Michael B Bishku. Middle Eastern Studies. Volume 45, Issue 2. 2009.
With the break-up of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War, three republics in the South Caucasus—Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia—achieved independence for the second time during the twentieth century. Their first experience was contentious and short-lived, had little support from the major European countries and the United States, and was brought to an end by the newly formed Soviet Union with the tacit approval of the Turkish government in Ankara. While Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian national aspirations were quashed in the early years following the First World War, Zionism was being given encouragement with the establishment of the Palestine Mandate.
When Israel was established, it was given immediate recognition by the Soviet Union, but most Jews from Georgia and Azerbaijan—Armenia’s population was very small in comparison—only made their way to Israel during the last years of the Cold War. On the other hand, following the Second World War, some members of the Armenian Diaspora, including many from the Arab world, immigrated to the Soviet Union. While Soviet-Israeli relations became strained after the Six-Day War, the end of the Cold War not only brought better ties between Russia and Israel it also allowed Israel to establish relations with the other successor states of the former Soviet Union.
Many of those countries sought ties with Israel (and other Western states) to ensure their continued political independence from Russia, while, at the same time, Arab-Israeli relations improved and Turkey and Israel drew closer together. Azerbaijan and the Islamic Republic of Iran, with double the population of Azeris than are in Azerbaijan, regarded each other with suspicion. Azerbaijan along with Georgia, which wanted to enhance its ties with the Western states, drew closer to Turkey; all three countries have benefited from the sale and/or transfer of Azerbaijan’s petroleum resources. Jews from Georgia and Azerbaijan have kept close connections with their former countries, where anti-Semitism was never the problem it was in Russia. Armenia has remained the closest to Russia with its conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh and its distrust of Georgia. However, there are many Diaspora Armenians in the United States as well as smaller numbers in Israel; in addition, Armenians experienced genocide—a claim Turkey rejects—at the hands of the Ottomans during the 1890s and First World War and have unsuccessfully sought recognition of those events from Israel, which does not want to equate that event with the Holocaust or to offend Turkey.
The South Caucasus republics have needed to balance their relations with their immediate and near neighbours and the major powers in the interests of political and economic security. Matters of territorial integrity, historical memory, ethnic brethren residing in foreign countries, and trade routes have become important factors in the development of foreign policy. Conversely, Israel needs to balance its relations with the South Caucasus republics with those of Russia and Turkey; in addition, it values Azerbaijani oil and that country’s strategic position in relation to Iran. Throughout its history, Israel has practised what has been termed ‘garrison state diplomacy’. With a number of hostile neighbours it has striven to expand its relations with non-Arab Middle Eastern, Asian and African countries. This was the case beginning in the early 1990s with the South Caucasus and Central Asian states.
Ironically, Georgia, the South Caucasus republic with unquestionably the worst relations with Russia, is the only state in the region having formal diplomatic ties with all its immediate and near neighbours. It is also the only country with a resident ambassador in Tel Aviv and has the largest number of treaties with Israel as well as the most extensive air links. However, Armenia, of all three South Caucasus states, has the largest percentage of its trade with Israel, while Azerbaijan, which has no formal treaties with the Jewish state, reportedly has the greatest connections regarding defence and intelligence matters. All three South Caucasus republics’ relations with Israel have different characteristics and are shaped by their respective foreign policy concerns. It is necessary, therefore, to have a review of these countries’ National Security Concepts.
Both Georgia and Azerbaijan have fairly recent National Security Concept papers posted on their respective websites; while Armenia does not have such a document, it posts a recent speech presented by its deputy foreign minister, Armen Baibourtian, to the Japan Institute of International Affairs entitled ‘A Foreign Policy for a Small State: Armenia’s Case’, that is much shorter in length, but serves a similar purpose. The respective National Security Concept papers and the aforementioned speech all emphasize ‘European aspirations and integration’. Georgia contends that, ‘As a Black Sea and South-Eastern European state, [it] has historically been a geographic, political and cultural part of Europe. Therefore, integration into European and Euro-Atlantic political, economic and security systems is the firm will of the Georgian people’. At the same time, Armenia asserts that its ‘European aspirations is a manifestation of our strong historical and cultural link to Europe and Europeaness, as well as national urge to evolve into a free modern society that is able to meet the demands of the new century’. Unlike Georgia and Armenia with their respective Orthodox and Gregorian Christian populations and longstanding historical identity, predominantly Shi’a Muslim Azerbaijan maintains that:
located at the crossroads of West and East … [it] has embraced the positive elements of various civilizations. The Republic of Azerbaijan shares the European values and as an inalienable component of the Euro-Atlantic security structure contributes to the security of this area [, while] … as a part of the Islamic world, shares the progressive heritage and spiritual values of the Islamic civilization.
(It should be noted that during the Russian imperial period, Azerbaijanis, or Azeris, were classified as either ‘Muslims’ or ‘Tatars’ and later during the Soviet period, until 1937, as ‘Turks’.) The United States, in addition to being a very close ally of Israel, is a strong supporter of Turkey’s thus far unsuccessful campaign to be admitted into the European Union and a driving force in the past for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO’s) membership expanding eastward. There is no doubt that the US might be able to assist the three South Caucasus republics in the same manner, despite Georgia’s rejection by NATO in April 2007; as for Armenia, given its military connections with Russia, the former probably will not want to go beyond its participation in NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme.
