A new name for an ancient region

A new name for an ancient region

Turkey, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan have been dealing with crises of identity for much of their modern history. They look to the European Union for their future, and so many in these four states fancy themselves either already — or en route to — being European.

This is misplaced, in my opinion, and stems from the very different legacies borne by these four peoples, something that will serve as an immense hindrance to their ever participating fully in a European identity.

Just naming the region is a problem in itself. Is it “the Near East?” Near to what? Presumably to Europe. But surely there can be a name for the four countries more or less on their own terms. “Eurasia” has been in vogue, but it seems too grandiose, and also misleading, as it certainly does not encompass all of Asia.

Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan are often “the Transcaucasus.” But “trans” — across from — where? That is Moscow’s point of view, which many are downplaying of late, if not outright rejecting. Referring to “the South Caucasus” or even just “the Caucasus” seems unfair, as Azerbaijan and Armenia can only just claim to possess any portion of the Greater or Lesser Caucasus mountain ranges.

Especially for the Armenians, referring to their country as part of “the Caucasus” is inaccurate, as today’s Armenia only happens to be a portion of what was historically Armenian territory, which is in turn only incidentally not too far from the Caucasus Mountains. Most Armenians of the world — whether in the Republic or in the Diaspora — do not trace their immediate ancestry to what is the Republic of Armenia today, and would not consider themselves a people of the Caucasus in the same way as the Georgians do, for example.

Will all of this confusion go away for good, then, if the four join the EU? The fact of the matter is that Turkey, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan have never shared and do not have a share today in the major factors that make up Europe, especially the dominant characteristics that stem from the Western European heritage.

In historical terms, the Roman Empire certainly extended to what was then Armenia, but the linguistic impact of the Latin language made itself felt only minimally on the Armenians and Georgians who were around at the time. For the Turks and Azerbaijanis today, the use of the Latin alphabet is a convenience, but it does not imply any deep cultural connection with the Caesars, the kind that most Europeans of the continent can claim.

Another major factor — Christianity — was and certainly continues to be professed by many in the four countries, being the national religion and a strong part of the identity of the Georgians and the Armenians. Good relations notwithstanding, the connection with Western churches is traditionally distant, however, for the Georgians are Orthodox, and the Armenian Church, even if bearing similarities to orthodoxy, is not part of that communion, nor is it in communion with any Western church. Mtskheta and Etchmiadzin remain the seats of churches with overwhelmingly national characters.

There is no doubt that Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan have indeed played some role in the history of Europe, whether it be in terms of Silk Road trade or interactions during the Crusades. But the region beyond the Black Sea has always been on the periphery for Europe, and it has been particularly remote over the past half-century. Those peoples did not, for example, participate in the horrors of World War II that precipitated the European Economic Community in the same way that the Germans, French, English and Italians did. It was the USSR, after all, and not Azerbaijan or Georgia or Armenia per se that marched on Berlin. During the Cold War, Central and Eastern Europe were cut off from the values and institutions of their Western neighbors, and today are barely managing to catch up. How then can Armenia, Georgia or Azerbaijan be expected to associate themselves closely with a Europe of which they were never a full-fledged part in the first place?

Turkey has a different story. It has been a real presence for Europe in the course of the past few centuries, but it has never quite been a real presence in Europe, especially for the western parts and during the crucial years following World War II. Turkey’s Westernization since the founding of the modern republic has been remarkable and truly impressive, but its roots do not quite share in what makes Europe. Moreover, I would go so far as to argue that the Turkish people have been missing out on very positive aspects of their Ottoman legacy that could serve to promote a more confident and more meaningful national identity.

In fact, an interesting consequence of the centuries of Ottoman rule is that the European peoples of the Mediterranean and the Balkans share greater similarity in many respects with Turks, Armenians, Georgians and Azerbaijanis than do the peoples of Western or Northern Europe. But even with them there remains a gap — culturally, socially, politically, historically and, not least, geographically — that ends up making a significant difference.

None of this is to say that there is no reason for these four countries to have important ties with the European world. Trade, culture, education, tourism, ecumenical religious activities and cooperation in other areas would only be beneficial for all involved. The positive values that the West portrays to the world — rule of law, respect for human rights, freedom of expression — certainly have universal bearing. Their promotion and development, spearheaded by the West, can and ought to take place in these four countries. The presence of vast numbers of Armenians and Turks and increasingly Georgians and Azerbaijanis as residents and citizens of European countries adds to the imperative to maintain good relations.

But the heart of the matter is this: the people of Turkey, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan must come to terms with the fact that they do not share the European heritage in the same way that most people on the continent do. The four countries must and do maintain constructive relations with the EU, but their full membership in that organization would end up being counterproductive because of the significant gap that exists in terms of their societies, cultures and, especially, their politics.

Turkey, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan have much more in common with one another, and certainly a great deal in common with the Middle East as well. That those four countries aren’t quite fully the Middle East either speaks to something, and this intermediate state must be reflected in the positions and policies of those countries.

Where does it leave them, then? The neither here, nor there, the in-between limbo state can be frustrating all right, but it can also be an opportunity to forge a new understanding of the cultures and societies of this particular region. They form the nearer East, or perhaps even the nearest East, for that matter. They are nearer to Europe than the rest of the Middle East, while still being nearer to the East than the rest of Europe — nearest both to and from the East.

On their own terms, however, to be fair, I would propose that the region be more properly described as “Western Asia” because those people have the Orient as the basis of their societies — an Asia in the classical sense of the word — while at the same time being Westernized and looking to the West for their future.

Ultimately, the people of Turkey, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan must come to terms with their relationships to those around them, chiefly with regards to one another, and must assert themselves in who they are and where they are, instead of relying on external factors to define their place in the world.


The author would like to acknowledge Alex van Oss for his assistance in editing this piece.