Audio Posts In English

What to Know About Vietnam’s Persistent Crackdown on Environmentalists


The head of an energy research think tank was detained by Vietnamese authorities last week, the latest in a string of arrests of prominent environmentalists that highlights the government’s growing irascibility to environmental activism in Vietnam.

According to human rights advocacy group The 88 Project, Ngo Thi To Nhien, the executive director of independent Hanoi-based think tank Vietnam Initiative for Energy Transition, was arrested on Sep. 15 for tax evasion—a charge that critics say is commonly used as a political tool to penalize dissenters. 

[time-brightcove not-tgx=”true”]

Nhien, whose think tank aims to accelerate the shift away from fossil fuels toward renewables in Vietnam, had previously worked with international organizations like the World Bank and the United Nations. She is believed to be the sixth environmental figure detained in two years, amid a nationwide crackdown on some of the most recognizable faces of the country’s environmental advocacy scene, including those leading registered non-profits.

Read More: Asia Is Home to 99 of the World’s 100 Cities Facing the Greatest Environmental Challenges

“Over the past two years, Vietnam’s one-party state has imprisoned the entire leadership of [the] country’s climate change movement on false charges of tax evasion,” Ben Swanton, co-director of The 88 Project, tells TIME, adding that the spate of arrests reveals a Vietnamese government that thinks it “can do whatever [it] wants.”

Next week, Hoang Thi Ming Hong, former director of the Center of Hands-on Actions and Networking for Growth and Environment, is set to be tried for tax evasion. Hong’s detention in May sparked concern from the international community about shrinking civil liberties in the country. Her NGO, founded in 2013 and shut down last year, focused on encouraging young Vietnamese to tackle environmental issues ranging from pollution to illegal wildlife trade.

“What’s become shockingly clear is the government has decided anyone leading efforts to combat climate change and promote environmental action is somehow politically opposed to the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party and government,” says Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

“This absurd conclusion is a telling indication of both the authoritarianism and the paranoia of the country’s leaders.”

Why environmental issues?

Environmental issues have in recent decades become politicized in Vietnam, where grievances over the environment have often extended into criticisms of the government. Between the late 2000s and early 2010s, an ambitious bauxite mining project launched by the government sparked heated opposition from local residents who were concerned about its environmental impact and Chinese involvement in the project; in 2016, a chemical spill along Vietnam’s central coastline, now known as one of Vietnam’s worst environmental disasters, followed by an evasive government response to the fallout, triggered rare large-scale protests that was ultimately quashed with arrests by authorities.

“While the enormous strain being placed on Vietnam’s ecosystem is a matter of urgent public concern, the activism that brings attention to environmental issues sometimes also highlights ineffective environmental governance and illegal business practices,” says Jonathan D. London, a professor and Vietnam scholar at Leiden University in the Netherlands. “This, in turn, is often viewed by authorities as a broad critique of and open challenge to one-party rule.”

In addition to activists, environmental lawyers, academics, and journalists have all found themselves targeted for their work. “Authorities have become increasingly intolerant in recent years, and researchers are very cautious,” says Ole Bruun, a social science professor at Roskilde University in Denmark who has researched environmental activism in Vietnam.“When someone transcends the fine line between activism and NGO work and at the same time criticize[s] government, the authorities will crack down.”

Read More: Press Freedom Is Under Attack Across Southeast Asia. Meet the Journalists Fighting Back

Diplomatic repercussions

As environmental advocacy at home continues to be met with crackdown, experts say that the Vietnamese government’s heavyhanded approach to silencing critics is set to remain a sore spot in the country’s growing diplomatic engagements.

In June, the German government voiced concerns about the detention of Hong, the environmental expert, criticizing her arrest as contradicting the agreement to involve civil society in the Just Energy Transition Partnership between Vietnam, the G7 member states (including Germany), Denmark, and Norway—a deal struck last December that would see Vietnam receiving $15.5 billion in financial support to wean off coal and reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Faced with international pressure and an ambitious energy transition goal, the Vietnamese government has relented to an extent. Nguy Thi Khanh, a renowned climate activist and founder of the non-profit Green Innovation and Development Centre, whose arrest last year was met with outcry both at home and abroad, was quietly released in May—five months ahead of her scheduled release date. No official reason was given for her early release, but observers speculated at the time that it was to reassure other environmental advocates in the country whose expertise were needed for Vietnam’s energy transition plan.

Former journalist Mai Phan Loi, who founded the environmental non-profit Center for Media in Educating Community, was also released from prison this month after being sentenced to four years for tax evasion in January 2022. His early release came shortly before President Joe Biden visited Hanoi as the U.S. and Vietnam upgraded bilateral ties. Loi’s release was reportedly a result of behind-the-scenes campaigning by officials from the U.S. embassy in Vietnam. A bipartisan letter, written by several members of Congress to Biden before his Hanoi trip, also urged the President to challenge human rights violations in Vietnam.

But in the joint statement made by Biden and his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Phu Trong, human rights were “barely mentioned,” noted Swanton from The 88 Project. And Bach Huong Duong, Loi’s colleague and the director of the Center for Media in Educating Community, who was sentenced to 27 months in prison for tax evasion, remains behind bars.

Despite widespread condemnation, Vietnam’s concerning human-rights record is unlikely to significantly hinder the country’s warming ties with the West, says Bruun, the academic—especially with Vietnam being seen as an increasingly attractive diplomatic partner amid rising concerns about China.

Read More: U.S. General’s Prediction of War With China ‘in 2025’ Risks Turning Worst Fears Into Reality

“The Western world has chosen to turn a blind eye to many unpleasant developments in the country, including the incredibly poor environmental performance,” he says. “I fear that great power conflict will make it easier for Vietnam to get away with rising repression and human rights violations.”

Audio Posts In English

INTERNATIONAL EDITION: Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the White House

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits the White House, Kenya is sending troops to stabilize Haiti and the Syrian president visits China. Plus, a look at the job of a Ukrainian journalist covering the U.N., and we visit a school in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains after a devastating earthquake.

Audio Posts In English

Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: Who is Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev?

Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev moved closer to asserting rule over the separatist region of Karabakh this week, in what would mark a major victory for the autocratic leader of almost two decades.

Issued on: 21/09/2023 – 14:54

3 min

A file photo of Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev reviewing the honour guard with the Hungarian President (unseen) during a welcoming ceremony for him in front of the parliament building at Kossuth square in Budapest on January 30, 2023.
A file photo of Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev reviewing the honour guard with the Hungarian President (unseen) during a welcoming ceremony for him in front of the parliament building at Kossuth square in Budapest on January 30, 2023. © Attila Kisbenedek, AFP

Wresting control over Nagorno-Karabakh had been a longtime goal of Aliyev, who took over in 2003 after the death of his father Heydar Aliyev, a former Soviet KGB officer and Communist-era boss.

The 61-year-old has won every election since, maintaining his family’s tight grip over the oil-rich Caspian Sea state in polls denounced by the opposition as fixed.