Both Georgia and Azerbaijan have important concerns about issues of territorial integrity. In its National Security Concept document, Georgia emphasizes that ‘aggressive separatist movements, inspired and supported from outside’- a subtle reference to Russia—have resulted in the loss of control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia and that Georgia ‘will employ all available lawful means to resolve peacefully and justly all issues that might arise in the process of restoring the constitutional order’ on its territory. Indeed, Georgia ‘expresses its readiness to intensify political dialogue, deepen trade, economic and socio-cultural relations, cooperate in solving regional conflicts, and to fight against terrorism and transnational crime with the Russian Federation’. In its National Security Concept document, Azerbaijan is blunter in addressing similar problems such as the loss of control over Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territory to Armenia: ‘Every state has the right, according to international law, to protect itself against open and covert activities aimed at undermining its independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and constitutional order.’ It warns its neighbour: ‘Regardless of the outcome of the conflict resolution process, persistence of the ideology of mono-ethnic statehood, ethnic cleansing practices and territorial expansionism of the Armenian State policy will inevitably continue to affect negatively [on] relations.’ Being in a technical state of war—as there are only ceasefires established in the early 1990s between Georgia and both Abkhazia and South Ossetia as well as between Azerbaijan and Armenia—is an experience that Israel shares regarding Syria and Lebanon as well as with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
In its National Security Concept, Georgia defines its ties with the United States, Ukraine, Turkey and Azerbaijan as ‘strategic partnerships’ and values its ‘good neighbourly relations’ with Armenia. Azerbaijan also acknowledges in its National Security Concept the benefits of its ‘strategic partnership’ with Turkey and Georgia and describes relations with both the United States and Russia in similar terms; in addition, Azerbaijan ‘attaches great importance to its relations with neighbouring Iran … [with which it] share[s] a common rich historical and cultural heritage’. As for ties with the other Middle Eastern countries—Israel is not singled out—there is one sentence simply asserting they ‘have big potential’. Georgia does not specifically mention Middle Eastern countries, but like Azerbaijan seeks to pursue a ‘multidimensional, balanced foreign policy’ emphasizing good relations with all countries ‘based on the norms of international law’.
Similarly, Armenia’s deputy foreign minister, Armen Baibourtian, in the speech mentioned previously concludes that his country’s foreign policy ‘is bound to search for balancing formulas, keeping in mind the global trends of development and the traditional interests of regional powers’. He also points out that there are many more Armenians living abroad than in Armenia and that this Diaspora residing in the Americas, Europe and the Middle East have a shared identity ‘largely shaped by a single political event’- the 1915 Armenian Genocide. As borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan remain closed due to an embargo in reaction to Armenia’s occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and the fact that Armenia has a limited domestic market and scarce resources, trade relations with the outside world are extremely important. Georgia and Iran’s less expansive frontiers comprise land-locked Armenia’s only overland connections.
From the early nineteenth century until the end of the Cold War, all three South Caucasus republics were dominated for long periods of time by first the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union. While they greatly value their recent independence, due to their geographical position they are constrained to cooperate with Russia for either political or economic necessity. Georgia and Azerbaijan seek to assert their independence through the sale and/or transfer of the latter’s petroleum resources to the West, but the Russians have leverage through their support of the Abkhazian and South Ossetian separatist regimes in Georgia and their military connections with Armenia which supports the continued separation of Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan. Conversely, Armenia feels vulnerable due to the Turkish and Azerbaijani embargoes over the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. Besides these contemporary concerns, there is a degree of distrust based on historical events and grievances either amongst the South Caucasian states or with their immediate neighbours. It is necessary to present a brief review of those relations as historical memory plays a part in the formulation of foreign policy.
During the early sixteenth century, the Caucasus was a battleground between two Islamic states, the Sunni Ottoman Empire and the Shi’a Safavid Dynasty (1502-1736) of Persia. In 1555, by the Treaty of Amasya, the two empires agreed to partition the area; the western part of present-day Georgia was ceded to the Ottomans, while the eastern part of present-day Georgia and the rest of the South Caucasus remained under Persian control or influence. By 1639, under the Treaty of Zuhab, the Ottoman-Persian border south of the region divided what Armenians refer to as ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern Armenia’. From 1723 to 1735, Russia occupied parts of present-day Azerbaijan, but it was not until a half-century later that Russian interest in the South Caucasus was revived. In 1783, Catherine the Great promised the Georgian ruler Erekle II protection from the Persians, but did nothing in 1795 when the leader of new Qajar Dynasty (1794-1925) Agha Muhammad sacked Tbilisi. Six years later, Tsar Alexander I annexed the eastern part of present-day Georgia, deposing the Bagrationi royal house. (Branches of the Bagratid or Bagratuni Dynasty ruled Armenia from the late eighth or early ninth to the mid-eleventh centuries and with varying degrees of autonomy in Georgia beginning in the early ninth century. They claimed to have descended from David and Solomon of Israel, but were really from eastern Anatolia near Erzurum.) In 1803, Prince Pavel Tsitsinov, the new Russian governor and commander of Caucasus military forces and someone of Georgian ancestry, arrived in Tbilisi. He immediately sent the royal family into exile in Russia and began preparations to invade present-day Azerbaijan. In 1806, two years into the war with Persia, the khan of Baku killed Tsitsinov.
