Religion and Soft Power in the South Caucasus: A unique focus on the South Caucasus as a region and religion in transnational relations

Interview conducted with author October 06, 2017 

Ansgar Jödicke, editer of the recent publication Religion and Soft Power in the South Caucasus, sheds light on the uniqueness of the South Caucus region as a whole and the intricate manifestations of transnationalism in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. With a background in the academic study of religion (religious studies) and an interest in politics, Ansgar sees the Caucasus as somewhat of a gem in his research on religion and politics: “That’s why I found the Caucasus. [The region] is so interesting for this specific focus. One can find different religions entangled with new political developments in society”.

One of the main accomplishments of the book, according to its editor, was achieving a work which covered “the region as a whole” rather than focusing on individual countries. “Very few books are about all three countries; especially in the field of international relations but also in the field of culture or religion or economics.” While he admits that the decision to focus on the entire region might be seen as a “political statement” and that “of course [the countries] have different developments”, this academic approach is useful due to the common historical experience in the region.

The second major accomplishment was the “scrutinizing of the politicization of religion in the region, especially in bilateral and international relations”. While the analysis of ‘politics and religion’ is a current topic, the application in the South Caucasus, beyond individual case studies, is rare. Here the concept of “soft power” was used as a “heuristic” one which was applied to find cases for study. “If a person is interested in the concept of soft power then that person would probably be disappointed reading the book…the main theoretical focus of the book is on religion in transnational relations.”

“Religions have incorporated transnationalism in many senses. They have their movements of people. There is economic transnationalism in Adjara or in the south of Azerbaijan for example. With this you have the movement of people and the exchange of goods, and religion is part of that. There are different kinds of transnationalism within religions and the politicization of religion follows different paths depending on the kind of transnationalism.   

In considering areas for future research concerning the transnationalism of religion in the region, Ansgar did mention that broader relations, including those with the United states and attention to the North Caucasus should also be considered. Deeper attention to the wider communities of religious groups (such as orthodoxy or Salafi groups in the region and abroad) could also add to the transnational element of religion as a general theory here. Furthermore, the more recent developments in Turkey have created a need for further investigations of Turkey’s influence: “We started in 2014 and the split between Erdogan and the Gulen movement were well on the way but nobody had the idea that it would be so strictly implemented in the bilateral relations between Turkey and Georgia or Turkey and Azerbaijan where the Gulen movements have really been wiped out by pressure from the Turkish Government. It’s in the articles about Turkey in Azerbaijan and Turkey and Georgia but it’s very small because this is something that we couldn’t have predicted.”   

When it comes to European relations with the region, Ansgar is hesitant about trends to try to focus on a human rights agenda in the region. “I would not start with LGBT rights, I would not start with every kind of religious freedom I would try to explain these values. I would start with freedom of the press, for example; Explaining human rights is much more important than implementing them now.”

Furthermore, investments should be made in achieving diverse educational perspectives on religion:

“Education is very important of course. In the field of religious education all three countries have tried to implement religious education at schools and all three countries failed because religious education is not viewed as important compared with English language and other subjects which are necessary for a modern society. I think it is important to learn to speak about religion in a country. If we leave the monopoly of speaking about religion to religious groups it could be dangerous. What modern societies need is a plurality of perspectives on religion”.

From this interview and the final publication, it can be summed up that “religious identities do not correspond to national borders but this does not mean religious groups exist outside of the national framework”. Ansgar mentioned that this project revealed an interesting paradox: while it is important to investigate religious transnationalism in the South Caucasus region, religion and religious actors manifest themselves uniquely in and between countries not only in the South Caucasus but more broadly. “Border drawing within religious traditions does not follow a general rule. It is important to see that this region is still a fragile region. In my view, the region is less settled, less stable, and maybe even less culturally and politically homogeneous than the Baltic states for example. The South Caucus countries are small countries and there is a lot of pressure on them. I think the whole region is still in movement.” Many clear examples of this movement can be seen in the publication Religion and Soft Power in the South Caucasus and in international events as they continue to develop.