Privileged Interest? The Russian debate on the South Caucasus - December 2009
For centuries, the South Caucasus region, a patchwork of ethnic, linguistic and cultural groups, was the playground of empires – Persian, Ottoman and Russian. In the early 19th century, the territory of today's Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan was annexed by Tsarist Russia. In 1918, each of the three states declared independence. It was to be short-lived. Soviet rule was imposed in 1920 and the region was all but neglected by the West during the decades that followed.
The South Caucasus returned to the international arena in the early 1990s following the fall of the Soviet Union. Though the collapse of the USSR brought about the independence of all three South Caucasus republics, it also marked the beginning of a severe economic downturn, violent contestation of Soviet-time borders, extreme political tensions, and the displacement of millions of people.
Russia, however, with its empire gone but many of its imperial entanglements intact, maintained troops on the ground in all three states. This generated the main themes of the current Russian debate on the Caucasus: the fear of losing influence, often allied to a sense of frustration; the belief that control of the Caucasus is vital to Russia's standing as a great power; and a sense of growing rivalry not only with the US but also with the EU in this region.
This picture story highlights some of the main recent themes.