Supporters have praised the Aliyevs for turning the republic – once thought of as a Soviet Union backwater – into a flourishing energy supplier to Europe, hosting Formula 1 races, UEFA football matches and the Eurovision Song Contest.

But critics argue they have crushed dissent and used their power to amass a fortune that funds a lavish lifestyle for the president and his family, while whitewashing human rights abuses.

Aliyev has always denied all accusations of corruption and human rights violations.

The Aliyev Dynasty

Likened in leaked US diplomatic cables to the fictional mob boss Michael Corleone, Aliyev amended the country’s constitution in 2009 so he could run for an unlimited number of presidential terms.

Then in 2016, Azerbaijan adopted constitutional amendments that controversially extended the president’s term in office to seven years from five.

The changes drew criticism from Council of Europe constitutional law experts as “severely upsetting the balance of powers” and giving the president “unprecedented” authority.

In 2017, the president appointed his wife Mehriban Aliyeva as first vice president.

Born into the powerful Pashayev family, she is sometimes seen as a possible successor or even rival to her husband.

The next generation of the Aliyev dynasty looks set to continue the family’s leading role in Azerbaijani politics.

In 2010, The Washington Post reported property worth $75 million in Dubai in the names of the president’s son Heydar and his daughters Arzu and Leyla.

Often spotted at lavish red carpet events abroad, Leyla, 39, and Arzu, 34, are thought to control substantial businesses interests of their own.

‘New problems’

Bolstered by billions in oil money, Aliyev has overseen years of steady economic growth and followed a pragmatic foreign policy agenda, treading carefully between Russia and the West.

He has maintained strong ties with historic ally Turkey and its President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been a vocal proponent of Baku throughout unrest around Nagorno-Karabakh.

And Western leaders have also turned to Aliyev, who has marketed Azerbaijan as a crucial supplier of gas to European nations seeking to wean themselves off Russian supplies following the war in Ukraine.

But Aliyev’s foreign politics have largely been eclipsed by Baku’s decades long war with Armenian forces, upon which hinges much of his popularity.

The end of Azerbaijan’s latest operation in the separatist region will undoubtedly boost Aliyev’s ratings, independent political analyst Shahin Hajiyev told AFP.

“But he will be facing new problems now in fulfilling his promise to ensure the rights of Karabakh’s Armenians,” he said.

War in Karabakh

Aliyev has repeatedly blasted Armenia for “illegally occupying” Karabakh – recognised internationally as part of Azerbaijan – and peace talks with Yerevan have yielded little results.

Six weeks of fighting in autumn 2020 ended with a Russian-brokered ceasefire that saw Armenia cede swathes of land it had gained during fighting in the 1990s.

And after heavy bombardment from Azerbaijani forces and dozens of deaths, Armenian separatists in the conflict-ridden region grudgingly agreed Wednesday to lay down their arms and hold reintegration talks.

This process may be more difficult than the military operation itself, Hajiyev said.

If Azerbaijan fails to ensure Armenian rights in line with international standards, this, Hajiyev warned, “will be a negative factor affecting the image of both Aliyev and the country on the international arena.”


Audio Posts In English

Texas City Sees Jump in Irregular Migrant Crossings

U.S. immigration authorities reported a significant uptick in unauthorized border crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border Thursday, particularly in areas like Eagle Pass, Texas, where the mayor has issued a state of emergency.

U.S. Border Patrol officers apprehended about 9,000 migrants along the entire border in a 24-hour period, according to media reports on Wednesday. VOA asked Border Patrol to confirm the number of apprehensions, but an official, who spoke on background, said they were waiting to release monthly migrant encounter numbers.

The noticeable rise in migrant arrivals in Eagle Pass strained local resources and overwhelmed already crowded facilities.

On Wednesday evening between 500 and 800 migrants, mostly from Venezuela, were waiting to be processed by Border Patrol officials under the Eagle Pass-Piedras Negras International Bridge, one of the two bridges in Eagle Pass.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection official told VOA on background — a method often used by U.S. officials to share information with reporters without being identified — that CBP suspended crossings at Eagle Pass to help with the influx of migrants over the last few days.

“But we anticipate reopening it once they [border officers] are done dealing with [migrants] today,” the official said by phone, adding that traffic was being diverted to another bridge in the same area.

“There are times that we have to close the ports. We just simply divert traffic to other ports of entry,” the spokesperson said.

After the increased number of unauthorized crossings, Eagle Pass Mayor Rolando Salinas Jr. signed an emergency declaration. In recent years, the region has become accustomed to regulating migration as it became a heavily used point for newcomers to cross into the U.S.

“The emergency declaration grants us the ability to request financial resources to provide additional services caused by the influx of undocumented immigrants,” Salinas wrote in Wednesday’s emergency declaration.

In response to the surge in encounters, the CBP spokesperson said officials expect to see more fluctuations, knowing that smugglers will continue to use misinformation to prey on vulnerable individuals.

U.S. authorities could not provide a specific reason for the recent increase in crossings. However, they said it is usually a combination of misinformation spread by smugglers, economic hardships in migrants’ home countries and migrants running from authoritative regimes.

The CBP officer told VOA that often individuals pay a smuggler but end up traveling in groups and arrive all at once at a specific part of the border.

“The big thing that we want people to know is that, ‘Look, if you come to the border and you don’t use CBP One app, and you didn’t take advantage of those lawful pathways that the administration has set up, it’s going to be presumed that you’re ineligible for asylum,’” the official said.

The CBP official also said the border continues to be closed to irregular migration and that without a legal basis to stay in the country, migrants will be processed for removal and face consequences that include “a minimum five-year bar on re-entry, loss of eligibility to access lawful pathways, and prosecution for repeat offenders.”

In May, just before the expiration of the COVID-era restriction known as Title 42, border officials encountered more than 8,000 people a day along the entire border. After the end of Title 42, these numbers decreased significantly, with daily encounters averaging 3,500 illegal crossings.

Increase border enforcement

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday announced plans to increase enforcement across the U.S.-Mexico border, including additional military personnel — on top of the 2,500 state National Guard personnel — to support border officers on the ground.

The CBP official who spoke to VOA on background said military personnel do things that do not involve contact with migrants, such as watching surveillance cameras, and other collateral duties.

Immigration authorities have not released the August migrant encounter numbers at the U.S.-Mexico border, but the last available data showed about 183,000 migrants were apprehended in July. At the same time in 2022, that number was 200,162.

“So the [Border Patrol] agents and processing coordinators can fully concentrate on the situation they have to deal with … we have a plan and we’re executing that plan. We remain on the lookout for fluctuations,” the official said.

Audio Posts In English

India Suspends Visa Services to Canadians as Tensions Simmer  

India suspended visa services for Canadian citizens on Thursday and asked Canada to reduce its staffing in India, as tensions between the two countries grew.

Canadian citizens who do not currently hold visas will not be able to travel to India until visa services resume.