In 1813, under the Treaty of Gulistan, Persia ceded all of present-day Azerbaijan save for the exclave of Nakhichevan, which along with present-day Armenia was annexed under the Treaty of Turkmanchai in 1828. The latter treaty followed a brief 15-month war in which the Persians attempted to regain lost territory in the South Caucasus believing that Russia would be weakened by the Decembrist revolt. The division of northern and southern Azerbaijan was established along the Araxes (Aras) River by the Treaty of Turkmanchai. Meanwhile, from 1806 to 1812, Russia fought the Ottoman Empire, but faced with the threat of Napoleon’s subsequent invasion, had to return territories occupied in western Georgia that same year under the Treaty of Bucharest; in 1829, after a war lasting a year and a half, under the Treaty of Adrianople (Edirne), Russia annexed those aforementioned lands and possessed almost all of present-day Georgia. Finally, in the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877-78, the Russians acquired Batum, along with the provinces of Kars and Ardahan; in 1921, the Soviet governments in the South Caucasus under the Treaty of Kars ceded the last two territories to the nationalist Turkish government in Ankara and placed Mount Ararat, symbol of Armenian nationhood, just inside Turkey and within sight of the city of Yerevan, Armenia’s capital.
The nineteenth century wars in the Caucasus (and Balkans) resulted in the transfer of populations with many Sunni Muslims forced to flee to the Ottoman Empire. Caucasian Muslim refugees moved into areas of eastern Anatolia already inhabited by Armenians and Kurds. During the last decade or so of the century, Armenian nationalism, influenced by Russian populism and socialism, coalesced around two organizations, the Hunchaks, who called for independence, and the Dashnaks, who emphasized political freedom though not specifically mentioning the word ‘independence’ in their 1892 programme; these groups, established in Geneva and Tbilisi, respectively, engaged in assassinations of officials and other terrorist actions against Ottoman authority, with the Dashnaks becoming the most dominant political party by the time of Armenia’s period of brief independence following the First World War. During 1894-96, the government of Sultan Abdulhamid II (1876-1909) used Kurdish forces to crush revolts in eastern Anatolia, where Armenians complained of excessive taxation; also, during the latter year, the Armenian quarter of Istanbul was attacked following the takeover of the Ottoman Bank.
Later, during 1915, in the midst of the First World War, the Ottomans arrested Armenian leaders and began a programme of relocating Armenians from eastern Anatolia. In the process, many died from forced marches or were killed, while survivors ended up in Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. Others took up arms with the invading Russian army and/or later in the First World War and during the Turkish War of Independence (1918-23) sought refuge in the Caucasus and Iran. Estimates of Armenians killed during the First World War and its aftermath range from 600,000 to 1.5 million and even the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Kemal Atatürk, referred to the event as a ‘shameful act’. Yet Turkish governments have continued to reject the term ‘genocide’ and it has been a major problem preventing formal diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, it should be noted that Armenian nationalists (along with Georgian and Azeri nationalists) had their share of grievances with imperial Russia as well.
In 1827, Count E.F. Kankrin, Russia’s minister of finance, wrote: ‘The Transcaucasian [i.e. South Caucasus] provinces not without reason could be termed our colony which should bring the state significant profits from products of southern climes.’ The region’s importance was highlighted by the fact that from 1844 and the Russian Revolution it was governed by either a viceroy or high commissioner who reported directly to the Tsar. In 1811, Russia abolished the autocephaly of the Georgian Orthodox Church with its Catholicos Antoni II, the son of the late King Erekle II, being sent into exile in Russia. By the mid-nineteenth century, local political rulers in Georgia were deprived of any type of autonomy, with those in Abkhazia being the last. Around the same time, the Russians broke up the Muslim Khanates of Azerbaijan and Armenia, while they integrated the ulema of the South Caucasus into the government-controlled Muslim Spiritual Board. As for the Armenian Apostolic Church, it was kept separate from the Russian Orthodox Church, but its Catholicos were unable to act independently of the wishes of the tsarist government. With largely rural populations and Russian imperial-designed administrative divisions, regionalism persisted in the South Caucasus. Meanwhile, exploitation by landowners of peasants and later by industrialists of urban workers gave impetus to support for socialism in Georgia so that by the time of that country’s brief period of independence following the First World War, the Menshevik Social Democrats were the most dominant political party in that country.
Tbilisi and Baku became important centres for intellectuals and capitalists, including many Armenians. At the same time, of course, Russians came to the South Caucasus for political and economic reasons. Before the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877-78, Yerevan province was predominantly Muslim, and in the city itself Armenians did not constitute a majority until the early part of the twentieth century. Largely rural Azerbaijanis were slower than Georgians and Armenians in developing a national identity. Azeri intellectuals in Baku attempted to spread socialism to their working class brethren, who mostly did unskilled manual labour in the oil industry. This latter group had developed economic resentment toward Armenian industrialists, merchants and skilled workers that was shared by rural Azeris. In communal violence from 1905 to 1906, started by the Azeris attacking Armenian neighbourhoods and property, some 3,100 to 10,000 lives were lost. The reaction of the Dashnak fighters stimulated ethnic solidarity. However, when the clandestine Müsavat (Equality) party, which was the most dominant group during Azerbaijan’s brief period of independence following the First World War, was established in 1912, it was more pan-Islamist than nationalist; such was the case even though its founders included former members of the nationalist and socialist Himmet (Effort) party, which had been established in 1904. Its leadership, which included émigrés living in Istanbul, was supportive of the Ottoman Empire’s Young Turk government.
