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Mysteries of the Caucasus

1.

Fifteen years ago no one paid much attention to the Caucasus, and certainly not as a region in its own right. The sparse news that came out of the place was dictated by the epic of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and stories about the republics sandwiched between the Black Sea and the Caspian often had Moscow datelines. Those days are over. The Caucasus has all the features of early-twenty-first-century politics—ethnic wars and convoluted tribalism; the threat of Islamist terrorism; the dream of liberal democracy and the challenges of globalization; the struggle for control of world energy resources—and has taken a major part in the neo-imperial calculations of the United States after September 11.

Yet the resulting surge of interest—demonstrated by a growing number of new books—faces a big challenge. The Caucasus is the world’s most complex place—an area roughly the size of California splintered into many different societies, tribes, and languages, some of which exist nowhere else in the world.

The British writer Wendell Steavenson has taken a particularly effective approach to writing about the subtleties of the region: she went to live in the republic of Georgia for two years and then wrote perceptively about her experiences. Her book covers a two-year period in the rule of Eduard Shev- ardnadze, the former foreign minis-ter of the USSR who was deposed this past November in a popular uprising now known as the “Revolution of the Roses.” Shevardnadze was accused of, among other things, fraud in recent parliamentary elections, and public protest against his regime grew more and more outspoken each year. Steavenson doesn’t write much explicitly about the politics of what would turn out to be the late Shevardnadze era. Instead she describes her encounters with shepherds, bandits, would-be spies, warlords, and ordinary folk. Among the people she meets along the way is a certain Aslan Abashidze, the president of a place grandiosely known as the republic of Ajaria (or “Adjara,” as Steavenson calls it—naturally everything in the Caucasus has an alternate spelling, sometimes several). Her account of her meeting with Abashidze serves as an excellent introduction for anyone hoping to understand the region and its psychology.

The reader can be forgiven for not being able to find Ajaria on the map. It is a tiny, separatist sliver of Georgia along the country’s southern Black Sea coast, sustained economically by its control of the lucrative smuggling port of Batumi and ruled by Aba-shidze as a private fiefdom. Shevardnadze and Abashidze, as Steavenson quickly learns, have a curious relationship. “Shevardnadze has planned to liquidate me,” Abashidze informs her. His long list of grievances against the Georgian leader includes the claim that Shevardnadze faked assassination attempts against himself: “How is it possible they missed with an antitank missile at three metres?” At the same time Abashidze clearly envies the greater fame of his rival from Shevardnadze’s days as the international emissary of perestroika. “In Adjara, Aslan was king,” writes Steavenson. “But his kingdom was small and no one had ever heard of it. I had the feeling this bothered him.” When she leaves, Abashidze presents the writer with a “gift pack” that includes a bottle of Yves St. Laurent perfume, a Mont Blanc malachite pen, a copy of a pamphlet entitled “The Adjarian Autonomous Republic in Figures,” and an illuminating video documentary:

Half of it was taken up with testimonies from people admitting that they had tried to kill Aslan on Shevardnadze’s orders and the other half was footage of Aslan and his would-be murderer together: Shevy and Aslan speeding around Batumi harbour in an Adjarian-built speedboat, Shevy and Aslan planting a ceremonial tree, Aslan greeting the presidential plane on the tarmac, side by side, Aslan and Shevy, their bodyguards in tow, discussing matters of state. I had the feeling that however much Aslan protested hate for Shevy, secretly he wanted to be Shevy.

This story intersects with many larger themes in Caucasian affairs—especially the disproportionate importance of personalities in a part of the world still plagued by the politics of family feuds and the subtle interplay of regional power and national aspiration in countries that have the bad luck to be at once small and deeply fragmented. Ajaria is only one of three self-declared “independent nations” within the borders of Georgia, which has a population of no more than five million people.

Steavenson’s willingness to spend time with the leader of Ajaria was dramatically validated by events in Georgia’s recent revolution, when Aba-shidze suddenly turned up, disconcertingly enough, as an ally of Shevardnadze. He evidently calculated that the turmoil offered him the opportunity to lop off yet more power for himself in return for helping to keep the weakened Georgian president on the throne. At one point Abashidze even offered Shevardnadze the use of his own home-grown Ajarian militia for defense against opposition protesters. Abashidze may have feared the rising influence of Shevardnadze’s main rival, the opposition leader Mikhail Saa-kashvili, who has now overwhelmingly won the Georgian presidential vote scheduled as a result of the revolutionary turmoil of November.

