The Caucasus - Playground for war
Oct 21st 2010
A beautiful fought-over region
The Caucasus: An Introduction. By Thomas de Waal.
Oxford University Press; 259 pages; $18.95 and £12.99.
THE area between the Black Sea and the Caspian is beautiful, fertile, mountainous—and much fought over, most recently in August 2008 when Russia and Georgia went to war. This was no surprise: tension over the Russian-backed enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia had been high for months. Yet, as Thomas de Waal notes, all wars in the Caucasus are about the past as well as the present. To understand the region, one must know its history.
Mr de Waal, a former journalist (and one-time contributor to The Economist) now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC, is an expert on the region, especially on Azerbaijan and Armenia, and on Chechnya, the subjects of two previous books. It is a pity that he has not found space in his latest book to include Chechnya and the north Caucasus which remain Russia’s most dangerous and unstable regions. But as a clear, brief guide to the countries of the south Caucasus, it would be hard to do better than this book.
The author covers the general history of the area only briefly, yet even here he finds some nuggets (the Caucasus boasts the world’s highest density of languages; Azerbaijan was in 1900 the world’s biggest oil producer). But the story really takes off after the Russian revolution in 1917, when the three trans-Caucasian republics enjoyed a brief independence. With recent events in mind, it is fascinating to learn that Menshevik Georgia waged a brutal war to absorb Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 1918. In the end, though, the Red Army regained control and the three republics became part of the Soviet Union.
That Stalin was a Georgian did not save the region from his brutality. Yet the experience of the Caucasus under the Soviet Union was not as bad as most, as they largely skipped the second world war and later became a favourite playground of the elite. Oddly, all three of the most recent Russian foreign ministers have connections with the Georgian capital, Tbilisi (the mother of the incumbent, Sergei Lavrov, was an Armenian from there). Sadly, that has not made Russia any friendlier to Georgia.
It was the break-up of the Soviet Union in the 1990s that produced many of today’s problems. An outbreak of nationalism, fomented by some of the intelligentsia, led to war both inside Georgia and between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The upshot was today’s so-called “frozen conflicts” in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh. It is a term Mr de Waal rightly deprecates: soldiers are often killed on the front-line in Karabakh, and the 2008 war showed how fast a frozen conflict can come to the boil.
What stands out from Mr de Waal’s account is the negligence of the West. In the 1990s Russia was given a free hand in overseeing ceasefires and providing peacekeepers, despite being an interested party. Ten years later the West went nuts over Mikheil Saakashvili’s “rose revolution” in Georgia and talked of admitting his country into NATO, only to fail to come to Mr Saakashvili’s aid when he overreached, triggering the disastrous 2008 war. The West remains uncertain what to do. Talk of NATO expansion has stopped; nobody in Brussels holds out even a prospect of EU membership to these struggling republics.
Perhaps their best bet is to learn from a long history of outside interference and look after themselves. Here Mr de Waal is slightly unfair on Mr Saakashvili, in particular. As the war showed, he is headstrong and autocratic. But he has modernised and reformed Georgia, shaking off the remnants of the Soviet legacy. If Armenia and Azerbaijan could follow suit, the Caucasus could yet prosper—surely the best hope for resolving its entrenched conflicts.
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