Just after the Bolsheviks seized power in St. Petersburg in November 1917, Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian representatives met in Tbilisi and established a provisional administrative body for the South Caucasus, an 11-member Commissariat with a Georgian Menshevik as chairman. They regarded the Bolshevik government as illegitimate, but still preferred a democratic federated state united with Russia. Two months later, after the Bolsheviks dispersed the elected All-Russian Constituent Assembly, South Caucasian authorities established a legislature (Seim) in Tbilisi based on the vote in the November elections for the aforementioned Constituent Assembly. The Seim consisted of 33 mostly Georgian Mensheviks, 30 Azeri Müsavatists, and 27 Armenian Dashnaks among others. Meanwhile, the Baku municipal government, dominated by Bolsheviks and led by an Armenian, Stepan Shaumian, rejected the Seim; he and his supporters established a ‘Commune’ from April until late July 1918, when its leaders fled and the city was subsequently occupied for a month by a British force. While Dashnaks in Baku did not join the Commune’s ministry, they did assist the Bolsheviks against their opponents, slaughtering many Muslims in the process.
One of the first orders of business for the Seim was to negotiate a peace treaty with the Ottomans from a position of weakness based on the restoration of the 1914 borders and the possibility of autonomy for Armenians in eastern Anatolia. However, under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, Bolshevik Russia, in addition to ceding territory in the west to Germany, surrendered the territories of Batum, Kars and Ardahan that had been taken from the Ottomans in 1878. Naturally, the Armenians felt most betrayed by the Russian actions, but the South Caucasus government had to accept the fait accompli of the Treaty.
In April 1918, under pressure from the Ottomans to separate formally from Russia, the Seim voted for independence, establishing the Democratic Federative Republic of Transcaucasia, with the cabinet positions divided evenly between Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis. However, the new state lasted little more than a month, with the Ottoman army invading Yerevan province and the three major ethnic groups looking out for their own interests and founding separate states. Georgia sought the protection of Germany, while Azerbaijan, which had to place its capital in Ganja as Baku was under the control of the Commune, allied itself with the Ottoman Empire. Both Germany and the Ottoman Empire were defeated by the Entente powers months later, while after the war was over Great Britain, France and the United States did nothing as the Soviet Union conquered the South Caucasus republics in succession—Azerbaijan in April 1920, Armenia in November 1920 and Georgia in February 1921—with the tacit approval of the nationalist Turkish government in Ankara. Along with Abkhazia, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan became union republics supposedly equal to the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic.
From 1922 to 1936, the Communist government in Moscow administered the South Caucasus territories as the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. Abkhazia, while united in treaty with Georgia, had the same status as the latter, but was demoted to being an autonomous republic in 1931, similar in rank to the predominantly Muslim region of Ajaria in Georgia and the Nakhichevan exclave of Azerbaijan. South Ossetia and the predominantly Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh became autonomous provinces of Georgia and Azerbaijan, respectively. While such designations had little effect on administration during most of the years of Soviet rule, these divisions would create major problems in the post-Cold War era.
The Soviet Union attempted to deal with the ‘nationalities question’ by adopting policies that owed little or nothing to Marxist thought and were designed to develop a new modern identity in the form of ‘Soviet nationalism’. Nations had their own specific territories that were determined by the central power in Moscow, which also had exclusivity over economic planning. In the process, state policy went through different phases and at times favoured the Russian language and culture as well as having ethnic language experiments with different alphabets. (Azerbaijani was officially changed from Arabic to Latin script in 1924, thus separating Azeris from Muslims outside the Soviet Union, and even Turks for a few years; in 1940, Cyrillic script was adopted to facilitate the learning of Russian.) Meanwhile, official history was manipulated and secularism or atheism was promoted. Throughout the Soviet period, there was one constant theme: ‘the paradoxical—or, as Marxists would say, dialectical—union of ethnonational flourishing and cultural assimilation’. Following the Second World War, Soviet troops remained in the Azerbaijani region of Iran in support of the Democratic Party’s movement for autonomy in the area, but withdrew in May 1946 rather than risk conflict with the United States. Having a buffer along the Soviet Union’s frontier was of importance, not the possible unification of Azerbaijan.
During Khrushchev’s rule and afterwards, korenizatsiia (‘indigenization’), the hiring and promotion of underrepresented national groups in the Soviet bureaucracy, expanded, resulting in an entrenched native administrative elite in the South Caucasus that consolidated power through family networks. Those individuals promoted indigenous cultural activities designed to gain support for the government as well as granting greater access to higher education. During the 1960s, clandestine nationalist activities developed especially in Georgia and Armenia. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, former Communist officials and nationalist leaders would challenge each other for power in the newly independent South Caucasus republics. At the same time, while Russia attempted to maintain its influence in the region, neighbouring countries in the Middle East and the US and other Western countries developed political and economic relations with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
Of all the countries in the South Caucasus, Armenia would seem to have the greatest affinity with Israel. Both Armenians and Jews were subjected to acts of genocide during the twentieth century and, throughout most of their respective histories, they have had numerous communities in Diaspora which have taken an active interest in political and economic developments in Armenia and Israel, respectively. Indeed, in his book Eastward to Tartary journalist Robert D. Kaplan remarks regarding a trip to Armenia: ‘My fellow passengers cried and cheered as the plane touched down before dawn in Yerevan. They were Armenians from the diaspora visiting their ethnic homeland, many for the first time. In few countries—Israel being one—have I seen such emotion when a plane lands.’ Kaplan also draws parallels between the sites of the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan and Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem and how throughout his travels in Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan, Armenians have been ‘despised’ in the same way that Israelis and Jews have been ‘in much of the Arab world’. In addition, Armenia is in a technical state of war with Azerbaijan, as is Israel with Syria, Lebanon and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Yet they have no embassies in each other’s capital; Israel’s resident ambassador to Georgia handles diplomatic relations with Armenia, visiting there regularly, while the Armenian ambassador to France does the same regarding relations with Israel.
