Russia, Turkey, and Iran compete for control of the region's ethnic and religious landscape.
The interplay of interests between Moscow, Ankara, and Tehran plays out in a number of arenas. In Central Asia, the three are in lukewarm competition, in stark contrast with escalating dynamics in Syria. The Caucasus, meanwhile, is another battleground of influence between them. In this region, they compete for control of the ethnic and religious landscape against a backdrop of geopolitical priorities.
The North Caucasus is integral to Russia, and to a lesser extent Iran and Turkey. This peripheral region plays an important role in Moscow's domestic agenda, being crucial to Russia's existing borders. Historically, the North Caucasus has been unstable with the Second Chechen War in the 1990s terminating Chechnya's (then Ichkeria's) independence. The Chechen Wars and subsequent formation of the Caucasus Emirate, the self-proclaimed secessionist government of Chechnya, by militants fighting against Russian security forces in the North Caucasus were influenced by Salafi-jihadi doctrine spread by foreign fighters, despite the region mainly adhering to the traditional Islamic schools of thought. Salafi-jihadi ideology underpinned the insurgents' rhetoric and activities.
Turkey's Sunni Circassian community is descended from the North Caucasus and follows Sufism and the Shafi madhab. With close ties in southern Russia, Turkey provided financial assistance and access to Turkish hospitals for rebels during the Chechen Wars. In response to Ankara's intervention, Moscow intensified its tutelage of the Kurdish movement. However, disillusionment with the EU led to Turkey scaling down its active support to the North Caucasus in the late 1990s in exchange for the withdrawal of Russian backing for the Kurdistan Workers' Party.
Currently, close ethnic contact between the region and outside powers is discouraged by Russia as potentially damaging. Thus, by early 2017, Russia's International Circassian Association severed its cultural cooperation with the Turkish Circassians' Federation.
Unlike Turkey, Shia Iran's attitude towards anti-Russian insurrections in the North Caucasus has been that of non-interference due to doctrinal differences and lack of social basis in the predominantly Sunni region. Iran is involved in a number of economic projects in the North Caucasus, reasserting its religious impact on the other side of the border, in the south.
The South Caucasus, or Transcaucasia - encompassing Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia - is important for all three because of its strategic location and the ethnic and religious diversity of its population. For Russia, it is a strategic security belt against Turkey and Iran. Home to a complex mix of ethnic and religious groups, it also serves as an active corridor for radical extremist penetration into Russian territory.
Though the three Transcaucasian republics are secular in polity, their citizens follow the Abrahamic religions. Armenia and Georgia are predominantly Orthodox Christian while Azerbaijan is Shia Muslim. There are 1,214,570 Catholics, the majority of whom are in Georgia. Judaism has 8,700 followers in Azerbaijan, 2,800 in Georgia and 300-500 in Armenia. Several dozen ethnic and religious groups live across both Azerbaijan and Georgia while Armenia largely remains an ethnically homogenous state.
Ethnic separatism and territorial claims are common currency in the South Caucasus, where the regional powers' strategy of "divide and rule" prevails. Russia-backed Armenia occupied Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh in 1993. The Farsi-speaking Azeri Shia Talysh minority struggled for an autonomous republic, bordering Iran in the mid-1990s. De facto independent Adjara, bordering Turkey reverted back to Georgia in 2004. The 2008 Georgia-Russia war resulted in ethnic secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia.
For Turkey, the South Caucasus is a key gateway to Central Asia. From the early 1990s Ankara sought to build a corridor from Azerbaijan's enclave, Nakhichevan, which borders Turkey, to Turkic-speaking outposts in Central Asia and Xinjiang. Armenia's occupation of Azerbaijani territories between Nakhichevan and mainland Azerbaijan rendered it impossible.
As such, cooperation between Russia, Armenia, and Iran centres on their desire to counter Turkey's ethno-religious influences. Armenia is Russia's strategic ally although Russia takes no chances. It is Russian troops stationed in Armenia that patrol its borders with Turkey and Iran.
