Academy Fellow (2013)

While perceptions of the West in the South Caucasus have deteriorated, renewed Western interest and engagement could help restore its reputation in the region.

Wind-torn European Union flag on a flag pole. Photo: Olaf Protze/LightRocket via Getty Images.Wind-torn European Union flag on a flag pole. Photo via Getty Images.

Summary

  • In the late 1980s and early 1990s perceptions of the West in the three republics of the South Caucasus – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – were almost uniformly positive. Such views largely reflected the West’s economic superiority and popular disillusionment with the Soviet experiment.
  • Perceptions changed as a result of a lack of Western political support for the new states in the early, difficult years after their independence in 1991. This significantly tarnished the image of the West – although it also lowered expectations, which hitherto had been unrealistically high.
  • Today there is less uniformity in perceptions of the West in the South Caucasus. The United States and NATO are generally regarded through the lens of hard security and geopolitics, whereas the European Union and major European governments are viewed as forces for the spread of democracy and institutional efficiency.
  • The record of Western engagement in the region since 1991 is mixed, with successes and setbacks visible in all three countries. Increased economic cooperation around infrastructure projects is an example of the former, while the West’s failings have included inconsistent policies on security and human rights, and uneven political support for institutional and structural reforms in newly independent states. Unfortunately the boost to the image of Western actors from the successes has been outweighed by the reputational damage from the setbacks. As a result, there is a risk that the West’s mistakes in its policies towards the South Caucasus could result in the ‘loss’ (in terms of geopolitical alignment and alliances) of the entire region to Russia.
  • Political leaderships throughout the South Caucasus have striven to maximize economic aid and security guarantees in their relations with Western entities. Yet with the partial exception of Georgia, governments in the region have remained reluctant to open up politically and democratize. Moreover, political leaders’ use of mass media to express frustration with Western policies has contributed to deteriorating popular perceptions of the West in general.
  • Russia’s ambitions to restore its influence in the region complicate the picture. Moscow continues to exert pressure on governments and other actors, employing both hard and soft power. It tries to undermine the West’s standing in the region – for example, by depicting Western countries as places of economic uncertainty and moral decomposition, and by instilling fear of Russia’s hard-power capabilities.