It’s a pity that Steavenson didn’t manage to spend much time with Saakashvili as well. (She mentions him only once, glancingly.) The US-educated Saakashvili is known to Georgians as a headstrong but extremely mercurial populist, and his reign is bound to be filled with surprises and switches in position. He has already changed the Georgian flag and is now maneuvering to revise the Georgian constitution in ways that would “consolidate” the power of the president. One of the biggest tests for the new leader will be precisely how he deals with the challenge to his power posed by Abashidze-style particularism. In any case, the whole story makes for a good lesson in the dynamics of power in a place where endlessly shifting loyalties are the rule. The fortunate readers of Steavenson’s book, of course, will be uniquely well placed to understand the mess as it sorts itself out.

2.

Why should we care? One might argue that the Ruritanian ways of characters in far-off Georgia have little bearing on the lives of ordinary Americans or Europeans. Yet this is not entirely true. For one thing, over the past decade, in particular, the Caucasus has demonstrated a remarkable capacity for provoking instability. Wars in Georgia, Azerbaijan, and the Russian republic of Chechnya have killed hundreds of thousands of people and created millions of refugees. As Thomas de Waal reminds us in Black Garden,1 the “frozen conflict” between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the enclave of Nagorny Karabakh remains “a tiny knot at the center of a big international security tangle” nearly fifteen years after it began.

The looming specter, as de Waal points out, is that Russia could intervene militarily on the side of Christian Armenia, one of its traditional allies in the region, while Turkey, a powerful member of the NATO alliance but now with an Islamist government, has contemplated doing the same for Muslim Azerbaijan, whose citizens are ethnically almost identical to the Turks. Meanwhile, a series of suicide bombings by Chechen rebels raise the possibility of the “Palestinization” of the war there—as suggested by the recent bloody terrorist bombing in a Moscow subway. As Russian forces in Chechnya struggle to consolidate their hold over the republic, Chechen guerrillas are resorting increasingly to terrorist tactics as a way of drawing attention to their cause. During last year’s hostage crisis in a Moscow theater—in which Russian special forces killed 129 hostages in their attack on the terrorists—they also demonstrated an ominous will- ingness to use the presence of foreign citizens among their victims as a way of getting international publicity, a tactic that could well presage much worse to come.

So far the Caucasus has not chosen to export much of the violence that it has been producing in such enormous quantities. But the West cannot count on these ripples of turmoil to remain confined to the region. If anything, its strategic importance is growing. As the European Union and NATO expand toward the east, the Caucasus is increasingly being drawn into Western security arrangements—to the growing alarm of both Moscow and Tehran. Both Georgia and Azerbaijan have flirted with the idea of NATO membership, while the promise of EU membership for Bulgaria and Romania means that the Black Sea is increasingly becoming a European lake, with obvious consequences for the nations of the Caucasus—most of which, incidentally, consider themselves heirs, if not sources, of European civilization. (If Christianity is considered one of the qualifying criteria, then both Armenia and Georgia can legitimately claim to have accepted Christianity earlier than many of the present regions that now make up the European Union.) This seriously increases the potential for future friction between Europe and Russia, which views the Caucasus as just possibly its most sensitive and crucial frontier. (The North Caucasus, a shaky group of ethnically diverse republics that includes Chechnya, is part of the Russian Federation.)

Meanwhile, the world’s leading industrial powers are all interested in unlocking the huge energy resources of the Caspian Sea basin, and the Caucasus has evolved into a tempting route—the “Trans-Eurasian Corridor”—for getting Caspian oil and gas to Western markets while circumventing Russia and Iran (an arrangement particularly attractive to Washington planners). That has raised the ante for maintaining regional stability. Still, even these momentous shifts could be viewed, to some extent, as extensions of the geopolitical games staged by contiguous empires—Ottoman, Persian, tsarist—that have defined Caucasian politics in recent centuries. But especially since September 11, 2001, all the old calculations have been upset by the presence of an entirely new factor in the equation: the direct military presence of the United States.

