Monday, August 05, 2013

Go West? Perceptions of the West in the South Caucasus

The Croatian accession to the EU on July 1, 2013 has put discussions about EU-accession prospects for other countries in Eastern European and those in the South Caucasus back on the table. Aside from the high-level political debate about the future relationship between these countries and the EU, there is also an important social context that will partially determine their chances. This post examines the relationship between South Caucasus societies and those in the West (i.e. in the US and EU). The blog analyzes openness for doing business with certain people from the West, desire to affiliate with Western political or security organizations, and knowledge of English, as well as the desire for English to be a mandatory language taught in schools in the South Caucasus. These factors are attitudes compared with attitudes towards Russia. 

With regard to economic, political and security issues, there is substantial support for NATO and EU membership in Georgia (67% and 72% respectively say they support Georgian membership in these organizations). A significantly smaller percentage in Armenia and Azerbaijan supports EU membership (54% and 48%, respectively), and NATO membership (33% and 45%, respectively). Not surprisingly, these variables (support for EU and support for NATO) are positively correlated across the three countries (Pearson’s r is 0.47 for Armenia, 0.83 for Azerbaijan, and 0.76 for Georgia). 

Within the business realm, regional interests seem more similar. In general, people in the South Caucasus are interested in expanding their contacts with the West on an economic level. For example, more than 6 out of 10 Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Georgians approve of doing business with Westerners such as Americans, English, and Greeks. At the same time, nearly 8 out of 10 people in all three countries approve of doing business with Russians.

Substantial regional differences can be seen with respect to which countries Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis perceive to be the biggest friend to their respective countries. The CB 2012 asked, “Which country is the biggest friend of your country?” as an open-ended question. A category for “EU countries” was created by collapsing any EU member state mentioned by respondents (e.g. Greece, France, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Spain, as well as the terms “EU” and “Europe”). The identified groups of answer options were thus the “US”, “EU countries”, “Russia”, “other country in the South Caucasus” (Armenia, Azerbaijan, or Georgia), and “other countries” (e.g. Turkey, Ukraine, China, Israel, Moldova, Iran, Pakistan and Serbia). 

Among the South Caucasus countries, Georgia is the most westward looking with the US being perceived as the biggest friend of the country by 62% of the population. Armenians, on the contrary, are most likely to mention Russia as the biggest friend (86%), while the overwhelming majority of Azerbaijan’s (99%) perceive Turkey as their biggest friend. Interestingly, these results seem to confirm the hypotheses about the polarization of political influences in the South Caucasus region and the three countries being driven towards different directions: the US (Georgia), Russia (Armenia) and Turkey (Azerbaijan).

In addition to a desire to join Western organizations, conduct business with Westerners, and perceptions of inter-state friendship, attitudes towards learning English can be an indicator of the willingness to integrate with the West. Language enables direct communication with the West, and aids access to foreign resources such as media. As it turns out, the possibilities of such impact in case of English are quite limited. 60% of Armenians, 66% of Georgians and 77% of Azerbaijanis say they have no basic knowledge of English. Yet, many people throughout the region believe they have a good command of Russian (85% in Armenia, 71% in Georgia, and 38% in Azerbaijan). 

Bearing the low competency in English in mind, at least half of each population said they would like English to be a mandatory language in schools in 2010. However, data from 2010-2012 shows a slight decrease in support for English as a mandatory language for schools in Armenia and Georgia, and an increase in support for Russian being the language that students should learn.

Based on the results of these analyses, there is no overwhelming trajectory towards the West or East for the South Caucasus as a whole, and there are substantial differences between the countries that might become more meaningful in the future. There is openness towards the West, especially in terms of doing business, and a rather varying level of social approval for membership in NATO and the EU (significantly higher in Georgia). Yet, this support exists with a growing interest in Russian as a mandatory language in schools, as well as a perception of the importance of friendship between Georgia and the US, Russia and Armenia, and Turkey and Azerbaijan. These disparities draw the South Caucasus countries towards different directions and therefore the international context also has a substantial impact on the relations within the region.

For more information on Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Georgians in the international context please see our online database.

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