India has also asked that Canada reduce its diplomatic presence in the country, a move that Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi called an issue of parity as Indian staffers in Canada are outnumbered by Canadian staff members in India.

India also has warned its citizens to practice caution when traveling to Canada, as the Foreign Ministry in New Delhi cited “growing anti-India activities and politically condoned hate crimes.”

Relations between the two countries have been strained since Monday, when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cited “credible allegations” that India was involved in the killing in June of Canadian citizen and Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in a Vancouver suburb.

While Trudeau has said he does not want to provoke or have problems with India, he stated that Canada is “unequivocal about the importance of the rule of law and unequivocal about the importance of protecting Canadians.” He has asked India to cooperate in the investigation of Nijjar’s death.

India has been viewed by many in the international community as a vital counter to China’s growing international influence, which has caused the reluctance of many Canadian allies to weigh in on this issue.

Canada and India have generally had a cordial relationship reliant on trade and security, though India has accused Canada of harboring Sikh separatists and people India considers terrorists.

Canada has not presented any evidence in the killing, and Trudeau has stated the country will let the full investigation run its course.

“As a country with a strong and independent justice system, we allow those justice processes to unfold themselves with the utmost integrity,” he said.

Audio Posts In English

Bus carrying high school band rolls off highway in New York, killing two


A bus carrying members of a high school marching band on a trip to a music camp ran off a highway and tumbled down a steep ravine in New York state on Thursday, killing two people and injuring dozens of others, several of them severely.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul, speaking at a news conference hours later, said it appeared likely “a faulty front tire contributed to the accident,” though the cause of the wreck remained under investigation.

Lieutenant Colonel Richard Mazzone of the New York State Police said two adult women died in the wreck, who were among the 44 passengers on the bus made up of 40 students and four adults. Hochul said five or six other people were critically injured.

Dozens of students suffered minor bumps and bruises and were seen walking around the scene after the crash. The injured were taken to a half-dozen area hospitals.

“Imagine the fear, the screams in the aftermath. These high school students, many of them freshmen were surrounded by this chaos,” Hochul said.

The two dead were identified as Beatrice Ferarri, 77, of Farmingdale, and Gina Pellettiere, 43, of the nearby Long Island town of Massapequa.

In a Facebook posting, an individual named Ray Eugenio wrote that his grandson was among those injured in the wreck and asked for prayers.

“He was involved in a very serious accident and we do not know the extent of his injuries,” the post said. The account could not be independently verified.

The crash occurred in the early afternoon along Interstate 84 near the town of Wawayanda, about 75 miles (120 km) northwest of New York City near the border with New Jersey. The New York State Police said in a posting on social media the westbound lanes of the highway were closed at that point.

Aerial footage broadcast by local media from the crash scene showed the coach-style bus on its side amid trees and brush at the bottom of an embankment between the east and westbound lanes of the divided highway. The bus appeared largely intact, with debris from the vehicle strewn nearby.

The bus had been carrying members of a high school band from the Long Island village of Farmingdale in Nassau County on a trip to a band camp in Greeley, Pennsylvania, according to a statement from the Farmingdale School District posted by local media.

Five other buses going to the camp as part of the trip, an annual outing of the marching band, according to the school district, headed back to Farmingdale after the crash, local media reported.

There was no word on whether any other vehicles were involved. Weather in the area was clear at the time.

Video from the scene showed the overturned motor coach bearing the logo for Regency Buses, a regional bus line that serves New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Audio Posts In English

Biden sets up White House office on gun violence prevention


U.S. President Joe Biden is establishing a new office of gun violence prevention to implement existing safety laws and work with states on the issue, officials said on Thursday.

The new office will be overseen by Vice President Kamala Harris and run with the help of leading gun safety advocates, officials told reporters on a conference call.

“I’ll continue to urge Congress to take common sense actions that the majority of Americans support like enacting universal background checks and banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines,” Biden, a Democrat, said in a statement.

“But in the absence of that sorely-needed action, the Office of Gun Violence Prevention along with the rest of my Administration will continue to do everything it can to combat the epidemic of gun violence that is tearing our families, our communities, and our country apart,” he said.

Democrats largely favor stricter gun laws as a way to reduce deaths from gun violence at schools and in cities across the country. Republicans, with the support of the National Rifle Association, a gun rights group, largely oppose stricter laws, citing the right to bear arms established in the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment.

In a rare show of bipartisanship on the issue, Republicans and Democrats passed a package of modest gun safety measures last year, known as the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, and Biden has taken executive action as well on the issue.

Establishing a new office of gun violence prevention has long been on the wish list of anti-violence advocacy groups that were happy with Biden’s record pushing for reforms but wanted the White House do more.

Putting it under Harris’ purview also gives the vice president, who has struggled to win over some Democrats in her role as Biden’s No. 2, a meaty policy area that is important and popular with their party’s base.

Harris said in a statement that the office would work to be “engaging and encouraging Congressional leaders, state and local leaders, and advocates to come together to build upon the meaningful progress that we have made.”

White House adviser Stefanie Feldman, Biden’s staff secretary, will serve as the director of the office, and gun safety advocates Greg Jackson and Rob Wilcox will join the White House as deputies.

“(Biden) believes that now is the moment to accelerate our work … which is why he is establishing this office,” Feldman told reporters.

She said the office would expedite implementation of the bipartisan federal gun reform law that Biden signed last year, “dig deeper” to find additional actions the administration can take, coordinate support for communities affected by gun violence, and expand partnerships with states and cities.

Gun safety groups welcomed the move.

“We are so pleased that the Biden administration has officially created an Office of Gun Violence Prevention,” said Kris Brown, president of Brady, an advocacy group.

“Just as FEMA responds to hurricanes and earthquakes, we have desperately needed a federal agency dedicated to responding to this growing public health crisis,” she said, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Related Galleries:

A person holds a sign as spectators gather in the gallery of the House Chamber during a special session on public safety to discuss gun violence in the wake of the Covenant School shooting, at the Tennessee State Capitol, in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S., August 22, 2023. REUTERS/Cheney Orr/File Photo

Mourners visit a memorial for victims of a mass shooting at a Fourth of July parade in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Illinois, U.S. July 7, 2022. REUTERS/Cheney Orr/File photo

U.S. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris attend a celebration for Jewish American Heritage Month at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 16, 2023. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/File photo

Audio Posts In English

David McCormick Launches Pennsylvania Senate Bid. This Time, He’s Likely to Avoid a Messy Primary Battle.

Army veteran and former Bridgewater CEO David McCormick officially launched his Senate campaign against Democratic incumbent Bob Casey on Thursday, a boon for the GOP establishment that had looked to recruit a top-tier candidate in the swing state and to avoid the sort of bitter primary fight that McCormick narrowly lost a year ago.

McCormick’s announcement came at an evening rally in Pittsburgh, during which the Republican lamented an “America in decline” due to the “failed leadership of Joe Biden.” McCormick went on to pitch himself as a “combat veteran, a successful businessman, and a seventh-generation Pennsylvanian” who will “shake up Washington.”