Last year, in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, I got a sense of just how far things had shifted. In the bar of my hotel, a group of American men with close-cropped hair and military bearing poorly concealed by their civilian clothes guzzled beer and traded war stories in southwestern accents. In government buildings left unheated by the country’s chronic inability to keep the power on, Georgian security and intelligence officials showed me photos of themselves taken with senior CIA colleagues and displayed the FBI souvenirs they’d been given by visiting US law-enforcement officials. A counterterrorism expert reminisced about the long years he’d spent in Washington and the training he’d received at Fort Benning. A senior aide to President Shevardnadze told me, “We would have long since ceased to exist as an indepen-dent state if it wasn’t for US aid.” (In recent years Georgia has been among the highest per capita recipients of US aid—right up there with Israel.) Most of these men made an effort, often quite successful, to speak English during interviews. They resorted to Russian, as a rule, only when some particularly fine point needed clarification.

I found myself imagining that US client states in Central America must have felt quite a bit like this during the days of the cold war. Near the end of my stay I paid a visit to the former Russian military base where, since the spring of 2002, US military instructors have been trying to shape the lackadaisical Georgian army into something like a credible military force. The “Train and Equip Program,” as this initiative is known, is the most vivid example of America’s new forward strategy in the Caucasus after September 11.2

The terrorist attacks in 2001 have had two main consequences for the Caucasus. First, the increased concern to develop new sources of energy outside Saudi Arabia dramatized the urgency of Western access to the Caspian and, as a result, intensified the maneuverings for control of pipelines. Washington’s courting of the Georgians has its roots in the early 1990s, but it has greatly accelerated over the past two years. Second, Putin’s eagerness to support the US in its war on terrorism led the administration to take a different view of Russia’s war in Chechnya. Suddenly the White House found itself more willing to accept Russian arguments that the Chechen fighters were part of bin Laden’s international jihadi front.

The new policy of official Washington’s tolerance of Russian conduct in Chechnya took an unexpected twist when the Russians blamed Georgia for allowing Chechen rebels to use a remote valley in the north of the country as a staging area. Washington seized the opportunity to proclaim its willingness to bolster the Georgian army, and the Train and Equip Program was born. This was clearly not the sort of thing that Moscow had in mind when it proposed joining forces with Washington in the fight against terror. Suddenly, for the first time ever, the US had established a military presence in the territory that had been under Moscow’s imperial control for the previous two hundred years, and which the Kremlin has traditionally regarded as the strategic key to the entire Caucasus.

Bizarrely enough, thirteen years after Georgia declared its independence, Russia still maintains two military bases in the country. In 1999 an agreement was signed in Moscow obliging the Russians to remove the last of their forces but they keep delaying the final move—to the irritation of Washington, its European allies, and the government in Tbilisi. This would help to explain the near hysteria that gripped the Russian political elite when the Bush White House announced that an American military mission would be arriving in Georgia. But the American military expedition entailed another risk. Unlike their Moscow counterparts (many of whom have lived in the region or still have personal ties with it),3 Washington policymakers have almost no personal experience of the Caucasus. The US engagement will bear few positive results, and possibly bad ones, if its leaders remain ignorant of the ethnic fragmentation and Abashidze-style intrigue of a part of the world they give little sign of understanding.

3.

The Caucasus has a well-deserved reputation for impenetrability. Its peoples are notorious for their long historical memories, their intense attachment to place, and their tight allegiances to clan and tribe. For millennia the Caucasus Mountains have acted as a kind of filter between Europe and Asia, retaining odd scraps of successive Eurasian civilizations. The high mountains and deep gorges, in a part of the world in which different empires have tended to collide and overlap, promote cultural atomization and a defiant attachment to local identities. Yo’av Karny, author of Highlanders, one of the best recent books about the region, notes that a Roman historian counted “one hundred languages” in a single port city in the ancient Caucasus, and that Arab geographers called Daghestan “the mountain of languages.” At times, writes Karny,

the diversity borders on the farcical and would seem to an outside observer the act of a prankster. What else would one call a little village whose inhabitants speak a language so complex as not to be comprehensible even to their immediate neighbors? Or a semi-autonomous region about half the size of Kentucky that is the officially sanctioned home of six “major” nations (that is, those with more than 70,000 souls to their name) and nearly thirty “minor” ones (the smallest numbering only 600)?

