Mysteries of the Caucasus

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 …

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