“My opponent was born to run for political office. I was born to shake things up,” McCormick said. “I’m the only candidate in this race who can change Washington.”

The campaign launch comes roughly one year after McCormick lost a contentious primary battle against celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz by less than 1,000 votes. While that race divided Republican leaders—former president Donald Trump backed Oz, while McCormick received endorsements from Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) and former secretary of state Mike Pomepo—McCormick is entering his second Senate bid with widespread support from party leaders.

National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman Steve Daines (R., Mont.), for example, endorsed McCormick, saying in a statement on Thursday that the “combat veteran and Pennsylvania job creator” has “done a remarkable job of unifying the grassroots of Pennsylvania.” Republican state lawmaker and failed gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, who contemplated his own Senate run, has also backed McCormick and urged Pennsylvania Republicans to “unify” around the candidate. Pennsylvania’s entire Republican congressional delegation is also endorsing McCormick, according to a campaign strategist.

Republicans hope a clear primary field will help them amass resources for a race that is likely to become one of the most expensive in the country. Democrats have already identified Casey’s seat as one the party must hold to maintain a Senate majority in 2024, while Republicans see the state as a major pickup opportunity.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has signaled that it views McCormick as a threat. Months before McCormick’s announcement, the committee contended that Mastriano would “continue looming over Republicans in Pennsylvania” and worked to tie McCormick to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) and “the establishment.”

The committee has also paid tens of thousands of dollars to an opposition researcher who falsely presented herself as a journalist to McCormick’s acquaintances in an attempt to dig up damaging information on him, the Washington Free Beacon reported in August.

Two days before McCormick’s campaign launch, Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Josh Shapiro, announced the state will automatically register to vote those who obtain or renew their driver’s license, a move that state Republicans blasted as a “unilateral action on the eve of what is likely to be a hotly contested and close election.” But McCormick’s campaign downplayed the change, saying it does not anticipate a “huge impact.”

“The days where an expanded electorate helps the Democrats is probably over,” a campaign strategist said. “So from our standpoint, we want everyone who can register to register, and we want to go out and get their votes.”

The post David McCormick Launches Pennsylvania Senate Bid. This Time, He’s Likely to Avoid a Messy Primary Battle. appeared first on Washington Free Beacon.

Audio Posts In English

The Shifting Geography of the South Caucasus


Thirty years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the geopolitical boundaries that once marked its former republics are blurring. Treating this space as simply post-Soviet, as Western policymakers have done for the past three decades, is out of date. Undoubtedly, Russia is anything but shy about throwing its weight around the neighborhood. Countries along Russia’s periphery have learned the hard way that they must manage relations with Moscow carefully. But portraying the region simply as part of Russia’s periphery mischaracterizes its principal defining characteristics.

Russia’s pull is, if anything, weakening. The centrifugal forces drawing its neighbors toward other parts of the world are becoming stronger. At the same time, the West’s interest in the region is ebbing—the United States and the EU are increasingly preoccupied with domestic problems stemming from the pandemic as well as with reorienting their foreign policies to deal with China and other regions closer to home.

This trend is particularly evident in the South Caucasus. Today, the boundaries between the three states—Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia—and the eastern Mediterranean and wider Middle East are shifting. The United States’ and the EU’s long-standing declaratory policies about the region’s centrality in the West’s foreign policy are becoming less and less credible. It’s one thing for Washington and Brussels to promote closer security ties with the South Caucasus and to boost their capabilities to stand up to Moscow’s bullying. But it is another thing entirely to match the South Caucasus states’ expanding web of relationships with the countries to their south, west, and east.

It is these relationships that show the greatest dynamism in terms of increased trade and economic ties, changes in energy markets, and the prospects for new infrastructure projects. Regrettably, these regions—just like the South Caucasus—have more than their fair share of common challenges arising from regional and sectarian conflicts, migration, and poverty.

This article examines how the three South Caucasus states have increasingly diversified their foreign and economic policies. These efforts are unfolding against the backdrop of weakening ties to Russia on the one hand and diminishing interest from the United States and the EU on the other. The article explores the dynamic between Russia—as it seeks to reassert itself—and Turkey and Iran, both of which have made major inroads in the region. Finally, the analysis touches on the growing ties between the South Caucasus and China, Israel, Lebanon, and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. It concludes with policy implications and recommendations for policymakers in Washington and Brussels.

A Brief History

Given their geographic proximity and historic connections, interactions between the Caucasus and the broader Middle East should come as no surprise. Before the Soviet era, the Caucasus was where the Ottoman, Persian, and Russian empires converged and competed for territory and influence. Each of the three empires once ruled the region, creating a key meeting ground of cultures along an important transit route.1 During the bulk of the twentieth century, the Soviet Union enjoyed firm control over the region and tried to project power and influence into Iran and Turkey from the Caucasus. The Soviet Union’s collapse weakened Moscow’s position in the region but defied initial speculation that Iranian-Russian-Turkish competition would lead to the carving of respective spheres of influence across the Caucasus.

The 1990s proved to be a difficult time for all three powers. Russia focused largely on managing waves of domestic instability and fighting the insurgency in the North Caucasus. Moscow’s highly reactive policies in the South Caucasus were shaped primarily by the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as instability in Georgia, which Moscow opportunistically took advantage of to further state fracture.

Iran too struggled economically in the 1990s, facing a combination of sanctions and the aftereffects of its nearly decade-long war with Iraq. Deeply isolated on the world stage, Iran had little to offer the three South Caucasus states—all of which also received pressure from Washington to curtail ties with their southern neighbor.

Turkey, meanwhile, was more focused on integrating with Europe than on engaging with its eastern neighbors. Ankara’s efforts to promote a broad pan-Turkic agenda across Eurasia initially appeared promising but amounted to little except in Azerbaijan. However, the diplomatic and security ties that took root between Ankara and Baku during the first Nagorno-Karabakh war reinforced Armenian perceptions of pan-Turkic threats leading to frigid Armenian-Turkish relations and an economic blockade that continues to the present day.

It was the West that had money, markets, and geopolitical clout in the 1990s. Former Azerbaijani president Heydar Aliyev reportedly claimed in the 1990s that “Washington is the new Moscow.” All of the region’s leaders were swept up in the euphoria of building economic and political ties to the United States and Europe. Western influence continued to grow after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the Rose Revolution in Georgia, which enhanced the region’s stature in U.S. foreign policy. Azerbaijan and Georgia became important links in the supply lines that ran through the South Caucasus into Central Asia and Afghanistan. Georgia sent large numbers of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, which built goodwill in key parts of the U.S. national security establishment. The war against extremism also led to stronger security ties between NATO and all three states.

However, Eurasia’s centrality in U.S. foreign policy proved fleeting and often rhetorical. The U.S. drawdowns from Afghanistan and Iraq during the administrations of former U.S. presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, Washington’s pivot away from Europe and Eurasia to the Indo-Pacific beginning in 2011, and the turmoil of the Trump era shifted U.S. attention away from the South Caucasus. With the anticipated full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 2021, the U.S. presence in, and commitment to, Eurasia remains uncertain.