Language maps of Europe or the Middle East usually show large swathes of color with occasional contrasting spots thrown in. Comparable maps of the Caucasus look like Jackson Pollock paintings. No particular language—or even language family, for that matter—is dominant (unless one counts the lingua franca of Russian, which remains widespread), and the effect is more like a kaleidoscope than a quilt.4

As Steavenson’s book demonstrates, someone willing to burrow into this multilayered culture for a while can learn much about it. And on the rare occasion when genuine insiders get the chance to tell their stories, the results can be spectacular. The Oath, Khassan Baiev’s autobiographical tale of his work as a field surgeon in both Chechen wars, provides not only a detailed account of the effects of modern warfare on its victims, but also a story of a Caucasian coming-of-age in the old USSR, where Baiev studied medicine in Siberia. His story is particularly valuable for the way it traces the evolution of his own perceptions of the fight against the Russians. At first he welcomes the struggle for independence against invading Russian troops; then he watches with dismay as many of the Chechen freedom fighters turn into thugs or Islamist radicals. (The latter, he writes, pursue an imported, bin Laden style of killing and intimidation entirely at odds with the traditions of Caucasian Islam.) Perhaps inevitably, he ends up getting caught between the fronts, because his strict commitment to the Hippocratic Oath means that he must treat wounded from all sides. At various moments both the Russian military and the rebels threaten him with death for complicity with the enemy. Finally, in one of the book’s most moving moments, he finds solace in a pilgrimage to Mecca—and, later, refuge in the United States.

All of this might help readers to understand why the Caucasus has traditionally exercised a powerful hold on the imaginations of outsiders who encounter it. Western writers from Lord Byron to John le Carré have been seduced by their encounters with the region. Much of nineteenth-century Russian literature drew sustenance from the myths, fears, and exhilara-tion fostered by encounters with brave Caucasian fighters. (The hero of Tolstoy’s story “Hadji Murad” is a Chechen.) But the lingering sense of exoticism that surrounds all things Caucasian has its pitfalls, too. At its weakest moments it produces works like Nicholas Griffin’s Caucasus: Mountain Men and Holy Wars, whose story isn’t really about the Caucasus at all. Instead it’s an attempt to combine a contemporary road trip through the region with a popular version of the biography of the nineteenth-century rebel leader Shamil, who led a savage Islamic guerrilla war against Russia and managed to hold Moscow’s forces at bay for a generation.

Griffin runs head-on into practically every obstacle that the Caucasus can put in the way of the unwary visitor. For one thing, by the time he started his book, war had broken out again in Chechnya, where most of Shamil’s battles were fought, and Griffin and his traveling companions (with one exception) didn’t dare to venture near the place. For another, as Griffin acknowledges, much of the history in his book has been taken from the early-twentieth-century account of Shamil’s wars by the British historian John F. Baddeley5—and doesn’t advance much beyond it, leaving us to wonder why anyone would go to the trouble. But the biggest problem is that Griffin succumbs to a classic Caucasian illusion—that history is the master of the present. Over and over he strives to make the point that Shamil’s legendary exploits continue to define the modern world, and the result is a sort of facile Orientalism. It’s true that contemporary Chechen rebels often invoke Shamil as a predecessor; yet Shamil himself was an ethnic Avar, which might lead one to ask why modern-day Avars (who live in the Russian republic of Daghestan) have so far shown little inclination to fight against Moscow.