Henry Morgenthau, the American ambassador in Istanbul from 1913 to 1916, and a Jew, publicized his protests to the Ottoman government regarding actions against the Armenians in the New York Times in 1915 and a few years later in his memoirs referred to those events as ‘the greatest crime in modern history’. In 1933, the Austrian Jewish writer Franz Werfel published the novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh based on actual events of a 53-day siege of Armenians who resisted relocation in 1915. When it was translated into English the following year, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer paid the author for film rights, but the project was dropped due to diplomatic protests from Turkey’s ambassador Münir Ertegün. A United Nations Convention did not define the term ‘genocide’ until 1948, and thus it has been attached belatedly to Ottoman actions against the Armenians during the First World War. Many Jewish scholars and writers have recognized it as such. In 2000, at an academic conference in Philadelphia, 126 Holocaust scholars, including Israeli Professors Yehuda Bauer and Israel Charny as well as Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel signed a document affirming the ‘incontestable fact’ of the Armenian Genocide and urging the Western democratic governments to officially recognize that event. Yet the Israeli (and American) governments still refuse to do so in large part not to offend Turkey. A month after the aforementioned conference at an Armenian Memorial Day (24 April) gathering in Jerusalem, Yossi Sarid, Israel’s minister of education, who had read Werfel’s novel as a child, used the word ‘genocide’. However, this pronouncement went beyond official Israeli policy.
A couple of weeks before Sarid’s statement in 2001, Shimon Peres, then foreign minister in Ariel Sharon’s government, asserted in an interview in the English-language Turkish Daily News on the eve of an official visit to Turkey that it was up to academics not governments to have a historical or philosophical position regarding the issue of the treatment of Armenians under Ottoman rule, while admitting that ‘It is tragedy what the Armenians went through, but not a genocide’. Two years later Rivka Cohen, the Israeli ambassador to Georgia (2001-05) made a distinction between the Jewish Holocaust and the Armenian ‘tragedy’ at a press conference in Yerevan; the former, Cohen stated was ‘a unique phenomenon, since it had always been planned and aimed to destroy the whole nation’. Armenia sent a note of protest to the Israeli government contending that while ‘crimes against humanity’ might have different characteristics the statement by Cohen had the appearance of either rejecting or belittling the Armenian Genocide. Israel responded that ‘it had never tried to deny or diminish the reality of the events … or the great suffering undergone by the Armenian people. [However,] investigation of this sensitive subject must be approached through public discussion and dialogue between historians based, of course, on documents and facts’. While this has remained Israel’s policy, relations with Armenia have been mutually beneficial both politically and economically. Meanwhile, over the last decade, more than 20 states, mostly in Europe, have officially recognized the Armenian Genocide, including France, Russia, Canada and Lebanon, countries with Armenian populations.
Iran, one of land-locked Armenia’s two overland connections with the outside world given Turkey and Azerbaijan’s blockades over the Nagorno-Karabakh war, has been critical of Armenia’s relations with Israel, but will not do anything to disrupt them owing to Armenia’s close ties with Russia. (Iran needs good relations with Russia to counterbalance Azerbaijan, with that country’s cooperation with US oil companies and Israel, to purchase arms, and to continue to pursue its nuclear programme.) Former Armenian President Robert Kocharian (1998-2008) responded to the Iranian criticism in 2000 by stating: ‘We are taking steps based on our national interests … There is no need to search for enemies, but, rather [to find] friends.’ Israel had established goodwill with Armenia even before that country achieved its independence from the Soviet Union. Following a massive earthquake in November 1988, the Israelis sent a rescue team and set up a military field hospital in addition to flying hundreds of Armenian amputees to Israel for fitting of prosthetic limbs.
Armenia’s Jewish population is the smallest of all the South Caucasus republics with about 900, and while anti-Semitism is virtually non-existent in the region, it has manifested itself the most in Armenia. In a survey of 1,900 people in 2005 by the Armenian Centre for Strategic and National Research, 5.2 per cent said that Jews were responsible for organizing the Armenian Genocide. While Armenians are suspicious of the military cooperation between Turkey and Israel as well as those countries’ respective ties with Azerbaijan, Israel has remained neutral in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict; in a vote in the United Nations General Assembly on 14 March 2008 on resolution GA/10693, reaffirming the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and demanding withdrawal of all Armenian forces that was passed 39 to 7, with 100 abstentions, Israel was in the last group. The US, France and Russia voted against, in support of Armenia, while Georgia and a number of Arab and Muslim states, including Turkey, voted for the resolution; Iran was absent.
In 1986, there were about 1,500 Armenians—probably fewer today—residing in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, with about 600 located at the Armenian Patriarchate of St. James in the Old City of Jerusalem, one of three guardians of the Christian Holy Places. However, there are far more Armenians living in Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. There were about 200,000 Armenians each in Iran prior to the Islamic Revolution and Lebanon prior to the 1975-90 civil war, respectively; and today there are approximately 120,000 Armenians in Syria and 6,000 in Egypt. During the late 1940s, some 100,000 Armenians mostly from the Middle East immigrated to Soviet Armenia more for nationalist than ideological reasons. These included the parents of independent Armenia’s first president Levon Ter-Petrosian (1991-98), who brought their year-old child from Aleppo, Syria; the former president, a philologist by profession, who was forced to resign from office after attempting to reach a settlement over Nagorno-Karabakh with Azerbaijan, is married to a Jewish woman.
