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Caucasus: Three Republics Look East And West

London, 10 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A British analyst says the Transcaucasus countries, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, have revived historic trading and cultural links with their neighbors to the west and east since independence from Moscow in 1991.

Michael Kaser says the new west-east orientation marks a break with two centuries of Tsarist and Soviet domination when the Transcaucasus region was almost exclusively oriented, politically and economically, toward the north: to Russia.

But the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the opening of its closed borders, encouraged Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia to focus, to the west, on the Black Sea and Turkey, and, to the east, on Central Asia. They are orienting themselves along "east-west lines of latitude," instead of along "north-south lines of longitude."

Kaser, of the Center for Euro-Asian studies at Britain's Reading University, says regional cooperation is on the rise.

One example is a new association formed by Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova (GUAM) that wants to expand trade routes through the Caucasus into Central Asia, and to secure better access to the oil-rich Caspian Sea region, avoiding routes through Russia. There is also a move to form a Caucasus Economic Union, extending to a "quasi-independent" Chechnya and to Turkmenistan.

Kaser says the drive to open up the Caucasus and Central Asian region has strong backing from the U.S. which "is concerned with allowing as much freedom (as possible) away from Russian domination, and is very keen to stimulate the trading lines that go across the Balkans, Black Sea, Turkey and Central Asia."

A key element in a proposed new communications network are pipelines to transport oil and gas from the Caspian energy fields to western and Asian markets. (There is an ongoing argument as to the best geo-strategic and commercial routes for the pipelines).

Kaser says the opening of the new mercantile routes from the Transcaucasus to the east, west and south, is a sharp break with the Soviet era, and has helped boost the volume of regional trade.

He calculates that exports from the Transcaucasus last year were double what they were in 1988 during the Soviet era, and that imports were five times higher. Domestic trade probably expanded, too. Kaser says the better trade performance, which was achieved despite earlier hyperinflation, collapsing industries, and regional conflicts, shows that "the market has worked."

The new-west shift marks a return to the 18th century when there were flourishing trade links with the Persians, Ottoman empire, Balkans and Greek communities on the Black Sea. (Even earlier, there were links with western Europe. The eastern-most Latin inscription of the Roman empire can be found near Baku, apparently left by Roman traders who got as far as the Caspian.)

For centuries, trade flowed across the Black and Caspian Seas and with Persia and Turkey. But the historic orientation of the Transcaucasus changed when Tsarist power took over in the early 19th Century. Then, the southern frontiers were "virtually sealed."

In the Soviet era, oil from Baku, gold from Armenia and fruit and flowers from Georgia were produced almost exclusively for consumption within the Soviet Union. Now, new markets beckon.

In summary, Kaser says in the seven years since Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia won their independence, "east-west links have increased at the expense of those with the north, and will continue to expand as planned transport routes come to fruition."

(Kaser spoke at a Reading University seminar this week on "current trends in transitional economies.")