Islamist radicalism has a strong impact. Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, on the border with Chechnya, has long been a sore point for Russia. The Pankisi was once home to an ISIS field commander Abu Omar al-Shishani and other militants who participated in the Caucasus Emirate or joined ISIS. In January 2016, Russia's foreign minister reported that ISIS militants actively use this area.
Georgian and Russian troops heavily guard each side of the Pankisi border. The eight miles-long gorge served as a lawless corridor for smuggling weapons and jihadis to Chechnya. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and, allegedly, Osama Bin Laden spent some time here in the 2000s. It is alleged that there are many young ISIS sympathisers in this desolate area.
There are also reports of Georgian ISIS fighters stirring local militants into action in the Pankisi. Second generation ISIS leaders from the area gave "official orders" in 2016 to restart military operations in the North Caucasus, inciting their counterparts in the "Caucasus Province" and lone wolves to attack Russia.
Iran, Armenia, and Azerbaijan
Some South Caucasus republics are able to wield greater influence over the large regional powers than their size would belie. Azerbaijan has served as a catalyst for separatist movements of Azeri Turks in Iran. Concentrated primarily in Iran's northern provinces, they are the country's second largest ethnic minority.
The heated polemic between Iran and Azerbaijan is on the increase. Iran rebukes Baku for its "anti-Iranian, and anti-Shia" position, preferring "friendly relations with Christian Armenia to Muslim Azerbaijan, due to geopolitical interests."
Although Iran and Armenia are major regional economic partners, Iran reaps significant economic profits in Azerbaijan. Scrutiny of Iranian business interests there revealed that the country's transport minister awarded a series of multimillion-dollar contracts to a construction company controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
Iran is also active there to curb what it sees as the spread of Wahhabism. Wahhabi ideas continue to be covertly proselytised against the backdrop of Baku's pronounced orientation towards the Gulf states and crackdown on Shia activists. To counter the perceived Wahhabi sway, Tehran projects its ideology onto Azerbaijan, despite government-imposed restrictions. Moscow also views Wahhabi influence as detrimental in mainland Russia.
Cracks in Regional Leadership
Given its history in the region, Russia undoubtedly has the edge on its competitors. Moscow makes it unequivocally clear that it has the ultimate say in the settlement of regional ethnic conflicts. Turkey has no diplomatic relations with Armenia and they are dependent upon solution of Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, withdrawal of Armenia's territorial claims to Turkey, and other Yerevan-set pre-conditions. Turkey's influences on Turkic Azerbaijan, though strong, are greatly impeded by lack of direct access to the country. Iran's good relations with Shia Azerbaijan are flawed in Tehran's eyes by the secular nature of the authorities. Iran's close economic cooperation with Armenia largely rests upon Russia's accommodation.
In the North Caucasus, meanwhile, Russia's 'carrot and stick' politics have achieved relative stability. However, this is a precarious status quo that cannot be maintained without regular counter-terror operations by Russian troops.
The status quo in the South Caucasus shows all signs of being sapped by current political dynamics, especially in light of Russia's plans to use its bases in Armenia against ISIS. Each of the three republics pursues distinctly differing foreign policy agendas. Armenia seeks to balance its special relations with Russia through closer engagement with Brussels. Azerbaijan has distanced itself from the West and largely remains Russia's regional ally with strong links to the Sunni world. Georgia is adamant to pursue its path towards Euro-Atlantic integration, which is difficult for Russia as it views the region as a sphere of its privileged interests, much to the displeasure of the US. With no US interest in the region, except American support for Georgia, however, the South Caucasus is likely to remain in contention by usual suspects, Russia, Iran, and Turkey.
Transcaucasia's republics remain subject to extremist influences. Past records indicate that most inter-ethnic conflicts in the region are fuelled from abroad. These can become particularly acute at times of economic slowdown and rising unemployment, which currently plague the region. If the trend continues, the long-term consequences of ethno-religious radicalism will dwarf short-term political expediencies.
The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics.