on 5 June 2011
I think (as the previous reviewer with his concern about the Georgian diaspora appears to have done) it is easy to forget how ground-breaking and important the whole of Tom de Waal's book is, and just get wrapped up in the details. The group of writers doing serious research into the Caucasus who present their findings in a neutral, clear and reliable way is minute, and he is at their centre. He wears his huge knowledge very lightly and most readers would gain no idea from this small, excellent book how much serious work has gone into it.
His previous books have focussed on specific parts of the region (Chechnya and Nagorny-Karabakh), but this time he has taken on the whole South Caucasus and thus given a secure foundation for anyone wanting to find out about the region, or to do further research into it. Almost all other works that I know are either biassed (pro-Soviet, anti-Russian, pro-American), good but spread too thin (Charles King's the Ghost of Freedom) or just rubbish. His patient debunking of myths and establishing of narrative may not seem a glorious task, but it is necessary, and extremely useful to anyone coming to the Caucasus for the first time.
Nationalists from all three (or six?) countries of the region will hate it, since it skewers their favoured myths and gives fair hearing to the complaints of the opposite side. But if the countries' politicians really wanted to help build a war-free future, they should translate this into Abkhaz, Armenian, Azeri, Georgian, Mingrelian, Ossetian, Russian and Svan and use it as a textbook in every school and university they have.
This book is an excellent introduction to the complexities of a little-known region. Parallels can be found with the Balkans - a rugged topography, ethnically heterogeneous and history of intra-communal strife. But the Caucasus are a lot more complex: at least 10 major ethnic groups with many subdivisions and among them, and dozens of mutually unintelligible languages. But there are degrees of mutuality, such as the shared legacy of Russian/Soviet rule and, in some places, the glue of Islam. These commonalities mean that the Caucasus is not just an arbitrary geographical designation, unrelated to facts on the ground. This ought to be a basis for some sort of consensus among political actors for compromise but it isn't. Instead, the author laments, `zero-sum thinking prevails. The region suffers from a lack of inclusive thinking.' (p. 226). So what is perceived to be an opportunity in one part of the region is perceived as a threat elsewhere. For instance, the beginnings of a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement in 2009 provoked anger in Azerbaijan, which promptly stopped selling Turkey gas.
What is the root of all this? The old chestnut that used to come up in discussions about the wars in the ex-Yugoslavia in the 1990s was `ancient hatreds', the incorrigible tribal irrationality of the peoples themselves. In relation to the conflicts described in this book, de Waal shows that relations between communities were often cordial. In the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia, Georgian and South Ossetian villagers had cordial relations based on networks of mutual interests, right up until the 2008 Russian-Georgian war; Azeri-Armenian community relations in Nagorno-Karabakh record a great deal of concord. Having noted that, the author notes that moves by Armenian and Azeri leaders to resolve the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has no popular constituency in either country, and that `without a wider constituency pressing for change, the presidents have no mandate for peace in their negotiations.' (p. 129). So neither the `popular hatreds' nor the `politicians-stir-it-up' view convincingly summarises what the roots of the conflicts in the region are. An explanation probably requires a description that traces the volatile and dynamic interplay between popular passions from below, and political manipulation from above. Such a book would be fiendishly difficult to write.
Aside from internal dynamics, there is the role of external powers. Armenia is a good example of the vagaries of the interaction between internal and external forces. Armenia has good relations with Russia, the latter sponsoring and arming that country's take over and de facto annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh but, through skilful lobbying on the country's behalf by its expatriate population, has curried favour with Western countries like the USA and France. Energy plays in part in the geopolitical mix although Caspian oil reserves are not what they were cracked up to be, hence the perception of the strategic values of the region's natural resources is likely to shrink accordingly (and anyway, resource-poor Georgia and Armenia only figure in these calculations as possible transit routes for oil and gas pipelines).
As an epitome of the machinations of outside powers, the Russian-Georgian war might be apposite. De Waal writes that the main culpability rests, strangely enough, with the one actor that did not fight and that sought to stop the violence: the West. Not because the West goaded Georgia into trying to seize back South Ossetia by force. They did nothing of the kind. But because the West promised more than it could deliver: that is, supporting Georgia's territorial integrity without considering workable strategies to recover lost territories. This is an odd conclusion to draw, for the evidence he presents does not support it. First, he presents evidence to show that mistakes by Georgian politicians contributed to the South Ossetia's and Abkhazia's desire to break out of Georgia in the first place. Second, he shows that Russia, under Putin, exploited the situation from 2000, in entrenching the separatists (e.g. offering Russian passports to residents of these territories, despite the fact that none of these people are Russian) and doing nothing since then to promote a peaceful reconciliation. Third, the author notes that western-funded efforts at reconciliation failed 'because the mood was against [these efforts].' This begs the question: whose mood was against them? The answer is obvious. The separatists. The Russians. The Georgians. The protagonists of the conflict, in the other words. If the actors on the ground were not interested in promoting compromise, then what could the west have done? Alas, too many people in the Caucasus do not think like well-meaning, reasonable policy analysts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Despite this, I still rate the book five stars as it succeeds in doing what it says on the tin, one hundred per cent. It is an introduction to the Caucasus, and covers all the salient points and issues succinctly, which is no mean feat given the complexity of the region. If you start out knowing nothing about the region, then by the time you have finished the book, you will have a primer that will teach you about all the fundamental issues. Also, the author is non-dogmatic and presents the evidence so that you can draw your own conclusions about the assessments he makes. Therefore, five stars.
