Thomas de Waal belongs to a very special order of journalists, the small corps of Western reporters who have covered events in the Caucasus over the last ten or twelve years—in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, in Dagestan and in Chechnya. Some of them lost their lives. Others who come to mind—Thomas Goltz, Suzanne Goldenberg, Carlotta Gall, Wendell Steavenson, and Vanora Bennett—have all written books about the place in English, but have in most cases gone on to other lands and careers.
But one experience marks them all. They are privileged to have lived in something like the world of Shakespeare. Characters from his plays infest the Caucasus: heroes of stainless nobility and courage, villains steeped in treachery and cruelty, clowns and conquerors, fools in love with their fantasies, creatures from the pit who hobble out of the darkness to the throne. No wonder that the Rustaveli Theater in Tbilisi, Georgia, has mounted some of the most powerful productions of the tragedies and histories.
Traveling in the region, you may find a brooding Armenian history professor whose ambitions make you think of Richard III. Some Special Forces colonel in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, can resemble a new Macbeth, waiting impatiently for his cue. And mad King Lear, driven from his kingdom by scheming and ingratitude? Today, he reappears as a demented refugee from Nagorny Karabakh—the mainly Armenian Christian enclave in the midst of mainly Muslim Azerbaijan. Wandering in the mountains, he raves about days when he was mayor of a happy place, a city on a hill where Christians and Muslims, Armenians and Azeris, once lived together as friends.
The war over Nagorny Karabakh began—or, more accurately, the killing and expelling of Armenians and Azerbaijanis began—in 1988 and lasted until a cease-fire in 1994. Few people know where Nagorny Karabakh is, or why there was a war there. Other, vaster events obscured it. The collapse of Soviet communism, first in Central and Eastern Europe and then in the Soviet Union itself, the post-Yugoslav wars, and the first war against Iraq all took place in the same few years.
Nonetheless, this conflict mattered then, and matters still. It had a uniquely poisonous quality which carried infection far beyond the Caucasus itself. The Karabakh war contributed powerfully to the failure of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika experiment and then to the breakup of the USSR in 1991. And the poison is still there. The conflict remains unsettled, and its horrifying legacy of misery and hatred still destabilizes the region. And the worst of it may be yet to come. In a period when great and medium powers—Russia, the United States, Turkey, and Iran—are competing for the oil wealth around the Caspian Sea, renewed fighting over Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan could drag those powers into a disastrous confrontation.
“Nagorny” means “mountainous” in Russian, and “Karabakh” means roughly “black garden” in Turkish. Up to 1988, Nagorny Karabakh could be described as a hilly territory, with a largely …