Saturday, February 06, 2010

REVIEW: A new war in the Caucasus? Shanibov and the Circassians. (

Georgi M. Derluguian
A world-system biography406pp. Chicago University Press, distributed in the UK by Wiley.
Paperback, £17.50.0 226 14283 3

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There is a new war brewing in the North Caucasus, but so far few people seem to have noticed. It will involve places that rarely make it onto the front page of major newspapers, yet it could be as bloody and intractable as the guerrilla conflict in Chechnya, which has dragged on now, with a brief hiatus, since 1994. Over the past several months, the Prime Minister of Ingushetia, which neighbours Chechnya to the west, barely survived an assassination attempt. Bombs and attacks on local police have become weekly occurrences in the eastern republic of Dagestan. In the west, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia are beset by interethnic tensions. In Chechnya, the unrecognized secessionist government recently named Shamil Basaev – the architect of last year’s 2004 school siege in Beslan, North Ossetia, which left over 300 children and adults dead – as deputy leader. Basaev’s boss, the Islamic scholar Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev, has announced a policy of widening the holy war against “unbelievers”. Fuelled by local authoritarianism, clan politics, religious fervour and Vladimir Putin’s own intransigence, violence in the North Caucasus is likely to escalate. One is reminded of the old saw about pessimists and optimists: the former believe things could not get worse; the latter know they could.

Making sense of the Caucasus has never been easy. The ethnic complexity of the region, its situation at the intersection of competing states and empires, and the volatile mix of poverty, religion, and the covetousness of geopolitical neighbours – for slaves in one era, for oil in another – have long made it a troubled borderland. Georgi M. Derluguian’s curiously titled Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus is, without a doubt, the most engaging and deeply analytical guide to this knotty region to have been produced in the past decade. It is even more than that, however, for Derluguian is concerned with answering three gigantic questions about East European and Eurasian affairs. Why did the Soviet Empire collapse? Why did it do so violently in some areas but relatively peacefully in others? And what accounts for the diversity of new polities – from rigid sultanates to consolidated democracies – that now stand on its ruins?

Derluguian’s answers to these questions are unconventional. The collapse of the Soviet system was part of the broader crisis of “developmental states” in the 1980s and 90s, states that had arrogated to themselves a whole host of responsibilities that they were increasingly unable to fulfil. In the context of a collapsing political order, mid-level bureaucrats in these states scrambled for ways of securing their livelihoods; the most resourceful of them turned to nationalism and ethnic exclusivism as alternative sources of legitimacy. The masses, however, were not simply duped by thesenew elites; they, too, found ethnic linkages to be crucial sources of social capital at a time when alternatives – class, for example – suddenly disappeared.

People at all levels of society grasped what they could in the chaotic politics that attended the end of Soviet-style socialism. It is thus no coincidence, as Derluguian points out, that developmental states such as the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia broke up not along lines of ethnicity, but along lines of turf: the mini-republics and provinces where local elites could carve out some degree of authority. If such internal units happened to bear the name of a distinct ethnic group – Kazakhstan for the Kazakhs, Croatia for the Croatians – all the better. Second-rank bureaucrats and third-rate poets could then refashion themselves as fathers of the nation.

The centrepiece of Derluguian’s story is a Circassian by the name of Musa Shanib, known in his earlier Soviet life as Iurii Shanibov. Although the Chechens get all the press today, for much of the nineteenth century it was the Circassians who presented the gravest challenge to the Russian Empire. Their homeland was in the North-West Caucasus, in the plains and hills along the Kuban River and the uplands along the Black Sea. They were within easy reach of the Ottomans, who assisted them from time to time in their resistance to Russian encroachments, and of the British spies and gun runners who saw an independent Circassia as a bulwark against further Russian moves towards Persia and India. The highland resistance in the North-East Caucasus was effectively extinguished in 1859, but the Circassians in the North-West held out for another five years. It took what today would be called ethnic cleansing – the systematic emptying of villages by Russian soldiers and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Circassians to the Ottoman Empire – to end the conflict there.

In the late 1980s, Shanibov became the leader of the Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus, “a latter-day Garibaldi”, as Derluguian calls him, who dreamed of a union of Caucasus mountaineers that would at last wriggle free of Russia’s clutches. Shanibov’s was an unlikely career path. He had been a party functionary, a prominent local intellectual, and a passionate student of the Sociology of the French thinker Pierre Bourdieu (hence Derluguian’s title). But the concatenation of the waning of hyperdevelopmentalism as a state strategy and the persistent survivalism of Shanibov’s class of intellectual bureaucrats led him to embrace the national cause.

There is nothing more universally modern than purveyors of ancient identities. The key difference with his counterparts in Chechnya, Bosnia, or elsewhere, though, was that Shanibov turned out to be a rather poor nationalist. He was never beyond using violence, but he soon found himself literally outgunned by a new generation of leaders willing to do the unthinkable, from laying siege to a hospital to bombing passenger trains. In any revolution, resolve is the highest virtue, and Shanibov’s ultimately failed him, especially against terrorists like Shamil Basaev and entrenchedauthoritarians like Valerii Kokov, the President of Shanibov’s own republic of Kabardino-Balkaria. Eurasia is not exactly filled with people like Shanibov. He was such an oddity, in fact, that Bourdieu was known to keep a photo of his Circassian adept hanging above his desk. But there were plenty of people who followed a trajectory only slightly different from his. They have now beaten a well-worn path from their homes in the early Soviet dissident movements or the provincial bureaucracy, towards the highest offices of the post-Soviet Eurasian regimes. Today, their power rests on a combination of violence, resource control and a talent for securing the blessings of outsiders, from Saudi zealots to Western governments interested in prosecuting the “war on terror”.

Georgi Derluguian tells how much of Eurasia, in only a decade and a half, traded the promise of liberty and democracy for a political and moral captivity that will be difficult to escape. Clever, original and at times downright funny, Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus is both an intimate biography of an unusualCircassian sociologist and an epic account of an entire generation’s trek through modernity. It uncovers the hidden logic behind the tragedies and horrors of the Caucasus – indeed, of the entire late twentieth-century world – and shows how seemingly senseless acts of violence have discernible, and often rather pedestrian, causes.

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