YETT  Young Experts’ Think Tank


Marjan Etemadi-Shad:


A Comparison of the Baltic States and the South Caucasus During the Post-Soviet Era





Table of Contents



1.   Introduction………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….p3

2.  The Significance of Leadership Attitudes……………………………………………………………..p4

3.  Relations between the Titular Nation and Minorities………………………………………….p6

4.  Comparative Style of Governance…….………………………………………………………………………p8

5.  The Effect of Geography on Progress…………………………………………………………………….p10

6. The Legacy of Soviet Occupation………………………………………………………………………………p12

7.  Conclusion……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….p13

8.  Bibliography……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………p14





1991 marked the dissolution of the Soviet Empire.  Out of the ashes of the communist polyglot came fifteen new states; four in Eastern Europe, three in the Baltics, three in the South Caucasus, and five in Central Asia.  More than a decade after independence, the states are managing the transition to statehood with uneven levels of success.

This paper will focus on the states of two of these regions, the Baltics and the South Caucasus.  While neither region is a singular entity, the states within do share enough common benefits and/or limitations with each other, within their respective area, to group them together.  The experiences of these two regions have been wildly disparate.  While the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have prospered, albeit at varying degrees, the South Caucasian states of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan have suffered, again to varying degrees, since the demise of the Soviet leadership. 

In order to elucidate why these two regions find themselves where they are today, this paper will compare them in five areas; the attitudes of the leadership towards independence in 1991; the relations between the titular nation and minorities; the style of governance adopted; the effect of geography; and the legacy of the Soviet era. 


The Significance of Leadership Attitudes

            The attitudes of the indigenous elite towards independence were important in the direction of the post-Soviet states.  While both the Baltic and South Caucasian elite welcomed independence, the South Caucasian elite were far less benevolent in their intentions.

            The Baltic leaders, in line with their citizens, supported independence from the Soviet Union.  The Baltic region had been taken under Soviet control in 1940, during the progression of World War Two, and the Soviets had thus been seen as an occupying force since.  After the dissolution of the Soviet Union the Baltic states saw themselves as ‘restored’ as opposed to ‘new’[1].  This perception of restoration hints to the independence of Baltic thought.  The Baltic elite were not as inculcated to the Communist dogma as other leaders of the Soviet Socialist Republics (SSR); they always maintained ties to their Scandinavian neighbours to the west.  In the 1980s, under Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika, the Baltic elite began to regain control of politics and institute local initiatives; such as citizenship delineation in Lithuania in 1989[2].  The effect of this was a united population, both elite and working-class, in support of independence.  This allowed the transition to independent statehood to begin immediately after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, perhaps even earlier.

            The elite of the South Caucasus also welcomed independence from the Soviet Union, Georgia and Armenia trace their national identity to pre-Russian times, but saw independence as an avenue to amassing power and wealth without regard to their requisite communities.  Former Communist bosses wield the strings of power in autocratic presidential systems in all three of the South Caucasus states. 

President Eduard Shevardnadze was Gorbachev’s Foreign Minister and came to power in Georgia after the suicide of original president Gamsakhurdia’s suicide the year after Soviet dissolution[3].  In Azerbaijan, the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenian separatists caused the resignation of original president Elchibey with current president Heydar Aliyev, the former head of Azerbaijani KGB, gaining control.  Both these leaders have ruled with an iron fist in their respective countries.  Armenia saw a leadership change after the first president, Ter-Petrosyan, was forced to resign due to his inaction on human rights abuses.  There remains a significant disjuncture between the political elite and the populace[4].  In all three of the South Caucasus states, there has been a dearth of institution-building.  The elite have been more interested in consolidating their power and enriching themselves than consolidating democracy and enriching their peoples. 

            The primary divergence in leadership attitude between the Baltic states and the South Caucasus is the commitment to democratic institutions and the rule of law.  Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are far ahead of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in respects to this commitment.

Relations between the Titular Nation and Minorities

            Relations between the titular nation and minorities within the country play an important role in the direction of the post-Soviet states.  As in the previous section, the experiences of the Baltics and South Caucasia differ significantly.

            The titular nations of the three respective Baltic states are all well-consolidated ethnic groups[5].  Their self-perceived status as ‘restored’ states, as opposed to ‘new’, and the large number of Russians living in them, brought concern of how ethnic relations would progress in the Baltics.  While citizenship for all residents has not been automatic, concern of ethnic tension has passed.  Estonia and Latvia have large non-titular population, primarily Russians[6], that comprise close to half their respective populations but minority marginalization has been minimal.  While some exclusionary practices in regards to citizenship have been adopted this can hardly be surprising after fifty years under the Russian heel.  The composition of Lithuania’s population, on the other hand, is eighty percent ethnic Lithuanian.  With the security of Lithuanian culture in no doubt, citizenship criteria is much more lax.  All factors accounted for, the Baltics have been a destination for minorities.

