune moment. And given the growing volatility of the surrounding region, these conflicts have increasingly become part and parcel of the great-power politics not only of Russia, Turkey, and Iran, but also of Europe and America.

Despite deep divisions and differences among themselves, the three states of the Caucasus—Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia— all seek close relations with the United States. Indeed, in the 15 and a half years since the September 11 terrorist attacks, these countries have provided a reliable access route to Central Asia and beyond. Today, the region is sandwiched between several of the key challenges reshaping the European security environment: Russia's aggressive expansionism, the Islamic radicalism emanating from the Levant, Iran's ambitious meddling in the Middle East, and the turmoil tearing Turkey apart. Surely, all of this should lead the United States to pay attention to the region, and to develop coherent policies toward it.

Yet in the past decade, the opposite has happened. While the United States had considerable influence in all three states ten years ago, Washington no longer has anything remotely resembling a policy toward the Caucasus as the Obama era gives way to the Trump period. As a result, U.S. interests and desiderata no longer feature prominently in the decision-making of regional leaders. The results speak for themselves: In 2013, Armenia ditched a draft agreement that would have brought it closer to the West for Vladimir Putin's Eurasian Union. As for Azerbaijan, the U.S. relationship with the only country bordering both Russia and Iran deteriorated almost to the breaking point in 2015. Even in Georgia, only recently a success story and the darling of U.S. Democrats and Republicans alike, the country's leader no longer finds it necessary to include tried and trusted pro-Western figures in his electoral coalition.

Simply put, the United States has all but disengaged from the Caucasus. Predictably, nothing in the region has gotten better as a result, and many things are worse. The most obvious example was the large-scale fighting that erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan in April 2016, leading to several hundred casualties and prompting fears of a new all-out war. Indeed, if the current trajectory is not reversed, no one in Washington should be surprised if events in the Caucasus bring further trouble, affecting the stability of and America's long-time interests in the broader region.

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Svante E. Cornell is the director of the American Foreign Policy’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, and co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm.

Image attribution: www.the-american-interest.com, accessed on May 31, 2017

Read 11901 times Last modified on Monday, 05 October 2020 08:05





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    Jeffrey Gedmin: Do we have a Putin problem or a Russia problem today?

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  • New Article Series on Changing Geopolitics of Central Asia and the Caucasus
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  • CACI Initiative on Religion and the Secular State in Central Asia and the Caucasus
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    In 2016, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program launched an initiative on documenting the interrelationship of religion and the secular state in the region. This initiative departed from the fact that little systematic reserch had been undertaken on the subject thus far. While there was and remains much commentary and criticism of religious policy in the region, there was no comprehensive analysis available on the interrelationship of religion and the state in any regional state, let alone the region as a whole. The result of this initiative has been the publication of six Silk Road Papers studying the matter in regional states, with more to come. In addition, work is ongoing on a volume putting the regional situation in the context of the Muslim world as a whole.


    Case Studies

    Each study below can be freely downloaded in PDF format.


    Azerbaijan's Formula: Secular Governance and Civil Nationhood
    By Svante E. Cornell, Halil Karaveli, and Boris Ajeganov
    November 2016   

    2018-04-Kazakhstan-SecularismReligion and the Secular State in Kazakhstan
    By Svante E. Cornell, S. Frederick Starr and Julian Tucker
    April 2018




    1806-UZ-coverReligion and the Secular State in Uzbekistan
    Svante E. Cornell and Jacob Zenn
    June 2018




    2006-Engvall-coverReligion and the Secular State in Kyrgyzstan
    Johan Engvall
    June 2020

     Event video online


    2006-Clement-coverReligion and the Secular State in Turkmenistan
    Victoria Clement
    June 2020

    Event video online




    Articles and Analyses

    Svante E. Cornell, "Religion and the State in Central Asia," in Ilan Berman, ed., Wars of Ideas: Theology, Interpretation and Power in the Muslim World, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

    Svante E. Cornell, "Central Asia: Where Did Islamic Radicalization Go?" in Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union, eds. Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2018.