December 12, 2010 7:30 pm

Enmities in the shadow of empires

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The Caucasus: An Introduction
By Thomas de Waal
Oxford University, $18.95, £12.99

There are so many situations here ... no unity of thought or action, nothing but mutual jealousy and mistrust”. So wrote the British general Lionel Dunsterville of the Caucasus, after he was sent by his government in 1918 in a useless gesture to protect Armenians in Baku from the advancing Turks (he pulled his small force out, and 9,000 were slaughtered). It is a common perception of the region – allied to the observation that only an external iron fist can bring a terrorised peace.

That fist has usually been Russian, in imperial, Soviet or (now) Russian republican guise. It has been seen, by different groups at different times, as an oppressor or a liberator. As the Bolshevik revolution spread down to the Caucasus in 1918, Britain, the then dominant world power, sought futilely to arbitrate and protect; now the European Union, as a would-be regional power, seeks – so far largely futilely – to play a similar role.

Russia invaded Georgian territory in the late summer of 2008. In one of many acute passages, Thomas de Waal argues that it had probably not prepared the attack but, once given the opening, resolved to remind this country of 5m that its posturing on the world stage and much-vaunted alliance with the US could be ground under the tracks of tanks. The Russian armour destroyed much of the Georgian army, advanced close to the capital – then pulled back to occupy the rebel region of South Ossetia that Tbilisi had attempted to subdue.

Thus, for a few torrid months, were the peoples and territories of the South Caucasus back on the agenda of world leaders: President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, building on the work of his foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, secured a peace deal in mid-August. It is a sullen peace: Russia “protects” not just South Ossetia but also the larger Abkhazian region in the west, whose people fought the Georgian army after the collapse of the Soviet Union to achieve their own de facto independence. Armenia, whose peoples still see themselves as victims of the Muslim Turks (a designation they extend to their Azerbaijani neighbours) has long relied on Russian protection – at first and now again as a fellow Christian state.

Why does this confusing, heterogeneous, endlessly demanding area of some 15m people matter? De Waal, for the past 20 years among its best interpreters, tells us in this lucid and scrupulous account: because these are the “lands in between ... between the Black and Caspian seas, Europe and Asia, Russia and the Middle East and, more recently, democracy and dictatorship”. And being in between, they draw in or cannot keep out the powers around them. The centuries of conquest and reconquest, of alliances and treacheries, of soaring visions of independence ground into the mud of tyranny, attest to enmities more often than not stimulated by outsiders.

Two of the greatest monsters of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin and his secret policemen and (before that) Caucasian overlord Lavrenti Beria, were Georgians (they still get some respect in their native land). Beria ruled and hammered into submission the whole region, then known as the Caucasian Federation. After he left for Moscow, the main nations – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – were given republic status, ironically fanning a nationalism that was to plague the later, looser Soviet years and make the subaltern peoples determined to break away from the “little empires”, especially Georgia, in which they felt themselves trapped. The break-up of the Soviet Union is often said to have been peaceful: but tens of thousands of lives were claimed in these beautiful and benighted lands, in wars that attracted little international attention and are now forgotten, except there.

For over a century there has been oil, and more recently gas: some 5 per cent of the world’s energy reserves is in the region, mainly in the Caspian Sea, much of it under the control of Azerbaijan. Baku, the capital, was the great oil boom town of the late 19th century; Nobel and Rothschild family fortunes were made there. Now the city is enriched and gleaming, but its exploration remains at the mercy of precarious pipelines and shifting international alliances.

De Waal, formerly a journalist and now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, ends on the kind of note usually described as “cautiously optimistic”. There is, as he writes, “no shortage of experience or talent there” (if only the experience had been less doleful, the talent less directed to revenge). Unusually, he does not call for more intervention – but for more disengagement, allowing what he perceives as a greater realism to assert itself in the governing palaces, and for the nations and peoples to appreciate that Gen Dunsterville’s observation need not be their fate.

The writer is an FT columnist

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