South Caucasus and the uses of religion as “soft power”

External powers have exercised an influence in the South Caucasus, a region with small countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia) on one of the borders between Islam and Christianity, for centuries. Religion may be one of the channels serving such purposes and may thus be feared by political elites, though it is one among a range of other geopolitical, economic, and ethnic factors that are proving just as important. One could draw this conclusion at the end of a conference on “Religion and Soft Power in the Caucasus,” organized by the Tblisi’s Georgian Institute of Politics in mid-March that RW attended. Joseph Nye first used the concept of soft power in 1990 to describe the capability of an entity (e.g. a state) to wield influence without using hard power. While the concept has been criticized, it offers a heuristic tool for approaching various aspects that political analysis often ignores. Most attention at the conference was paid to Iran, Russia, and Turkey.

As emphasized by Hamed Kazenzadeh (University of Warsaw), Iran’s policy towards the Caucasus is primarily a pragmatic one, with security interests taking priority over ideology. Christian Armenia is the most congenial neighbor, while the ethnic factor (Azeri ethnic population in Iran) and energy competition make Azerbaijan a country of concern. In Armenia, where there are at most 8,000 Muslims, Iran does not attempt to spread its religion but to emphasize the universal and cultural aspects of Shiism. The presence of an Armenian community in Iran, with some 200 churches and a parliamentary representation in Tehran, also serves as a bridge between both countries adds Tatevik Mkrtchyan (Yerevan State University). In Azerbaijan, on the other hand, the government is wary of the influence of Iranian clergy and literature on its Shiite population, and it takes every measure to prevent the emergence of an independent clergy, preferring to support the state-controlled Shi’a bureaucracy that does not enjoy a high level of public trust, reports Anar Valiyev (ADA University, Azerbaijan).

In Georgia, the local Orthodox Church maintains friendly relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, despite the brief 2008 war between the two countries that has frozen several other channels of influence, according to Salome Minesashvili (Free University, Berlin). In November 2016, the Georgian Patriarch visited Moscow for the fifth time since the 2008 war and stressed that “we need each other.” Indeed, a good deal of Russian Orthodox literature is translated into Georgian, and both churches share an anti-Western and anti-globalization ideological discourse. But some sectors of the Georgian Church are more suspicious of such ties, especially considering the situation in Abkhazia (an area of Georgia that has seceded with Russian support and claims to be an independent country). And, notwithstanding criticism of the West, the Georgian Church is also supportive of Western integration, which is a foreign policy priority of Georgia. Thus Minesashvili concludes that ideological affinity with Russia cannot predict how the Georgian Church will behave since political interests are at stake as well. Its position, however, allows the Georgian Church to perceive itself as a mediator.

Regarding Turkey, it is active both in Georgia and in Azerbaijan, with business as well as cultural, religious, and development interests; Georgia is the seventh largest recipient of Turkish support, although most goes to areas populated by Muslims (more than 10 percent of the Georgian population). In Azerbaijan, economic integration with Turkey is strong. According to Fuad Aliyev (ADA University, Baku), the feelings of “Turkic brotherhood” (with linguistic and ethnic commonalities) have been more compelling than “Muslim brotherhood,” though Islamic rhetoric has contributed to it. Beside the Diyanet (Turkish State administration of religious affairs) that cooperates with official Azerbaijani Muslim institutions, several non-State Turkish religious groups have also contributed to Turkish soft power in the country. The most successful one used to be the movement of Fethullah Gülen, which spread a positive image of Turkey in a number of countries for years through its educational, business, and media initiatives. But since the complete break between the movement and the Turkish leadership after the failed military coup of July 2016, the Gülen movement has lost much of its strength, and thus Turkish soft power in Azerbaijan has lost one of its most important and effective channels, Aliyev adds.

(Several policy papers prepared for the March conference can be downloaded as a PDF document on the GIP website: The conference concluded a research program supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation, and a volume titled Religion and Soft Power in the South Caucasus will be published by Routledge in September 2017).