O&G Book Review: Thomas De Waal’s The Caucasus: An Introduction
In a number of his shorter works, the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy refers to the Terek River in the North Caucasus as a terrifying border separating the known civilization to the north from the wild and dangerous realms to the south. Below the river, leading 19th Century figures in the region like Georgia’s Ilya Chavchavadze ...
In a number of his shorter works, the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy refers to the Terek River in the North Caucasus as a terrifying border separating the known civilization to the north from the wild and dangerous realms to the south. Below the river, leading 19th Century figures in the region like Georgia's Ilya Chavchavadze were named tergdaleulni because they had "tasted the waters of the Terek," and ventured north to frigid St. Petersburg in pursuit of Western learning.
In a number of his shorter works, the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy refers to the Terek River in the North Caucasus as a terrifying border separating the known civilization to the north from the wild and dangerous realms to the south. Below the river, leading 19th Century figures in the region like Georgia’s Ilya Chavchavadze were named tergdaleulni because they had “tasted the waters of the Terek,” and ventured north to frigid St. Petersburg in pursuit of Western learning.
Today, the exoticism ascribed to the Caucasus by Russians a century ago has given way to more prosaic geopolitical concerns. But the vitality and importance of this former Soviet region is not much better understood today than it was in Tolstoy’s day — and even when it is, the Caucasus is usually dismissed as too internecine and complicated to merit wide geopolitical attention. In his modestly titled new book, Thomas de Waal seeks to fix this problem with a balanced, assiduously researched and lucid primer.
The challenge in writing a book about the Caucasus lies largely in getting the balance right. History has as much a role as “who was there first,” as de Waal writes. In a region where the Pontic Greeks traced their roots to the visit of Jason and his Argonauts to Colchis, determining the origin of territorial claims can be tricky. Russian hegemony goes back only to the last couple of centuries, which, in the scope of Caucasian history, is not that long. Shifting alliances with Persians, Turks and, more recently, Americans have made the Caucasus not only a global crossroads, but also a center of conflict richly interwoven with “he said/she said” narratives that can be hard for a committed scholar, much less a casual observer, to disentangle. But de Waal, senior associate on the Caucasus at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, does an impressive job of applying dispassion and clarity to a series of debates that his book does more to explain than to resolve.
What emerge are essentially three stories. Armenia is trapped in time, unable to capture the true potential of its entrepreneurial population until it can re-engage with neighbors like Turkey — where rapprochement has finally, if haltingly, begun — and Azerbaijan, where animosities remain fresh. Azerbaijan, which, as few know, became the world’s first Muslim democracy just after the First World War and again, ephemerally, after the Soviet Union’s collapse, is close to tapping out its oil wealth and is sliding toward autocracy with apparent increasing intensity. Georgia, meanwhile, has come the closest to embracing democracy — albeit with passionate lurches in the wrong direction from time to time. It has made strides to enact key reforms and lift its 4 million citizens from poverty, though the effect of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on its dream of territorial integrity remains searing and, as Russia’s recent invasion points out, persistent hot zones.
In his introduction, the author makes clear that he intends to focus solely on the South Caucasus, and is careful throughout his book to do so. The Russian North Caucasus republics — including Chechnya — play an undeniable role in the dynamics of the region. The majority of Ossetians, for instance, live on the Russian side of the Caucasus mountains, in North Ossetia. “South Ossetians” are a minority in Tskhinvali, the capital of the state they’ve declared, and that Moscow has recognized. Adding the North Caucasus would render this neat and deftly structured book unwieldy, but there are continued stories that deserve telling. Given that Russia intends to hold the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, some 30 kilometers from contested Abkhazian territory and on Krasnaya Polyana, the very site from which the Circassian population was forcibly evicted in 1864, these narratives too will need to be reconciled soon.
While it may be easier for the distant academic to be dispassionate, de Waal is more than that. Through the past two decades, he has written extensively on, and from, the region for British newspapers and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. He is also the co-author of Chechnya, probably the best contemporary volume on that violent Russian republic. The Caucasus reflects a depth of understanding of the region that doesn’t stray into the didactic. In recent years, other volumes have appeared on the South Caucasus, notably Charles King’s The Ghost of Freedom, and Thomas Goltz’s diaries of Georgia and Azerbaijan. But de Waal has produced the most important work. And, as with any good book, it leaves the reader hungering for more.
Sam Patten is senior program manager for Eurasia at Freedom House.
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