It is also true that Islam remains a source of cultural identity and even militancy for many Caucasians; yet this fails, again, to explain why so many Muslim Caucasians, in contrast to the Chechens, seem to have made their peace with the modern Russian state, and why so many Christian Caucasians, most notably the Georgians, have since become intensely anti-Russian. At one point Griffin can hardly conceal his disappointment and surprise when an allegedly Muslim traveling companion begins guzzling vodka. It’s as if the author hadn’t noticed that Caucasians have spent half of the 145 years since Shamil’s surrender under Soviet rule, with many permutations of identity along the way.6

I well remember how, during a visit to Georgia in the summer of 1991, some villagers I met in the ethnic enclave of South Ossetia on the Georgian border tried to explain to me why they and the Georgians were so eager to kill one another. After a short undeclared war with the Ossetians, Georgian nationalist forces had just been driven out of the area by troops of the Soviet Interior Ministry. (The Ossetians are extremely pro-Moscow—another traditional pattern of Caucasian power politics, where the small peoples sometimes seek the protection of Russia, or other empires, against aggrandizing mid-sized neighbors.) The Ossetians, exasperated by my inability to understand their historical claims and counterclaims, finally told me: “Go look at the map.”

The map, which had been erected by the Soviet troops for their Ossetian friends, turned out to be a signboard in front of the local city council building, and it was entitled “The Growth of the Roman Empire, Third to Second Centuries BC.” I asked what it meant. “Don’t you see?” said the Ossetians. “There are all the other peoples—the Armenians, the Scythians. There are the Alani—that’s us. But no Georgians anywhere. We were here first.”7

At the time the moral of the story seemed obvious: this was a place where the fanatical insistence on ancient grudges still defined modern-day politics. But gradually I began to realize that another point was just as important. It wasn’t the Ossetians themselves who had put up the sign, but the troops from Moscow—a classic example of how ethnic consciousness can be manipulated by outside players with their own political ambitions.8 It is all too easy for modern-day onlookers to get caught up in the hard-edged rhetoric of national aspirations—and much harder to trace how identities are constantly being reinvented, exploited, or shaped. Culture, history, and ethnic self-awareness all have their effect, but it’s also important to remember how malleable they can be. A contrast can be drawn between Griffin’s simplifications and Thomas de Waal’s shrewd observation in Black Garden that, however much Azeris and Armenians like to cite their ancient ethnic enmities, actual bloodletting between the two groups has taken place almost entirely in the twentieth century, after the Armenian population was joined by thousands of fellow Armenians driven out of Turkey. If the twentieth century has shown us anything, it’s that history, carelessly handled or consciously distorted, can be one of the most efficient weapons of mass destruction known to man.

  1. 1

    See Neal Ascherson’s excellent and detailed discussion of the book in The New York Review, November 20, 2003.

  2. 2

    Most ordinary Americans haven’t been paying much attention, but military strategists are already pondering the ramifications—see, for example, Faultlines of Conflict in Central Asia and the Caucasus: Implications for the US Army, edited by Olga Oliker and Thomas S. Szayna (Rand, 2003).

  3. 3

    The most prominent example that comes to mind is the Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov, who is half-Georgian by birth. His predecessor, Yevgeny Primakov, grew up in Tbilisi.

  4. 4

    In February 1996, National Geographic came out with a lovely color-coded map that showed the various ethnic groups inhabiting the Caucasus and the language families each of them belonged to.

  5. 5

    Perhaps because his work is, inexplicably, out of print and hard to obtain: The Russian Conquest of the Caucasus (Russell and Russell, 1908). One enterprising publisher, Routledge, has just decided to reprint another one of his books, The Rugged Flanks of the Caucasus.

  6. 6

    At another point Griffin chides Armenians for not knowing enough about the Shamil saga—though there seems to be little reason why they should, considering that it was a Muslim guerrilla war against invading Russians on the northern side of the Caucasus, while the history of the Orthodox Christian Armenians has been determined primarily by their own relationship to the Ottoman Empire in the south. The Armenians he quotes seem bemused by his efforts to enlighten them about of their own lack of authenticity, but Griffin doesn’t seem to notice.

  7. 7

    Needless to say, most Georgians would dispute this account. They trace their statehood at least as far back as the ancient classical kingdom of Colchis, the home of Medea in the legend of the Argonauts.

  8. 8

    To this day, all three of the pseudo-statelets inside Georgia—Abkhazia, Ajaria, and South Ossetia—enjoy more or less open support from Moscow, which uses them to foment instability within the country. This is not to say, of course, that the Georgians aren’t capable of making a mess of things themselves.

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