The period of intense U.S. focus on the South Caucasus was, in many ways, a historical anomaly of the early post-Soviet era. The region is geographically far from American shores and its strategic importance to Washington was tied to the transition away from Soviet rule, the urgent need to secure Soviet-era biological and nuclear material, and the imperative of finding alternate routes to Afghanistan. The West’s turn away from the Caucasus is not uniquely a U.S. phenomenon. The EU in practice has pivoted from the region too—a result of expansion fatigue, the war in Ukraine, and internal challenges including Brexit and the euro crisis.

The Inevitability of Geography

Although Russia will remain the most important power in the region for the foreseeable future, the capitals of the three South Caucasus states are geographically closer to many of the economic and political power centers of the eastern Mediterranean and Persian Gulf than they are to Moscow. Baku, for example, is slightly closer (roughly 1,000 miles) to Doha, Qatar, and Ankara, Turkey, than to the Russian capital (roughly 1,300 miles). Tbilisi, Georgia, is just about 800 miles to Ankara, while Yerevan, Armenia, is just a few hundred miles to Mosul, Iraq—a city that once had a significant Armenian minority.

Given their proximity, Turkey and the Gulf countries now serve as key regional hubs for air travel—a far cry from the Soviet era when access to the world was routed through Moscow. Turkey has become a secondary destination after Russia for migrant workers from the Caucasus, including Armenia. Human trafficking of women from the three South Caucasus states to the Gulf, Turkey, and beyond sadly remains a problem, facilitated by transnational organized crime links.

Historical connections between the Caucasus and the Middle East are reflected in diaspora populations, particularly in Mediterranean littoral states. Turkey is home to a sizeable minority population from the North and South Caucasus, including Azerbaijanis, Armenians, Circassians, and Ossetians. Roughly 4 percent of Lebanon’s population (about 160,000 people) is ethnically Armenian. Another 100,000 Armenians called Syria home before that country’s brutal civil war began in 2011. Thousands of ethnic Armenians living in the Middle East have escaped the brutal conflicts there, moving to Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh. Today, Armenia is the third-largest recipient of displaced Syrian citizens per capita in Europe.

Armenia became directly involved in the Middle East, sending peacekeepers to Iraq at the urging of the United States (as did Azerbaijan and Georgia) and later to Syria at Russia’s call. The self-proclaimed Islamic State served as a magnet for hard-line Islamic radicals from across the North and South Caucasus, as well as Central Asia and other parts of Russia. Georgia has long tried to stabilize its restless Pankisi Gorge, a Muslim-minority region that served as a hotbed of radicalization and safe harbor for fighters from the North Caucasus. The Pankisi Gorge experienced renewed attention between 2015 and 2017, as Islamic State recruiters reportedly enlisted Georgian citizens to fight in Iraq or Syria—some of whom went on to serve as hardened Islamic State commanders.

Azerbaijani foreign fighters traveled to the Middle East to join the Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra during the height of the Syrian conflict. Azerbaijanis have also fought in Libya, likely in support of Turkey’s intervention there. More recently, in 2020, up to 2,000 Syrian mercenaries allegedly fought on Azerbaijan’s behalf in the second Nagorno-Karabakh war, raising concerns about the presence of Sunni extremists in the region. Irregular volunteers from the Armenian diaspora in the Middle East and elsewhere descended on the Caucasus during both Nagorno-Karabakh wars.

Regional Competition Isn’t New

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union used the South Caucasus to try to influence the broader Middle East, specifically neighboring Iran and Turkey. There is a sizeable ethnic Azerbaijani minority in Iran—roughly one-quarter of the population is ethnically Azeri. Iran, along with Turkey, housed early Soviet-era refugees from Azerbaijan, creating strongholds of anti-Soviet Azerbaijani nationalism. The Azeri minority in Iran has stirred lingering fears of irredentism in Iran—fears that Joseph Stalin stoked after World War II when the Soviet Union occupied northern Iran.2

Given broad geopolitical differences, there is a long-standing wariness in Baku of Iranian covert activities. Azerbaijani security forces periodically arrest both Iranian and Azerbaijani citizens for allegedly participating in terrorist activity directed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Baku and Tehran possess divergent views on, and conduct different types of activity in, the broader region. Azerbaijan now enjoys a range of diplomatic, economic, and security ties to two of Iran’s key rivals, Israel and Turkey.

The Caucasus was on the front lines of the Soviet-NATO confrontation during the Cold War, and the Soviet-Turkish border was highly militarized. Moscow cultivated memories of the Armenian genocide at home and overseas to sully the image of NATO member Turkey, particularly in the run-up to the genocide’s fiftieth anniversary commemoration in 1965. The Soviet government also reached out to Armenians across the Middle East, inviting genocide survivors and their descendants to relocate to Soviet Armenia during the Cold War. Some did, including independent Armenia’s first president, Levon Ter-Petrosyan.3 Many Soviet-era Armenian repatriates, however, regretted that decision—adjusting to life in the Soviet Union proved challenging, especially in the Stalinist era when many ended up in the Gulag.

Today, Armenia engages in outreach efforts across the Mediterranean basin, following in the footsteps of the Soviet Union. Former Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan treated Armenians in the Middle East as a key diaspora constituency when he promoted Turkish-Armenian reconciliation a decade ago. Armenia still depends on these communities as partners for trade, investment, and diplomacy. Iran has long remained a geographic and economic lifeline for Armenia, which at times complicates relations with the United States. Yerevan reached out to Cyprus, Greece, Lebanon, and Jordan for diplomatic support and humanitarian aid during the 2020 war in Nagorno-Karabakh. All four countries have either strained or at least complex ties with Turkey, making them obvious diplomatic interlocutors for Yerevan.

Azerbaijan may not have as large a diaspora, but Baku actively promotes its interests in the Islamic world. Since the 1990s, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation has repeatedly adopted resolutions to reaffirm Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and called on Armenia to withdraw from Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory in Nagorno-Karabakh. Many Islamic countries backed Azerbaijan in resolutions at the United Nations and other international arenas. In the early post-Soviet period, Baku received humanitarian assistance from several wealthy Gulf states, which helped stabilize the country and manage flows of displaced people.

Economics and Energy Have Blurred Borders

On the economic front, energy pipelines and transportation corridors from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey have opened Caspian resources for southeastern Europe and the Middle East, giving Azerbaijan influence over several Mediterranean states. Israel has long courted Azerbaijan to hedge against Iran. Today, roughly 40–45 percent of Israeli oil imports originate in Azerbaijan, making it Azerbaijan’s third-largest export market after Italy and Turkey. Energy exports to Israel have also helped accelerate the two countries’ political and security ties. Azerbaijan is the second-largest buyer of Israeli arms, which were on display when Baku deployed Israeli drones during the most recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Israel is also promoting closer agricultural cooperation, capitalizing on Azerbaijan’s desire to diversify its dependence on hydrocarbons.