Armenia and Israel established diplomatic relations in April 1992, the same month as Azerbaijan, but unlike its neighbour, the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website refers to Israel as one of its ‘main imports and exports partners’. In 2006, 4.8 per cent of Armenia’s imports came from Israel, while 7 per cent of its exports went to Israel, more than the US’s share in the respective categories, but less than Russia’s. The most important economic activity between Armenia and Israel involves the diamond trade. As for transportation links, Armenia’s Armavia Airlines began flying once weekly between Yerevan and Tel Aviv in 2006, but no regular service Israeli carrier reciprocates. While Armavia does not fly to Tbilisi and Baku, it does provide service to Istanbul, Aleppo, Beirut, Dubai and a few places in Russia and Ukraine.
While many high-ranking government officials and religious figures from Armenia and Israel have visited each other’s countries, former Armenian president Robert Kocharian was the only head of state to do so in January 2000, although current president Serge Sargisian visited Israel in May 2005 as part of a large delegation when he was minister of defence. The aforementioned delegation included Garegin II, the Armenian Catholicos (patriarch), who referred to the visit as ‘the beginning of a new era in relations between the Jews and the Armenians’ and Ara Abrahamian, head of the World Congress of Armenians, who commented that ‘The relations between our countries are obviously at [an] unsatisfactory level, and there is a necessity to develop them’. In November 2005, Israel’s Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger visited the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan and was quoted in the Russian press as saying: ‘It is impossible to recollect what happened with the Armenians in Turkey without shedding tears’. Despite all these sentiments, Israel’s Foreign Ministry website has records of only two formal agreements between Armenia and Israel, one regarding cooperation in the fields of health and medicine (October 1998) and the other for the promotion and reciprocal protection of investments (January 2000). What might be preventing closer ties is Israel’s refusal to formally recognize the Armenian Genocide and its military connections with Turkey and Azerbaijan as well as Armenia’s relations with Iran, with which it has resident embassies in each other’s capitals. In May 2002, the US State Department issued a statement that at least one Armenian company, Lizin, based in Nagorno-Karabkh, was suspected of collaborating with Iran on nuclear projects.
Azerbaijan and Israel established diplomatic relations in April 1992, yet Israel’s Foreign Ministry website has a record of only one formal agreement between Azerbaijan and Israel; it is for the promotion and reciprocal protection of investments and it was signed in February 2007. Furthermore, Azerbaijan has yet to open an embassy in Tel Aviv—even though it has embassies in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and Qatar—while Israel has had a resident ambassador in Baku since March 1994. Moreover, unlike former and current heads of state of Armenia and Georgia, no Azerbaijani president has ever visited Israel. Indeed, the Azerbaijani-Israeli relationship has been aptly described as a ‘furtive embrace’. Yet it has been beneficial enough for Israel (as well as the United States) that a Washington Institute for Near East Policy paper praised those ties as a ‘model for other Muslim states in Eurasia’. Given the importance of these relations, it is surprising that an ambassador was not appointed for two years. Instead, a 24-year-old veteran with no diplomatic experience (Benny Haddad) represented Israeli interests in Baku; while he was given the task of promoting immigration to Israel, there were unconfirmed reports at the time that the Israelis were supplying Azerbaijan with arms, perhaps including Stinger missiles.
While anti-Semitism has not been a problem historically in Azerbaijan, Jews emigrated in greater numbers during the instability following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the outbreak of the conflict over Nagorno-Karbakh. Most were urban Ashkenazi, rather than rural mountain Jews. Today, about 12,000 Jews remain in Azerbaijan and many of those who have migrated to Israel, where they number more than 50,000, continue to maintain economic and/or cultural ties with the old country. Ironically, while Jewish emigration increased dramatically, Azerbaijan elected its first non-Communist president, Abulfaz Elchibey (1992-93) of the Popular Front, a historian and an Arab linguist who was a great admirer of Israel (and Turkey). Elchibey also supported self-determination for the 15-20 million Azeris in north-western Iran. Iranian newspapers referred to him as being ‘godless’ and a ‘Zionist’ and he called Iran ‘a regime based on fanaticism’. (It should be noted that Iran’s former president and current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, is an ethnic Azeri.) Even the spiritual leader of the Muslims in the Caucasus, Sheikh Hajallah Shukr Ben Himmet, expressed his wishes for developing good relations with Israel, but would not visit the Jewish state for fear of upsetting the Arabs.
When Elchibey was subsequently replaced as president by ex-Communist party boss and fellow Nakhichevani Heydar Aliyev (1993-2003), relations with Russia and Iran were improved; at the same time, ties with Israel were further developed. This has continued under Aliyev’s son Ilham, who succeeded the elder leader as president upon his death. Just like Turkey, Azerbaijan has regarded Israel as an important ally in promoting its interests in Washington. While Israel has supported Turkey’s attempts to prevent the United States from officially recognizing the Armenian Genocide, it also lobbied to waive Section 907 of the Freedom for Russia and Emerging Eurasian Democracies and Open Markets Support Act of 1992, which was done in 2002; under the act, owing to the Azerbaijani blockade of Armenia, Azerbaijan could not receive economic aid or buy US arms, while, at the same time, Armenia, which occupied 20 per cent of Azerbaijan’s territory, received $100 million annually. (Armenia, unlike Azerbaijan, it should be noted has Russian bases on its territory and purchases Russian arms.) Meanwhile, according to Jane’s Defence Weekly, in late 1996 Israel was a ‘major provider of battlefield aviation, artillery, antitank, and anti-infantry weapons’.
