Which populations feel their country is on the wrong track?

Map explanation: Caucasus region

The Caucasus region has been involved in a territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region for decades. Although the outbreaks of conflict have been recent, the root of the violence dates back to the 1980s.

But this map allows us to step back and look at the region in its larger context.

While most of the media has focused on the tensions, this map analyzes the entire Caucasus region, providing key facts and information. What are the countries that make up the region? What is the main economic activity in the area? How is the population distributed? Let’s start.

The basics

The Caucasus region is characterized by far-reaching mountain ranges, which have long separated people and created distinct ethnic, linguistic and religious identities over thousands of years. Today, the region spans three main countries: Armenia, AzerbaijanAnd Georgiaand borders Russia, Turkey and Iran.

Focusing on the top three, here are some basic demographics:

  • 🇦🇿 Population of Azerbaijan: 10.4 million
  • 🇦🇲 Armenia Population: 3.0 million
  • 🇮🇪 Georgia Population: 4.1 million

Around the house 20 millions, the Caucasus region touches the Caspian Sea in the east and the Black Sea in the west. It is an area distinctly located between Europe, Asia and the Middle East, but is defined by most categorizations as Central Asian.

🇦🇿 Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan is the largest country in the region, both in terms of land area and population. The Nagorno-Karabakh the region lies within the official borders of Azerbaijan and is inhabited almost entirely by ethnic Armenians.

Most Azerbaijanis are Muslims, however, the country is considered one of the most secular Muslim countries in the world. Azeri or Azeri is the most spoken language with more than ninety two% of people who speak it. Just over 1% in the country speak Russian as their first language and another 1% speak Armenian as their primary language. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a similar percentage share defines the amount of ethnic Russians and Armenians in Azerbaijan, at 1.5% and 1.3%, respectively.

🇦🇲Armenia

Like both of its neighbors, Armenia gained its independence upon the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Unlike its neighbors, however, it is completely landlocked.

The country is a majority Christian nation, with an ethnic makeup of nearly 98% Armenians and the most widely spoken language is Armenian, according to the government. Population numbers have declined since the collapse of the USSR and have been relatively flat in recent years.

🇮🇪 Georgia

Georgia is slightly smaller than Azerbaijan; the country shares a long border with Russia to the north and has a long coastline on the Black Sea.

Georgia’s population growth shares a similar story with many other former Soviet republics. While the total population has decreased slightly in recent years, the growth of ethnic (Georgian) citizens has actually increased. The country is predominantly Christian and Georgian is the most popular language.

Where do people live in the Caucasus region?

So how are these populations concentrated throughout the region? These World Mapper cartograms, broken down by country:

Azerbaijan

Most people live in and around the capital Baku, a port city on the Caspian Sea. However, a number of people also live inland closer to the Armenian and Georgian borders.

Armenia

caucus region

In Armenia the population is heavily skewed towards its capital Yerevan which has a population of 1.1 million.

Georgia

caucus region

Georgia’s population distribution is slightly more even than its neighbors with a preference towards the capital Tbilisi.

The economy of the Caucasus region

Now let’s plunge into economic activity in the Caucasus. In parts, the region is oil-rich with access to resources such as the vast oil fields in the Caspian Sea off the coast of Azerbaijan. Indeed, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline carries almost 1 million barrels of oil from oil fields to Turkey every day.

Stepping back, here’s a look at regional GDPs:

  • 🇦🇿 GDP of Azerbaijan: $42.6 billion
  • 🇮🇪 Georgia: 15.9 billion dollars
  • 🇦🇲 Armenia’s GDP: $12.7B

Azerbaijan is the largest economy in the Caucasus region. It is the most economically developed country of the three, having seen rapid GDP growth since its transition from a Soviet republic. At its peak in the early 2000s, the national GDP was growing at annual rates of 25%-35%. Today, its oil and gas exports are proving extremely lucrative given Europe’s energy crisis due to the war in Ukraine. Fossil fuels make up about 95% of the country’s export earnings.

Both the Armenian and Georgian economies are considered emerging/developing and depend on many different Russian imports. However, according to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, both economies are expected to grow 8% this year.

Georgia’s economy has recovered from the pandemic thanks to its thriving tourism industry, which largely attracts Russian visitors. Additionally, in both Georgia and Armenia, the influx of Russian businesses and tech professionals has boosted economies.

A brief background

The three countries that encompass the region, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, were both republics under the Soviet Union until its fall in 1991. Additionally, the Dagestan and Chechnya regions of Russia, also located in the Caucasus geographical sphere , each maintaining a distinct identity from Russia. Both regions are majority ethnically non-Russian and still face regular violence over their power struggle with the regional heavyweight.

Indeed, according to experts, many of the tensions in the region may be linked to Russian oppression.

“Russia’s crackdown on national resistance in the Caucasus has emboldened fundamentalist movements.”
– Dr. James V. Wertsch (Caucasus Specialist, University of Washington, St. Louis)

In recent history, Russia invaded Georgia just hours after the start of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, sparking conflict in the regions of Ossetia and Abkhazia. The Russo-Georgian War is considered the first European war of the 21st century.

While the history of the Caucasus goes back a long way⁠—for example, the kingdom of Armenia dates back to 331 BC⁠—more recent events have been shaped by the Cold War and the subsequent aftermath of the dissolution of the USSR.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

Tension over the Nagorno-Karabakh region began in the late 1980s and escalated into full-scale war in the 1990s. About 30,000 people died in the first years of the conflict. Since then, the ceasefire and violence have erupted intermittently⁠, with the most recent end of fighting in 2020. At least 243 people have since been killed.

The conflict first began when newly independent Armenia demanded the region from Azerbaijan, which was still a Soviet state at the time, as the population was (and still is) mostly Armenian. Though not internationally recognized, a separatist group has declared an independent state called the Republic of Artsakh part of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Here is a very short timeline:

  • 1988-1994: First Nagorno-Karabakh War
  • April 2016: four days of violence on the separation line
  • September-November 2020: War reignited until Russia negotiated a ceasefire
  • September 2022: new clashes break out causing hundreds of deaths

The conflict has spread to the region: Russia is on the side of Armenia and Turkey on that of Azerbaijan. But new allies could take the stage, as evidenced by Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Armenia in mid-September. Today the region is divided between Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russian peacekeepers, but is still officially Azerbaijani.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article stated that the 2008 Russian invasion took place during the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympic Games. We have since adapted this to “within hours of kick off” of games, as the exact time varies between sources.

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