Discord in the Caucasus

As a travel writer, I am not best-placed to offer any views on the geo-political turmoils, especially in the area I don’t live in. But having recently visited Georgia and observing first hand the importance of the Caucasus and the transport corridors, I can see how they have become the crux of discord in this region.

The pathways to progress (and problems) – it is these roads that have brought the Caucasus both riches and strife

The South Caucasus has historically been a transitional region because of Silk Route. Even today, all along the side of the roads you can see remnants of the old fortifications that were used to defend the land. So many empires fought to gain control of the Caucasus primarily because of the pathways it offered to connect Asia to the West. In a way, the land, the fortifications and the routes are inter-connected; the rivers that flow alongside are metaphors of the blood spilled to defend this land.

Please also read my other blog: Georgia – land ofwine and blood for a better reference to the history of this region)

Sighnaghi fortress, also called the Great Wall is in the Alazani Valley. Signakh in Turkic language meaning “shelter” has always been a place of refuge. The town was inhabited by merchants and craftsmen. It had 28 gates through which numerous Silk Road travellers passed through on their way. The fortifications protected townspeople against Lezgins in southern Dagestan.

Today, it is the Zangezur Corridor that is at the heart of the tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Corridor, if opened will extend from Baku to Kars province in Turkey, passing through Armenia’s Nakhchivan region in the south (see below the map of the route and the region).

The transport route will not only connect Azerbaijan with Turkey but also make the land-locked Armenia vulnerable from both ends while also losing its southern border in the Nakhchivan enclave, its only access to Iran.

Source: TRT World

There are of course historical alliances and events at play here. Turkey has never owned up to the Armenian genocide, which Iran acknowledges – it was the only country in the world to do so before the US passed a Senate Resolution in December 2019.

Azerbaijan has close ties with Turkey. Turkey was the first state to recognise the Republic of Azerbaijan following its independence from the USSR on 30 August 1991. The diplomatic relations were established on 14 January 1992 and Turkey’s Consulate General in Baku was upgraded to Embassy level.

According to the agreements, the checkpoints in Zangezur Corridor will not have any Armenian officials; instead they will be manned by Russian border guards. But Russia too does not support its opening. Currently, the North-South Transport Corridor links Iran with Russia while the Zangezur Corridor will give Azerbaijan unrestricted access to Nakhchivan region without any Armenian checkpoints at the same time, connecting Europe with Central Asia and China through the Azerbaijan-Türkiye route. If this alone doesn’t worry both Armenia and Russia, there is also the Central Asia on the other side waiting to assert its own importance in the geo-politics.

Anyone who remembers their history well will know that Central Asia was the region where both Turkey and Iran had a significant cultural influence. Zangezur Corridor will bring Turkey closer to the region, connecting it via the oil-rich Caspian Sea to Central Asia, which harbours another valuable resource: natural gas.

If Turkey can rekindle its old cultural ties, it can play a critical role in this region, potentially even diminishing the role of Russia whose Gazprom controls the Center gas pipeline system that runs from Turkmenistan via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to Russia.

With the war in Ukraine and Russia facing sanctions from the West, it is in Russia’s interest to establish control and communications in the region that were formerly a part of the Soviet bloc.

During my stay in Kazbegi near the Georgia-Russia border, I saw a chopper lift off from a nearby hotel which played host to Armenia and Georgian leaders’ meeting about road usage and taxes. Nearby, in the Caucasus, construction was in progress to bore tunnel in the mountains, a contract awarded to a Chinese company. Each country is trying to reestablish its pathways to progress.

In the ancient times, the importance of Silk Route was to trade precious items like silk, tea, paper, porcelain, spices, dry fruits, gold etc. Today’s pathways are access to pipelines that will bring resources of oil & gas as well as other riches via the Caucasus. And as with all trade, there is always a price to pay.

An Irani truck in the Caucasus
An Uzbek truck in the Caucasus
Looks like an Armenian truck with Persian lettering and tanker from Russia

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