Albania and Italy receive Azerbaijani gas via the Trans Adriatic Pipeline, which is fed by the Trans Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline that crosses the entire width of Turkey from the Georgian to Greek borders. It enables Azerbaijan to supply 6 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas to the Turkish market, with an additional 10 bcm earmarked for transit further into southern Europe. The recent agreement between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan to jointly develop their disputed Kyapaz/Sardar Caspian gas field could eventually enable Central Asian gas supplies to reach the Mediterranean. Countries in the South Caucasus have long promoted energy corridors, but the economic viability of such routes will depend heavily on ongoing shifts in global energy markets and the unfolding transition to a low-carbon future.

The Moscow-brokered November 2020 ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan envisions the creation of new transportation routes through both countries. In theory, these routes could link Russia directly to Turkey and Iran, creating new north-south and east-west connections. That would potentially both enhance Russia’s presence in the region and create new links between the Caspian Sea, the Mediterranean, and the Persian Gulf. Such plans unnerve the Georgian government, which fears any new Russian-sponsored transportation infrastructure will undermine its role as the key east-west trade route between the Caspian and Mediterranean Seas. Some of the planned projects also rankle Armenia, given its trust deficit with both Ankara and Baku. Armenian wariness, the lack of a comprehensive peace or stabilization plan in Nagorno-Karabakh, and Iran’s continued geopolitical isolation will complicate this new vision for regional transportation.

Growing Cooperation and Competition Between Russia and Turkey

Russia and Turkey have improved ties over the past decade. Closer energy relations—for example, the TurkStream natural gas pipeline and the Akkuyu nuclear power plant—have been a major factor. Ankara has also bought Russian S-400 air defense system, provoking tensions between Turkey and NATO—which Moscow has certainly relished. And the strong personal relationship between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, especially their mutual resentment of their many Western critics, continues to soothe the overall relationship.

Yet friction points between the two countries persist. Turkey and Russia are at loggerheads in both Syria and Libya. Turkey criticizes Russian aggression against its Eurasian neighbors, continues to oppose Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and has warned about Moscow’s naval buildup in the Black Sea. Ankara continues its military cooperation with Kyiv; the latter deployed several Turkish-made Bayraktar-TB2 armed drones over the Donbas in April 2021 (the same drones Azerbaijan reportedly used with success to defeat Armenia in 2020). Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited Turkey that same month, a time of high tension in eastern Ukraine, for a session of the Turkey-Ukraine High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council, which he co-chairs with Erdoğan.

Moscow’s maneuvers throughout the Middle East and Turkey’s ambitions for Eurasia help stoke the Russian-Turkish rivalry, as does the fact that both Azerbaijan and Georgia look to Ankara as a hedge against Russia. Interest groups inside Turkey have provided momentum for Ankara’s multilayered approach to Georgia. Turkish businesses are well established in Georgia, with ties dating back to the early 1990s. Erdoğan’s government also conveys strong diplomatic support for Georgia’s territorial integrity, rejecting Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states and decrying the continued Russian occupation of Georgian territory. At the same time, Turkey’s powerful Abkhaz diaspora, which maintains a strong lobby in the Turkish parliament and business circles, seeks to expand commercial and people-to-people ties with Abkhazia.4

Azerbaijan has long pushed for closer ties with Turkey, viewing Ankara as its most powerful and dependable backer in the international sphere. Turkey is among the top investors in both Azerbaijan and Georgia, with all three countries linked via road, rail, and pipeline infrastructure. Azerbaijan sees Turkey as the essential counterweight to not only Russia but also to the United States and Europe, both of which have grown increasingly critical of Baku’s human rights record.

Turkey’s unequivocal support for Azerbaijan slowed Russian mediation in the first few weeks of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Having inserted itself directly into the conflict, Turkey now serves, particularly in the eyes of Azerbaijan, as a check on Russian peacekeeping operations; Baku and Ankara pushed hard for the joint Turkish-Russian ceasefire-monitoring center that was established on Azerbaijani-held territory earlier this year.

As Turkey’s influence in the Caucasus grows, all three South Caucasus governments must strategize on how to adjust to Turkey’s enhanced role in the region. Ankara also must balance its presence there with maintaining its relations with Moscow. Russia remains keen to preserve the region as part of its privileged sphere of influence and is reticent for Turkey to enjoy a broader regional mandate. Nevertheless, Turkey’s ability to carve out a role for itself in the Caucasus is a fait accompli that Russia must now manage. As Habibe Ozdal has argued, Russia and Turkey are not allies in the Caucasus or Middle East; they do not necessarily share the same goals. Yet, as they continually bump into each other, the two powers find ways on occasion to align their competing interests and to dampen tensions.

New—and Old—Players in the South Caucasus

While Russia and Turkey jockey for influence in the Caucasus, other countries are asserting their influence as well.

Although geographically distant, China has pursued various opportunities, eyeing infrastructure projects across the South Caucasus, Persian Gulf, and the Mediterranean. Port development, roads, and rail all fall under the purview of its sprawling Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese companies have shown interest in infrastructure projects on the Georgian and Azerbaijani coasts and in regional road and rail construction across all three South Caucasus countries. However, implementation of such projects has been slow, mired in corruption allegations and accusations of labor abuse and environmental degradation.

Georgia’s decision in 2020 to cancel its contract with the Anaklia Development Consortium—primarily a Georgian-U.S. entity—to build a deepwater port on the Black Sea coast has renewed long-standing Chinese interest in the project. Beijing appears eager to link the infrastructure it helped put into place in Central Asia with similar assets it either controls or envisions across the broader Mediterranean via the Caucasus. China’s commitment to the Caucasus, however, could end up largely rhetorical. Chinese financial flows have not materialized as quickly as local countries expected. Throughout the region, leaders continue to see Beijing as a way to alleviate perennial concerns about Russia’s overbearing presence and the tensions stemming from its war against Ukraine.

Iran also is reasserting itself in the Caucasus. Tehran proposed its own peace initiative as the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict raged on. After the Russian-brokered ceasefire, Iran embraced the 3+3 format—a Turkish-proposed regional cooperation mechanism that unites the three Caucasus states with Iran, Russia, and Turkey. This mechanism bears more than a passing resemblance to the mix of cooperative and combative dynamics that the three powers bring to bear in Syria. The proposal received lukewarm support from the Caucasus countries, especially Georgia. They remain wary of Iranian, Russian, and Turkish aspirations to dominate the region without any counterbalance from the West or other powerful players.

Iran, however, is the top market for both Azerbaijani and Armenian exports to the Gulf region. Both Caucasian countries remain keen to build transportation infrastructure to the south to tap broader Gulf markets.