            The South Caucasus states have much more divisive relations between the titular nation and minorities.  In Georgia, the division played out with both ethnic and religious connotations.  It is a primarily Christian nation with Islam being the secondary religious affiliation.  Separatist movements sprang up in three regions; Abkhazia, Adjaria, and South Ossetia.  A particularly bloody civil war occurred in Abkhazia but it should be noted that the region is only 10% Muslim and 20% Abkhaz and Russia had a primary role in fomenting dissent by dispatching mujhadeen to fight.  South Ossetians wanted to separate from Georgia even before the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.  Adjaria’s separatist movement is not very strong as the Adjars are ethnic Georgians and their Islamic identity is secondary.  This internal dissent has hampered the ability of the central authorities to effect economic change and dissuaded the use of Georgian territory as a transit point for oil from the Caspian Sea region[7]. 

            In Armenia and Azerbaijan relations between the titular nation and the minority Azeris and Armenians, respectively, have been hostile.  The Armenian minority concentrated in Nagorno-Karabakh, located in southwestern Azerbaijan, seized the enclave and receive assistance from Armenia.  Attempts at rapproachment by either government have been met with animosity on the streets of both states; it is rumoured that the assassination of the Armenian Prime Minister in 1999 was linked to his negotiations with Azeri officials concerning N-K[8].  Atrocities committed by both Azeris and Armenians have been documented by the international community, notably in Baku in which the involvement of Russian operatives is rumoured. 

            The relations between the titular nation and minorities has helped cause the divergent paths regarding progress concerning the Baltic states and the South Caucasus.  While the Baltic states have been able to accommodate and assimilate their minorities, the South Caucasian states have been rife with violence between the titular nations and their respective minorities.

Comparative Style of Governance

            The style of governance is vastly different in the Baltics than it is in the South Caucasus.  This is the fundamental difference between the regions.

            The Baltic states are all liberal democracies.  The 2002 Freedom House Survey, which rates political rights and civil liberties from one to seven, with one being most free and seven being not free, scores Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania quite high.  The three states garnered identical scores of one on political rights and two on civil liberties[9].  They are all embedded electoral democracies that also have open economic systems; Estonia even had to institute extra economic regulation in order to apply for the European Union[10].  The Baltics were aided by the fact that the post-Soviet elite worked to construct and consolidate democratic institutions[11].  The transition from Soviet Republics to electoral democracies was nearly seamless.

            The states of the South Caucasus are far less democratic; they are essentially presidential dictatorships.  The 2002 Freedom House Survey[12] rated Azerbaijan the worst of the three with a six for political rights and a five for civil liberties.  Armenia and Georgia garnered identical records of four for both political rights and civil liberties. 

            The 2000 parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan had raised hopes that democratic institutions were consolidating with some election reform legislation but those hopes were dashed with severe irregularities in both the conduct and counting of votes[13].  President Aliyev has done a good job of holding the country together and, with his vast political experience, helped the country overcome severe setbacks but democracy must continue to move forward.  The people of Azerbaijan have been the guarantors of progress since independence, taking to the streets if need be, but an unresponsive political process seems to have engendered apathy[14].  Georgia’s President Shevardnadze has had to parry the meddling of Russia into the affairs of his country.  He has done so with a mix of hardline action and compromise with Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Adjaria.  President Kocharian of Armenia has been responsive to his people; his antecedent in the position, Ter-Petrosyan, had been forced to resign owing to his inaction on human rights abuses.  The absence of oil-related industry actually benefits Armenian democracy.  Fareed Zakaria posits that reliance on natural resources, particularly energy, as the basis to a national economy increases corruption and authoritarianism and diminishes democratic processes.

            The style of governance in the Baltic states is far more conducive to economic progress and popular support.  While elections occur in the South Caucasus, their legitimacy is questioned and popular participation beyond elections is minimal.

The Effect of Geography on Progress

            The geographical locations of the Baltics and South Caucasus play a major role in the progress of the post-Soviet states. 

            The Baltics are located on Europe’s northeastern edge.  While this places them close to domineering Russia it also allows engagement with Europe proper.  The three Baltic states are all in negotiations to join the two pre-eminent European institutions; NATO and the EU[15].  NATO would provide security while EU would provide access to hundreds of millions of consumers.  These institutions also provide a safety net for the citizens and government.  While the responsibilities of membership are not slight, the benefits are significant.  Their location has also allowed for the genesis of a service –based economy, as opposed to resource-based.  There has also been relative peace in the region since World War Two; the threat of Armageddon kept much from happening.  Location has helped the Baltic states, particularly by offering the opportunity the join NATO and the EU.

