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 Caucasus

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Civil wars in the Post Soviet period

The Caucasus is an area of unusual ethnic and linguistic diversity. There are several linguistic families, most of them entirely distinct from the main western Eurasian language groups: Indo-European and Finno-Ugric or Ural-Altaic.

This area has been part of history since the time of the Later Roman Empire when it was the disputable frontier area between the Romans and the Persian Empire. During this period Georgians and Armenians became converted to the Roman rather than the Persian religion - marking their status as allies of the western empire.

When the east became converted to Islam, or conquered, the Georgians and Armenians generally remained Christian, even if they were for periods under the control of the Khalifate or the various Persian kingdoms. But the whole area was still considered in Byzantium as the buffer zone between Anatolia (now Turkey) and the Muslim east.

Chechens, however, converted to Islam.

The area became part of the Russian empire after conquest by the Tsarist forces during the 18th and 19th centuries as the Russian empire grew to the South. The Chechens were probably never conquered and seem never to have thought of themselves as Russian. During the USSR each ethnic group had its own government area, varying from USSR Republic (Armenia, Georgia); autonomous Republic within the Russian Federated Socialist Republic (Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia); or autonomous oblast.

The Percy French song: Abdul a bulbul Emir is set during the period of Tsarist warfare against the Chechens.

Josip Vissarionovich Djugashvili (Stalin) was born in Georgia - and always spoke Russian with a strong Georgian accent - and ruled the whole Soviet Union after Lenin. He thought maintaining local languages and cultures was important, as long as they exercised no political power. But during the second world war he became suspicious of the Chechens and other groups (Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars) and exiled whole peoples to Kazakhstan. After his death the Chechens and Tatars returned. The Chechens especially remained deeply resentful of their treatment.

Following the break-up of the USSR the bonds that kept the area relatively peaceful were relaxed. Georgia and Armenia became independent republics, with seats at the United nations. Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia and others became constituent republics of the Russian Federation. Chechnya tried for total independence, briefly allowed by Boris Yeltsin, but then resisted by the Russian military, especially after Putin came to power. The result is a nasty war in Chechnya, spilling over into the neighboring republics of Ingushetia, Dagestan and Ossetia.

Georgia declared independence but for administrative convenience during the Soviet period Stalin incorporated other peoples within the state boundaries. These include the Avkhasians and the Ossetians. Both these peoples prefer to be associated with Russia rather than be required to learn and use Kartvelan, the language of Georgia. Thus they view the attempts of the current Georgian government to control them as an imposition. But the Georgians have a national mythology that makes them believe the territory of the South Ossetians is historic Georgian land. This may be true but the Ossetians have been there for centuries, ever since being pushed there during the Mongol invasions during the 13th century. It is never a good idea in modern times to try to reverse ancient history. The same can be seen in Serbia and Israel.

Thus, on Georgia's independence the Abkhasians and Ossetians declared their own independence as Republics, much as the Russians in Moldova did when they formed Transdniestria. Russian troops are stationed on their territories as "peacekeepers". Georgian people living in these territories have been expelled.

Russia's policy in this area seems to be a continuation of the Tsarist policy of controlling the area. Putin no doubt considers this "near abroad" as part of Russia's vital interests. He wishes Chechens to be part of Russia and for Georgia and Armenia not to join the west. Georgia is linked to Russia via its gas supplies, which can be cut off, and have been.

Saakashvili has been trying to join NATO - though he has received a very lukewarm response - "sometime, perhaps". His chances of joining the European Union seem equally nebulous. Putin would regard membership of NATO as an attempt to encircle Russia.

There is a serious war in Chechnya. This war has also affected Ingushetia with isolated incidents (the Ingush speak a language closely related to Chechen). There was a notorious incident in North Ossetia when a Chechen gang occupied a school with many hostages among the children and teachers. (Ossetian is an Indo-European language, related to the Iranian group).

Another war broke out in Georgia in August 2008 when Georgian troops attempted to assert control in South Ossetia but were met by overwhelming Russian force and made to withdraw.

The problems of the Caucasus are similar to those of the Balkans, but on a much larger and more complex scale. In both areas the socio-political device of the Nation State does not fit the actual composition of the populations. Is there any general solution? The Balkans may be on the way to a solution by becoming members of the EU - a post-national organisation. The solution proposed by the Russians is to bring all the peoples into Russia itself - the policy of the Tsars and the Communists. No other solution seems to be being considered, other than breaking the area up into smaller and smaller sovereign states - surely totally impracticable, as each state, however small, will have minorities.

Neal Ascherson on post-Soviet mini-states

The problem is similar to the post-colonial situation in Africa.

Caucasus history

Interesting reading

Caucasus languages



Caucasus books Google book list
Svante Cornell - small nations and great powers

Small Nations and Great Powers: Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus (Caucasus World)


Last revised 8/03/09


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