Could the South Caucasus come full circle from pre-Soviet federation to post-Soviet confederation?
Georgia this weekend suggested building near-confederative relations with neighboring Azerbaijan to create a one-stop layover point for Asia-Europe energy and cargo transits. Earlier on, Tbilisi made a similar proposal to Armenia. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili believes that the future of the South Caucasus lies in the creation of a single space to cope together with economic and political challenges.
The ongoing push for integration is reminiscent of the late 1910s when the South Caucasus, an area better known for its penchant for separatism than for integration, had its first fleeting exercise in federalism.
With a capital in Tiflis (today's Tbilisi), the Trans-Caucasian Democratic Federative Republic proclaimed its independence from Russia in 1918, giving its members a brief chance to tackle together the triple whammy of Ottomans, Bolsheviks and Tsarists.
The union soon collapsed and saw its members roll on the ground, fighting, until the Bolsheviks scooped them up, one by one. The break-up created “rivalries over territory and identity that would return to haunt the new, post-Soviet countries some seventy years later,” wrote American historian Charles King in his book "The Ghost of Freedom, a History of the Caucasus."
Now, a few wars and fits of ultra-nationalism later, Georgia has rediscovered the merits of integration, but more than a few ongoing differences stand in the way of the hoped-for post-Soviet reunion. Armenia and Azerbaijan have their 22-year Karabakh complaint, while Armenia and Georgia -- the one looking toward Moscow, the other toward Washington -- are kept at odds over an eons-old rivalry for regional cultural superiority.
For now, the chances look slim that cosmopolitan market logic can prevail over these headwinds. But new friendships, like new fights, have always been just a step away in the Caucasus.