on 15 March 2012
This book, and most of the author's writing, is fair, intelligent and enlightening. He is the voice of reason. Articulate, with a sound grasp of culture and history, the author steers his way through the minefield of the region's history, and allows outsiders to gain a better understanding of the region and the peoples who inhabit this part of the world. Inspirational.
on 19 February 2014
The caucasus - an unknown and exotic area, but still part of Europe; we should all understand it better, I told myself. Also, I collect antique rugs from this part of the world so have a special interest for that reason. So I bought this book, thinking that it dealt with both North and South Caucasus and despite initial disappointment that it did not cover such interesting areas as Chechnya and Dagestan, really enjoyed reading it. de Waal manages to transcend many of the complexities, historical, geographic and religious to present the three modern republics in a clear context and illuminates the internecine nature of the various wars and feuds that are, sadly, the most distinguishing characteristic of this region.
A few take-aways from me included the revelation that the Russkies are not, generally nowadays, the bad guys though there is some deeply unpleasant history in (Georgian) Stalinist times involving ethnic cleansing/forced migration of entire peoples and consequential genocide - what a tyrant that man was, arguably the most evil that ever lived. Later Russian regimes seemed positively enlightened about their treatment of these areas. The modern Georgians come across as the main instigators of a number of the problems in this area - Abkazia, South Ossetia, bickering with the Russians etc. - and are trying to up the stakes by involving the West in an area that is really Russia's backyard. This is relevant to the West for a number of reasons, not least being that this has partly given rise to the increasingly problematic nature of Chechnya. One has most sympathy with the Azeris who have been consistently outmanouevred by their Armenian rivals and one wonders why the West is not a little more careful about who it chooses as an ally. The fact that Georgia is Christian and Azerbaijan is Shi'ia is hardly the best basis for a foreign policy.
Through it all de Waal writes in a style which is a delight, presenting things with great clarity and making this book a joy to read. I'd recommend it very highly and am quite happy to look for another book to read as a complement to this covering the Northern (Russian) Caucasus. Just a shame that the same author didn't write one!
on 2 July 2012
I have recently had to do some work related to the Caucasus region and for someone with little or no knowledge of the area this is a great book. A very interesting and easy to follow read, about the people, politics, industries etc. of a very diverse part of our plant. I now feel much better equipped to deal with the work I am doing and any conversations that I may get into about the region. So for me 5 stars, a real help!
on 11 May 2013
I bought the book accidentally, while looking for something else in a London bookstore. Although I grew up in Georgia and now work in Azerbaijan, the book has fascinated me. I have actually witnessed significant part of the action and appreciate the authors description of the events in Georgia from late 20th century to these days. I greatly enjoyed the writing style, accuracy and analyses of events.
I am buying a few more copies for presenting to friends.
on 16 December 2013
The politics and history of this region are complicated but De Waal guides you through in a very readable and engaging style. Highly recommended. My only complaint - the title is misleading this is about Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan - the northern Caucasus are barely mentioned. Nonetheless its still a 5 star volume for what it does cover.
on 4 February 2014
Authoritative and accessible introduction to a complex but strategically critical region. De Waal writes confidently and convincingly, and his book should be compulsory reading matter for those with a professional or academic interest in the Caucasus.
on 12 July 2013
A deep yet concise and very readable account of the recent developments in the Caucasus Region with all its complications. Good background reading to give some insight before a visit to any of the three very different countries.
on 28 October 2010
The Caucasus: An Introduction]] Perhaps if you read the whole book, it would be easy to memorize different quotes, f.e.: "More division and conflict can be avoided if the different parts of the South Caucasus start to think less like individual actors and more like members of a region", (De Waal, 2010, p.226 in Conclusions) I believe such a vision is not clear for the internal, but also external decision-making players.
Personally would fully share it from last 10 years experience of daily reporting of Northern and South Caucasus, would also agree with author on his evaluation of the EU "slow" role in the South Caucasus. I am glad that book is available in USA as well and hope, that US & British politicians would be obliged to read it, prior travel to the region - so often they are badly informed about most recent and previous century history, that makes their action poor. There is clear need in the translation to at least few other European languages, to speed up some of the slow EU officials. We definitely need more books like this, linking historical and contemporary realities in one knot. I would suggest to check recent Economist book review (Playground for war, Oct 21st 2010, A beautiful fought-over region) on Thomas work: "as a clear, brief guide to the countries of the south Caucasus, it would be hard to do better than this book."
On behalf of Gregory Shvedov, 24/7 Internet agency Caucasian Knot, chief editor