            The South Caucasus is located in the nexus between Turkey to its west, Russia to the north, Iran to the south, and Central Asia to the east.  Azerbaijan’s border on the Caspian Sea affords it large resources of oil and gas, which has proven to be both a gift and a curse.  In order to capitalize on this resource Azerbaijan has to move it to a market.  This seemingly simple objective is the common denominator to many of the region’s problems.  The traditional route is through Russia, who then takes their cut.  A new proposed route bypasses Russia and goes through Georgia on to Turkey.  Russia has done it’s best to foment instability in the South Caucasus in an effort to dissuade investors from providing the necessary funding.  This has included inciting the Abkhazian uprising, provoking the South Ossetians, and instigating an Azeri-Armenian feud, including mass atrocities.  Turkey supports the Azeri’s, who are Turkic themselves, Iran supports the Armenians as a hedge against it’s Caspian competitor Azerbaijan, and the United States supports Georgia.

All three of the major nationalities in the South Caucasus consider themselves European but with Turkey, who has an identity crisis itself, between them and continental Europe, the euro-perception does not run both ways.  The Baltics on the other hand are much closer and are considered a part of Europe proper; and have access to the great European institutions.

The Legacy of Soviet Occupation

The legacy of Soviet occupation has weighed heavier on some post-Soviet states than others. 

The Baltic states were able to switch their orientation from east to west relatively seamlessly.  Radar stations once occupied by the Red Army are now pointed towards Russia, feeding updates of activity to NATO.  The period of occupation there was much shorter than other areas and local identity remained firm.  The authoritarian style of Soviet governance has been replaced by democracy.

The legacy of Soviet occupation in the South Caucasus is a lot more entrenched; Georgia still has Russian bases on its soil.  The involvement of Russia in so many of the key events in the South Caucasus since independence seems to warrant an asterisk beside the description of the South Caucasian states as “independent”.  As recent as last year, Russian bombers were hitting the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia and President Putin threatened invasion.  Former Communist bosses still hold positions of power in the South Caucasus and look entrenched to remain so.



The post-Soviet states have had significantly different experiences.  The Baltic states and the South Caucasian states have had particularly disparate experiences.  Five key areas can be discerned that have had significant ramifications on the countries today; leadership attitudes towards independence, relations between the titular nation and minorities, style of governance, effect of geographic location, and the legacy of Soviet occupation.  The effect of these has been to help the Baltic states prosper while the converse has occurred in the South Caucasus; floundering with little hope in the future. 












Brown, Archie, “From Democratization to ‘Guided Democracy’”. Journal of Democracy 12(4) 2001. 

Chinn, Jeff & Truex, Lise A., “The Question of Citizenship in the Baltics”. Journal of Democracy 7(1) 1996.

Cornell, Svante E., “Democratization Falters in Azerbaijan”. Journal of Democracy 12(2) 2001.

Economist, The, “Knocking at the Clubhouse Door”. The Economist Sept 1,2001. 

Karatnycky, Adrian, “The 2001 Freedom House Survey: Muslim Countries and the Democracy Gap”. Journal of Democracy 13(1) 2002.

Kolsto, Pal, “Nation-Building in the Former USSR”. Journal of Democracy 7(1) 1996. 

Mahnovski, Sergej, “Natural Resources and Potential Conflict in the Caspian Sea Region”. Faultlines of Conflict in Central Asia and the South Caucasus Eds. Oleg Oliker, Thomas S. Szayna. (RAND: Santa Monica, CA, 2003).

McCauley, Martin. Bandits, Gangsters, and the Mafia. (Pearson Education Ltd.: Great Britain, 2001).

[1] Jeff Chinn & Lise A. Truex, “The Question of Citizenship in the Baltics”. Journal of Democracy 7(1) 1996. Pg133

[2] Chinn & Truex.  Pg136

[3] Martin McCauley, Bandits, Gangsters, and the Mafia. (Pearson Education Ltd: Great Britain, 2001).  Pg386

[4] McCauley.  Pg387

[5] Pal Kolsto, “Nation-Building in the Former USSR”. Journal of Democracy 7(1) 1996.  Pg121

8 Ibid.



[7] Sergej Mahnovski, “Natural Resources and Potential Conflict in the Caspian Sea Region”. Faultlines of Conflict in Central Asia and the South Caucasus Eds. Oleg Oliker, Thomas S. Szayna. (RAND: Santa Monica, CA, 2003).  Pg128

[8] McCauley.  Pg387

[9] Adrian Karatnycky, “The 2002 Freedom House Survey”. Journal of Democracy 14(1) 2003.  Pg106

[10] The Economist, “Knocking at the Clubhouse Door”. The Economist Sept 1,2001.  Pg24

[11] Archie Brown, “From Democratization to ‘Guided Democracy’”. Journal of Democracy 12(4) 2001.  Pg36

[12] Karatnycky.  Pg106

[13] Sergej Mahnovski, “Natural Resources and Potential Conflict in the Caspian Sea Region”. Faultlines of Conflict in Central Asia and the South Caucasus Eds. Oleg Oliker, Thomas S. Szayna. (RAND: Santa Monica, CA, 2003).  Pg118

[14] Svante E. Cornell, “Democratization Falters in Azerbaijan”. Journal of Democracy 12(2) 2001.  Pg130

[15] The Economist.  Pg22