Iranian visitors were also important for the Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Georgian tourist industries before Iran’s economic troubles in 2018 and the coronavirus pandemic. A key growth sector and important source of employment for the Armenian and Georgian economies, tourism in the region focuses largely on small businesses. Iranian tourism peaked in 2017–2018, when 220,000 Iranians visited Armenia, 320,000 came to Georgia, and 360,000 traveled to Azerbaijan. It dropped significantly in 2018 and 2019, although Iran remains among the top five countries of origin for visitors to the three Caucasus nations.

Other Persian Gulf states have also begun to invest in the tourism, banking, construction, and energy sectors in the South Caucasus, although they generally have refrained from the sort of political or military engagement they pursue in the Middle East (in other words, Saudi Arabia in Yemen or the UAE in Libya).

Saudi Arabia recently announced a deal to construct a wind park in Azerbaijan, while the UAE has invested over $2 billion in a joint Emirati-Azerbaijani investment fund created in 2016. Trade turnover between Azerbaijan and the UAE has also grown in recent years, although it remains relatively minimal at $240 million in 2019. There is a large trade imbalance, however, with Emirati imports to Azerbaijan far exceeding Azerbaijani exports. Baku is hoping that Emirati investments could help Azerbaijan reconstruct the territories formerly occupied by Armenian forces.

Armenia and Georgia, meanwhile, both see the Gulf as a potential market for agricultural exports and are seeking free trade agreements with the Gulf Cooperation Council. Wealthy residents of the Caucasus, including some with ties to organized crime, also look to Dubai as a friendly place to park or launder their money.

Is There Any Room Left for the West?

The United States and Europe certainly remain important actors in the region, but their influence—particularly in Armenia and Azerbaijan—is declining.

Relations between Azerbaijan and the West have deteriorated over the past decade due to human rights issues and Azerbaijan’s frustration with the the Organization for Security and Co-operation’s Minsk Group, the formal mediators in Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite being long-standing members of the Minsk Group, neither France nor the United States was able—or perhaps willing—to broker even a temporary ceasefire in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Azerbaijan saw both countries, due to their large and influential Armenian diaspora populations, as biased negotiators. Armenia felt abandoned by the West (and Russia) during the war, as the Trump administration’s half-hearted efforts to broker a ceasefire came late. The West now struggles to find a role for the Minsk Group. It is not yet clear how U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration plans to support post-conflict stabilization, reconciliation, and governance projects—all areas where Western support, financing, and expertise are needed.

Beyond two prominent U.S. investments in the energy and mining sectors and Armenian diaspora remittances and charitable donations, economic ties between the United States and Armenia are minimal. Yerevan hopes that Armenia’s Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement with the EU, as well as its efforts to promote political and economic reforms, could lead to greater European economic engagement. Despite recent efforts to diversify its economic partners, Armenia is unlikely to have much success in the near future given Russia’s economic clout in the country and Armenia’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union. Political instability in the country after its loss in the 2020 war also dampens its investment climate. Meanwhile, despite tensions, the EU remains Azerbaijan’s largest trade partner (although the bulk of that trade is in the energy sector and is dominated by just one country, Italy).

Georgia, on the other hand, is still eager to integrate itself into the trans-Atlantic community. As a symbol of its partnership with the West, Georgia hosts a NATO training center outside Tbilisi, although the country remains highly insecure because of Russia’s continued occupation of Georgian territory and persistent Russian threats to its sovereignty. While trade with the United States remains miniscule, the EU-Georgia Association Agreement, which outlines a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area, has resulted in visa-free travel for Georgians. This has spurred travel, educational, and some labor migration ties between Georgia and Europe, as well as modest growth in EU-Georgian bilateral trade. Yet increased economic ties with the EU have not resolved Georgia’s high poverty, unemployment, and underemployment rates. Although Georgia remains by far the most successful reformer in Eurasia, Western support for its efforts has not prevented the country’s political turmoil or democratic backsliding.

Conclusion and Recommendations for Policymakers

The South Caucasus is in the midst of a geopolitical transition. No longer an isolated backwater of the former Soviet Union, the South Caucasus today interacts with and is impacted by a much larger region around it. It is becoming more interconnected with its neighbors in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf. Despite disruptions caused by the pandemic, those new connections are likely here to stay. This trend should not unnerve Western policymakers; the South Caucasus is essentially rediscovering its historical geography as a region with multiple influential neighbors. That is a positive change.

The region is also being impacted by broader global trends. The period of U.S. retrenchment that began under Obama and accelerated under Trump has ushered in a period of disengagement. The resulting vacuum has encouraged leaders across the region to pursue overlapping relationships that are tying the Caucasus more closely to the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and Asia. Regional integration generally is a positive development too.

The Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Georgian governments are looking for signals from Washington on whether the Biden administration will shift some attention back to the South Caucasus. However, the ongoing U.S. pivot to the Indo-Pacific region and the need to respond to China’s rise suggest that Washington will prioritize more pressing problems elsewhere. All of that comes on top of urgent global and domestic challenges facing the Biden administration, starting with the pandemic, economic recovery, racial justice, and climate change. Against that backdrop, it is unlikely that key players in the South Caucasus can expect much high-level attention from Washington.

Nevertheless, U.S. and EU policymakers will advocate for the emergence of a more stable and prosperous South Caucasus. But that cannot be willed into being. It is possible only with bottom-up reforms that will help the region overcome deep-seated governance shortcomings, manage regional conflicts, and integrate the South Caucasus countries into broader regional (and global) economic and political structures. The recent political crises in Armenia and Georgia suggest that polarization remains high and that democratic backsliding is a real threat. Yet the region’s citizens have made clear they want governments and economies that work.

As the new foreign policy team in Washington develops its approach to the Caucasus, it must recognize how the region is changing and encourage its rapidly expanding ties with the wider neighborhood. The region should no longer be viewed through the simple prism of Russia-West competition or the battle against Russian neo-imperialism; it is being increasingly contested by rising powers and impacted by broader regional problems, including extremism, migration, ethnic tensions, shifting energy markets, and the pandemic.

The West certainly has a role to play mitigating the impacts of the pandemic, which has highlighted the permeability of international borders. The United States and Europe should help the Caucasus states acquire adequate vaccine supplies and help promote their continued integration into the wider region. Russia and China have both stepped into that space with their vaccine diplomacy, although production shortfalls with their vaccines, questions about efficacy, and vaccine hesitancy have stalled inoculation programs in all three Caucasus countries. The West should also help the region address broader human and economic security problems that COVID-19 has exacerbated by focusing on basic human security needs, particularly when the prospects for democratic reform are limited.

Washington need not lament these regional changes and the efforts of the Caucasus states to engage additional partners beyond Russia or the West. This shifting geography in the Caucasus suits a long-standing U.S. policy goal: rejecting Moscow’s claim of an exclusive sphere of influence in the region. History in the South Caucasus shows that no single power has been able to achieve hegemony over the broad region. Today’s emerging multipolar world, combined with local dynamics on the ground and new trade patterns, will make it challenging for Russia or any other individual state to dominate the region for long.