In August 1997, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a brief stop in Baku to meet Aliyev on the way back from a trip to Japan and South Korea, where he spoke of what Israel and Azerbaijan had in common and how he found ‘great hope in that we have relationships as we do with Turkey, with Jordan, with Egypt, between the Jewish state and predominantly Muslim states’. Iran state radio was quick to criticize the Azerbaijani government for hosting Netanyahu, stating: ‘Baku has been playing a dangerous game … and has destabilized its own ties with Islamic states in the region and the world.’ Nevertheless, following the visit, Azerbaijan increased its cooperation with Israel, sharing intelligence, including information collected by Israeli satellites. Furthermore, Israel provides training for the Azerbaijani security and intelligence services as well as security for the Azerbaijani president on foreign visits and may possibly have established listening stations along the Caspian Sea and Iranian border. Despite Iran’s warnings, Azerbaijan maintains ties with many Islamic countries, including military relations with Turkey, sometimes coordinating with Israel, as well as Iran itself, which maintains a large embassy staff in Baku. At the same time, Azerbaijani authorities keep a close watch on the activities of indigenous Islamists; in the mid-1990s they outlawed the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, whose leaders were imprisoned on charges of carrying out espionage on behalf of Iran and in October 2007 the Azerbaijani government foiled a plan by radical Islamists to attack several foreign embassies and government buildings. Just days earlier, at least ten officers and students at military schools were arrested for being members of a ‘Wahhabi’ group.
Azerbaijan has been a member of the Saudi-inspired Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) since 1992. This group, the second largest intergovernmental organization after the United Nations, also includes other secular states such as Turkey and Albania as well as all the other countries of former Soviet Central Asia. Azerbaijan has also been a member of the Tehran-based Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) since 1992, which also includes the former Soviet Central Asian states, Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Along with Armenia, Azerbaijan is an official observer at meetings of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which has about 115 members worldwide, including the entire Arab world and almost every country with a sizable Islamic population. The organization, in which Cuba has played a major role, has been very critical of US and Israeli policies in the Middle East. Azerbaijan joined the OIC and ECO for economic benefit as well as attempting to gain political support against Armenia’s actions in Nagorno-Karabakh; as for observer status in NAM, the latter is its motive. Apparently, there were some political dividends in joining intergovernmental organizations with its neighbours in the Islamic world as mentioned in the previous section regarding the passage of UN General Assembly Resolution 10693 in March 2008.
Aside from Turkey, Iran and Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan’s major trading partnerships are outside the Islamic world. In 2006, 10.7 per cent of Azerbaijan’s exports went to Israel; only Italy had a greater share (44.7 per cent). However, while oil and gas account for about 90 per cent of Azerbaijan’s exports and that country is one of Israel’s main suppliers, Israel’s official statistics for imports does not include oil as its supplies are carried through third parties. At the same time, Russia accounted for 22.4 per cent of Azerbaijan’s imports and was its largest partner by far in that category. Israeli companies provide high technology to the energy sector as well as land and cell phone services. As for transportation links, Azerbaijan Airlines flies between Baku and Tel Aviv, but no regular service Israeli carrier reciprocates; it also flies to Istanbul, Ankara, Tehran, Tbilisi, Moscow, Kiev, Kabul and Aktau in Kazakhstan, among other places.
Unlike the other South Caucasus Republics, Georgia has the least to worry about regarding its connections with Israel and the Jewish state’s problems with its Arab and Islamic neighbours. Most ethnic Georgians outside the country reside in either Israel or Russia. Georgia joined the Council of Europe in 1999, two years before Armenia and Azerbaijan. It also has the greatest desire to join NATO and the EU and loosen its connections with Russia, which has assisted Georgia’s separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and offered its inhabitants Russian citizenship. Indeed, in April 2008, just a couple of weeks after Georgia’s application to NATO was rejected, President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would establish legal connections with their de facto governments, short of official recognition; relations would be enhanced in areas of trade, agriculture, education, and social support and ‘modelled in part on American support for Taiwan’. David Bakradze, Georgia’s foreign minister, called Russia’s policy ‘creeping annexation’.
Before Georgia got its recent independence, Eduard Shevardnadze, then Soviet foreign minister and later Georgia’s chairman of the state council (1992-95) and president (1995-2003), worked with the Israel to reopen its embassy in Moscow in January 1989, which had been closed since 1967. He was very grateful for Israel’s peaceful ending of a hijacking a month earlier by Georgian criminals of an Aeroflot passenger jet to Tel Aviv. Georgia and Israel established diplomatic relations in June 1992; however, Israel did not send an ambassador to Tbilisi until exactly one year later—even before it appointed one to Azerbaijan—while Georgia did not send an ambassador to Tel Aviv until February 1998, after it had made appointments to its immediate neighbours and Iran. However, it should be noted that Georgia economizes as does Israel in having ambassadors cover more than one country; while Israel’s ambassador also represents interests in Armenia, Georgia’s ambassador does the same in the Republic of Cyprus. Nevertheless, Georgia was eager to obtain Israel’s assistance in agriculture, telecommunications and postal services, tourism, science, and technical matters; according to the Israel Foreign Ministry website, there were five separate agreements concerning these fields that were signed by the two governments in June 1995 along with two others for the promotion and reciprocal protection of investments and air transport, respectively.
