Emil Avdaliani: “Turkey, Russia, and Iran are vying for influence in the South Caucasus”

  • 2023-01-03
  • Lucas Bolt

The war ravaging Ukraine is reverberating loudly across the South Caucasus too – Georgia (now – Sakartvelo) finds itself uneasy with blood being shed at its threshold, not just in Ukraine in proximity, but in Nagorno-Karabakh, where fights between the Armenian and Azeri militaries flared up again in the wake of the Ukraine war. Emil Avdaliani, a professor at European University (Tbilisi, Georgia) and the Director of Middle East Studies at the Georgian think-tank, Geocase, and the author of “New World Order and Small Regions: The Case of South Caucasus”, answered the questions by The Baltic Times Magazine.

What drives Iran, Turkey, and Russia to seek a great role in this small geographic area? That is what your book is trying to answer.

The major reason is the great power competition in the South Caucasus. Turkey, Russia, and Iran are vying for influence over this strategically critical space for economic, energy, military and diplomatic influence. There is also the EU and US which likewise want to influence the region. It is this accelerated competition amid the changing global order that let me to look at what is taking place in the South Caucasus from a broader perspective.

The book also reflects on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, albeit more on how the war might influence the South Caucasus. Much depends on Ukraine. I basically argued that in case of Ukraine’s victory, the South Caucasus will have bigger room for maneuver, whereas Russia’s victory will give Moscow significant leverage on further cementing its position in the wider Black Sea region. A victorious Russia will find it easier to cooperate with Turkey and Iran too.

 It seems Russia suffers from military force depletion in Ukraine (the interview took place at the end of September – TBT). Does it not mean that Russia’s military presence in the Caucasus has already become weaker or will irreversibly be such? 

If not weaker than there is certainly bigger space for maneuver. Look at what happened recently between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The latter tested Russia’s resolve to defend its ally and the Kremlin did not do anything. This could be a result of the weakening Russian position. At the same time, overestimating Russian troubles could lead to dangerous thinking, so leaders in the South Caucasus should be careful.

 Georgia has seemingly veered off from EU aspirations and sided with Russia in the beginning of the war. Why?

I would not say it veered off. Georgia has just taken a more pragmatic position amid the war in Ukraine. The country is unprotected by NATO or a single major power, so it is quite natural that Tbilisi would be careful. Its position regarding the EU accession remains the same, despite the failure to gain EU candidate status in July.

Georgia is on the EU path. The politicians in Georgia just need to think more broadly and longer-term when it comes to relations with the EU. Moreover, they also need to put aside their personal ambitions to think pragmatically. We need to wait whether the political class in Georgia fulfills the recommendations laid out by Brussels. So far, the signs are not promising.

 How does conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorny Karabach reverberate in Georgia?

Georgia is pragmatic as it does not either support either of the sides, but rather remains neutral. The conflict is especially sensitive because of ethnic minorities which live in the country. So I think that the current policy of neutrality will persist. Overall though, Georgia wants balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Neither side should be weakened so that the balance of power in the region becomes untenable. 

What do you make of a stronger Turkey in your neighborhood?

Turkey has been increasing its influence in the South Caucasus since the 1990s, but I would say that over the past several years the trend has become more obvious. Russian influence in the region is waning and Turkey finds more room for penetration, whether it is economic or military. Turkey has an ally – Azerbaijan - and a good partner, Georgia. It seeks improved relations with Armenia. Ankara builds infrastructure and increases economic ties among the region’s countries. Longer-term the trends are indicating Turkey will play a bigger role in the South Caucasus than it used to.

What is to be watched for in Georgia in terms of possible policy and politics change? 

I would not say foreign policy changes are expected. Most probably we will be watching a more nuanced (foreign policy), as it could become more multi-directional reflecting the changes on the ground. Surely, much depends on the war in Ukraine. If Russia fails to secure its gains, then Tbilisi’s foreign policy would be more confident and probably less inclined to major changes, but only tactical ones. I expect serious changes if Russia wins in Ukraine. Then Tbilisi might be fearful of Russian military moves – it would be an unfortunate turn of events.