Yet the United States still has interests in the South Caucasus and should pursue them—particularly in Georgia, where it has invested heavily in the country’s political and economic reform efforts, enhanced defense, and integration with the West. However, past patterns of U.S. policy implementation suggest that Washington does not, and likely never will, possess the same level of strategic interests in the South Caucasus as the region’s immediate neighbors. The sheer distance between the United States and the Caucasus dictates that Washington should not pretend otherwise. This does not mean, however, that the Biden administration should ignore the region, especially since it is a meeting place of some of the West’s biggest competitors (China, Iran, and Russia) and most challenging partners (Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia).

The Biden administration should, over time, articulate where the South Caucasus stands in the long list of U.S. priorities. The United States should continue efforts to promote regional stability, help abate or prevent regional conflicts, and stem illicit financial and human flows. Washington and its European partners can assist in stabilization, reconstruction, and integration after the latest Nagorno-Karabakh war, particularly given the poor track records Russia and Turkey have on these issues elsewhere. Given the long-standing U.S. investment in Georgia and the Armenian people’s clear desire for better governance, the West should also continue to support those countries’ democratic and economic reform efforts (although that support must be conditional and demand driven).

Washington finally should recognize the role of other players, accept that they too have stakes in the region’s stability, and lean on them to use their capacity to support common interests in the region. A new approach mandates a more surgical use of U.S. power and the U.S. toolkit rather than the broad transformative agendas Washington pushed in the past, usually with limited success. This calls for enlisting the help of allies and partners to improve the South Caucasus states’ ability to balance against their assertive neighbors and to address their own internal challenges from the bottom up.


The author would like to thank Thomas de Waal, Anna Ohanyan, Joanna Pritchett, Gene Rumer, John Tefft, and Andrew Weiss for their comments on early drafts of this article, as well as Tatyana Pyak for her research and editing assistance.


1 Charles King, The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); and Thomas de Waal, The Caucasus, an Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

2 Brenda Shaffer, Borders and Brethren: Iran and the Challenge of Azerbaijan Identity (Cambridge, MA: Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, 2002).

3 Razmik Panossian, The Armenians: From Kings and Priests to Merchants and Commissars (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006).

4 Rustam Anshba, “The Influence of the Abkhaz Diaspora on the Turkish Policy Formation on Abkhazia,” Master’s Thesis, Central European University, 2015.

Audio Posts In English

Record numbers of migrants head to US border, in fresh test for Biden


Thousands of migrants have crossed into the United States in recent days, from California to Texas, with many more still arriving by bus and cargo trains to Mexican border towns on the heels of record migration flows further south.

The dramatic increase along the border – notably in San Diego, California and the Texan cities of El Paso and Eagle Pass – marks a turning point after numbers had plummeted in recent months, and could create fresh political challenges for U.S. President Joe Biden heading into election season.

Biden in May rolled out a new policy to deter illegal crossings, including deporting migrants and banning re-entry for five years, as his administration grappled with migration at record highs.

Within a month the tougher measures drove the border-crossing rate down some 70%.

But a recent uptick in arrivals at the border, combined with vastly higher numbers of people on their way north across Central and South America and riding dangerous cargo trains through Mexico, suggest the early deterrent effect is wearing off.

Experts say the U.S. lacks the capacity to detain and process migrants at the border, often making it impossible for the administration to carry out the harsh penalties it announced in May.

As a result, some asylum seekers who cross illegally are being released into the U.S. with a future court date, rather than being deported – becoming success stories repeated back to migrants still en route.

“The (Biden administration) hit on a smart strategy, but they don’t have the resources or capacity to implement it,” said Andrew Selee, head of the Migration Policy Institute.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Thursday derided the lack of an international plan to help countries lift their citizens out of poverty and thus avoid a key migration driver. He praised Biden for creating legal pathways for migrants but said they needed to be expanded.

In Tijuana on Wednesday evening, opposite San Diego, several dozen people prepared to spend the night sleeping on the ground at a border entry point ahead of appointments early the next day, secured through a mobile app called CBP One, to enter the U.S. and request asylum.

But not everyone wants to wait.

“My wife’s family, and other people who came to Mexico with us, say they crossed (without an appointment) and nothing happened,” said Venezuelan migrant Oscar Suarez, 27, sitting in a Tijuana plaza near the border with his pregnant wife, 2-year-old son and two brothers.

He said he preferred to try the same strategy rather than wait on CBP One to obtain an appointment. Demand for appointments far outweighs the 1,450 time slots available borderwide per day, and Suarez said he worried that his family would not survive a long wait.

“Our money ran out, and we don’t have anything to eat,” he said. “All the shelters in Tijuana are full. We have to do something.”

Enrique Lucero, Tijuana’s director of migrant affairs, said migration slowed after the U.S. policy change in May, but over the last several weeks has been picking up. Officials have tallied 65 nationalities of people in the city, he said.

Hundreds of migrants who crossed without appointments have been forced to wait between two border walls.

Within the last eight days, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had processed more than 5,000 migrants in the San Diego area, a San Diego official said on Thursday.

In Ciudad Juarez, opposite El Paso, hundreds of migrants squeezed past barbed wire to cross the Rio Grande river into the U.S., forming a line next to the border while awaiting processing by U.S. officials.

CBP has logged more than 1,000 migrant encounters daily in the El Paso area in the last several days, shows data published by the city of El Paso.

Migrants are also crossing the river at the Texas city of Eagle Pass, where officials signed an emergency declaration on Tuesday to seek funding for additional services, and railroad operator Union Pacific said it was forced to shut service to Mexico.

Groups of migrants have been as large as 1,000 or 2,000 people, including several hundred migrants who braved a hailstorm to wade through the river.

Mexican railroad operator Ferromex this week suspended service on 60 trains to discourage migrants, who perilously ride north on cargo wagons.

A record of about 82,000 people last month entered Panama overland from South America, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), crossing the dangerous Darien Gap jungle that has transformed in recent years from a nearly impassable barrier to a migration thoroughfare.

As many as half a million people could end up crossing by year-end, double the number of 2022, said Giuseppe Loprete, head of IOM in Panama.

Most people crossing the Darien left their home countries due to lack of employment, according to a July U.N. survey.

An unprecedented number of migrants entering Mexico hail from othercontinents, as the trek to the U.S. southern border increasingly becomes a global migration route.

The number of African migrants registered by Mexican authorities so far this year is already three times as high as during all 2022.

“It’s a structural, deeper problem. There’s an exacerbated crisis globally, in many countries. People don’t leave their countries because they want to – they do it out of need,” President Lopez Obrador told reporters on Thursday.

Related Galleries:

Migrants seeking asylum in the United States gather near a border wall on the banks of the Rio Bravo River, on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico September 19, 2023. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez/File Photo

Migrants seeking asylum in the United States gather near a border wall on the banks of the Rio Bravo River, on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico September 19, 2023. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez/File Photo

Migrants run after crossing a wire fence deployed to inhibit the crossing of migrants into the United States, on the banks of the Rio Bravo River, on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico September 19, 2023. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez/File Photo