While anti-Semitism has not been a problem historically in Georgia, Jews began migrating to Israel in the 1970s with the Soviet Union relaxing quotas on applications for exit visas; it was less of a problem in the Caucasus, Baltics and Central Asia than in Russia and Ukraine. However, greater numbers of Jews emigrated from Georgia during the political and economic turmoil of the collapse of the Soviet Union and early post-independence years, with the conflicts over Abkhazia and South Osettia and civil war involving Georgia’s first president Zviad Gamsakhurdia (1991-92). Today, about 13,000 Jews remain in Georgia and many of those who have immigrated to Israel, where they number about 100,000, continue to maintain economic and/or cultural ties with the old country.
In 2006, 15.2 per cent of Georgia’s imports came from Germany, while 12.7 per cent of its exports went to Belgium, both being the largest trading partners in these respective categories. Percentage-wise, Israel is not as big a trading partner of Georgia as that country’s neighbours. However, as in Azerbaijan, Israelis have invested in businesses in Georgia. Indeed, the Georgian Foreign Ministry website lists as some of the most important areas of economic cooperation, ‘attraction of Israeli capital’ and tourism; as for the latter, visits by Israeli tourist increased in 2007 by 44 per cent over the previous year. Such visits have been facilitated by the fact that Israelis do not need visas for stays of 90 days or less, the same policy applied to Turks, Americans and Europeans. As for transportation links, Georgian Airlines (Airzena) flies between Tbilisi and Tel Aviv—as does the Israeli carrier Arkia—as well as to Baku, Kiev, Minsk and Dubai, among other places, but to no destinations in Turkey, Iran or Russia. Turkish Airlines and Russian carriers Aeroflot and Rossiya Airlines fly to Tbilisi, but no Iranian airlines.
Two Georgian heads of state have made official visits to Israel, Shevardnadze (in June 1995) and his successor and current president Mikheil Saakashvili (in July 2004); both also went on what the Georgia Foreign Ministry website describes as a ‘working visits’, in January 1998 and on 31 October-1 November 2006, respectively. In addition, the aforementioned website asserts that Georgia and Israel ‘have signed 18 bilateral documents’, but does not list them all, while its Israeli counterpart lists eight and provides texts for seven. One academic contends that in January 1998 the two countries signed an ‘initial agreement’ for a ‘strategic partnership’ that was followed up in March 1999 by a ‘military cooperation agreement’, but provides no details. The latter document was signed by Benjamin Netanyahu in Tbilisi on the only visit by an Israeli prime minister to Georgia.
Obviously, both Georgia and Azerbaijan, like Israel, either choose to deny or not publicize their military and intelligence sharing connections. However, they, and Georgia in particular, openly emphasize their respective counties’ affinities with Israel. In October 2001, Azerbaijan’s former president Heydar Aliyev asserted, following a meeting with Israel’s ambassador Eitan Naeh, that ‘their positions in the fight against international terrorism … [were] identical’. On a visit to Israel in November 2006, in a ceremony at the Knesset, Georgia’s President Saakashvili noted that the relationship between Jews and Georgia ‘has been a clear and benevolent one for over two millennia’. He went on to compare Catherine the Great’s persecution of the Jews in 1727 just before her death to Putin’s recent measures against ethnic Georgians residing in Russia, following the arrest of Russian army officers who were allegedly involved in a coup against Saakashvili’s government. In addition to expelling Georgian citizens living in Russia and preventing Georgian children from attending Russian schools, Russia stopped issuing visas, suspended air services, closed its land borders, embargoed Georgian products and outlawed money transfers. As a result, during 2007, Turkey became Georgia’s top trading partner and trade was expanded with EU countries. At the same time, Georgia’s Minister of Economic Development George Arveladze, who attended Tel Aviv University from 1997 to 1998, encouraged Russian investment in Georgia. On a visit to Israel in May 2007, he told a reporter from the Jerusalem Post that he saw Israel as an ‘economic model’ for Georgia. According to Arveladze, ‘Israel is creating one of the strongest states out of scratch. Israel is about a vision and has shown everyone that despite the challenges and turmoil the country is still developing. That’s what Georgia needs’.
Each of the South Caucasus Republics are products of their past history. Nationalism developed in these three countries during the late nineteenth and/or early twentieth century and their short-lived experiences of independence following the First World War while politically and economically unstable left an indelible mark. During the last years of the Soviet Union, after the Baltic Republics, the South Caucasus manifested the greatest amount of nationalist zeal. The newly independent states were determined to diversify their international relations as much as possible and seek support for their territorial integrity both actual and perceived, as in the case of Armenia regarding Nagorno-Karabakh. They also needed to develop their economies, which had been tied to the Soviet Union’s command structure for almost three-quarters of a century.
For the South Caucasus Republics, relations with Israel have been useful, but they have been affected also by ties with their neighbours and other countries in the region. Georgia has the greatest desire to join NATO and the EU and is least influenced by conflict in the Middle East. Russia has assisted in disrupting the territorial integrity of Georgia. Armenia feels isolated and very vulnerable. Memories of the Armenian Genocide have precluded formal relations with Turkey as well as benefiting from the transport of energy resources. While Diaspora Armenians encourage the development of relations with Western countries, security necessitates military ties with Russia. Due to energy resources, Azerbaijan can exercise a certain degree of independence from Russia and Iran but, like Turkey, while it is secular, it needs to pay attention to the feelings among the general public of sympathy for the Palestinians and concern for the well-being of fellow Muslims elsewhere in the Middle East, as was the case in summer 2006 during Israel’s conflict with Hamas and Hezbollah As for Israel, relations with the South Caucasus Republics are essential to counteract Iranian attempts at influence in the region and to diversify sources of energy supplies, but in terms of overall trade relations and/or political ties they are not as important as those with Turkey and Russia.