The Caucasus: an Introduction, by Thomas de Waal

Second paragraph of third chapter:

It is tempting but misleading to see the seventy-year Soviet experiment as just a second Russian imperial project. Ultimate power resided in Moscow and Russia played the role of big brother, but the Soviet Union was much more complex and contradictory. The Soviet state modernized, terrorized, and Russified the Caucasus but also gave it new kinds of nationalism. It also went through radically different phases: from the Bolshevik would-be utopia of international class liberation to the Stalinist authoritarian state of the 1930s to the corrupt, Brezhnev-era multinational state. Modernization meant both the destruction of old traditions and emancipation for women and technological progress. Policy toward the nationalities veered from the implementation of a liberal “affirmative action empire,” which gave new opportunities to non-Russian nations, to genocide. While some small ethnic groups benefited hugely from “nativization” programs, others were subjected to deportation and mass terror.

I have known Tom de Waal for many years, going back to my own intense Caucasus engagement in 2003-06 and again in 2012. He is lambasted by Armenian activists for being too pro-Azeri, and by Azerbaijani activists for being too Armenian, and by all sides in Georgia for favouring their opponents. I think he is generally right. I had been looking forward to this book for ages and attended its Brussels launch in 2019; my memory is that we went for a very nice dinner afterwards.

To get the obvious point out of the way, unfortunately one of the core sections of the book now needs to be updated after the Nagorno-Karabakh war of late 2020. This occasioned one of the few points of disagreement between us, and I actually wrote to de Waal to say that I thought the “both-sides” narrative which was prevalent in the early weeks of the 2020 conflict was obscuring the important fact that Azerbaijan was winning.

But I don’t think he can be faulted for not seeing precisely into the future when writing the book. In any case, he, and I, and many others, had been warning of the likelihood of a bloody denouement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for many years (here’s me and Damien Helly in 2004, and me and Sabine Freizer in Russian in 2006). In 2004 the Prime Minister of Azerbaijan told me to my face that they were saving up their profits from fossil fuels in order to upgrade their armed forces to drive Armenia out of their territory by force, and if he was saying that to me, he was saying it to a lot of other people. This was not a difficult war to predict.

So, could the conflicts in the region have been averted or mitigated? I get the gloomy feeling from de Waal’s narrative that the forces of political gravity generally favoured violent conflict. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought hard-line nationalists to power in all three countries, and eliminated the political habits and institutions that might have channeled the energy of disagreement away from the precipice of war. I found his analysis of the 2008 South Ossetia conflict particularly interesting, as it happened after my first round of Caucasus engagement. His view (in crude summary) is that Saakashvili decided to pick a fight quite early on, and the Russians decided to give it to him.

It’s fair to say that international engagement with the conflict has often been less than vigorous. It seemed to me grimly appropriate that the OSCE mechanism to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, co-chaired by the USA, Russia and France, was named after a conference that never actually took place. But I know individual officials who have made great efforts, and in any case it’s easy to think of better-known conflicts where huge investment of time and energy in international mediation has failed to pay off.

Anyway, recent developments aside, de Waal’s book is a warmly engaging look at the three South Caucasus countries – Georgia (including South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Adjara), Armenia and Azerbaijan (including Nagorno-Karabakh) – in their historical context between Russia, Turkey and Iran, with the Russia relationship being the most important for all three cases. (Though other powers got involved too – Azerbaijan was briefly a British protectorate, with democratic elections, women’s suffrage and proportional representation in 1918-1920.) He concentrates on the political history, but also explores the rich literature of all of the region, and touches on the cuisine as well (I personally love Georgian cooking). He argues that the important regional context has been lost, with the independence of the three states inevitably making them look inwards rather than at their neighbours. It’s a good and informative read. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2019. Next on that pile is Complexity: A Very Short Introduction, by John H. Holland.