The Caucasus: An Introduction

Thomas de Waal

Oxford University Press 2010
A book review by Danny Yee © 2012
Thomas de Waal gives an accessible overview of the history and politics of the South Caucasus, the region now spanned by Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

An introductory chapter outlines the region's geography and early history, attempting also to give a feel for the linguistic and ethnic diversity hidden by the rather too neat modern division into states.

Two chapters trace the history of the region from the early 1800s, as part of Russia for a century and then as part of the Soviet Union for seventy years. The interregnum between 1918 and 1921 saw independent republics briefly appear, though memories of these had little later influence. The region had a significant role in broader Soviet politics and in the eventual dissolution of the Union, with nationalist and other centrifugal forces on the rise well before 1991.

Two chapters cover the wars that followed independence. Armenia and Azerbaijan fought over Nagorny-Karabakh, a region of Azerbaijan with an Armenian majority, which an uneasy ceasefire has left under Armenian control along with other areas of Azerbaijan. And there were conflicts between Georgia and two of its minority regions, backed by Russia — South Ossetia in 1991 and Abkhazia in 1992.

There is a chapter on the geopolitics of pipelines, most notably the Batu-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the significance of linking Azerbaijani (and potentially Kazakh and Turkmen) oil and gas to the West without going through either Russia or Iran. (Though de Waal suggests the importance of this has been exaggerated, especially by neoconservatives in the United States.)

A final chapter covers the recent (2008) conflict between Russia and Georgia, again over South Ossetia.

Much of The Caucasus describes the traumas accompanying nationalist state-building amongst geographically, demographically and ethnically complex populations. Here de Waal's perspective and sources are more political than anthropological or ethnographic. He emphasizes how ethnic divisions have been exacerbated by ideologues, politicians and intellectuals, often in the face of peaceful coexistence by the actual inhabitants on the ground. This is a useful corrective to essentialist visions of ethnic identity, but sometimes he takes it too far, with an overly rosy view of how harmonious past multi-ethnic communities have been. He is also surprisingly hopeful about the possibilities for putting memories of past injustices aside in the future, though for practical politics a certain amount of optimism here is probably essential. (De Waal is free of obvious partisan bias, though his selection of material and handling of contested topics will inevitably upset some people.)

The focus throughout is on politics, and in particular on wars and conflicts. There is limited discussion of economics — even the chapter on pipelines has more on their politics than their financing or economic significance — and only incidental coverage of social or cultural changes. Some specialist topics are, however, treated in short digressions of several pages, on the Kurds, wine, Baku jazz, the Greeks of Abkhazia, Abkhazia as the "Soviet Florida", Stalin's Georgian identity, the history of the term "genocide", why there was no military conflict in Georgia's other minority region of Ajaria, Lermontov, the Georgian language, and so forth.

The Caucasus is an engaging and accessible book which should do much to improve knowledge of one of the world's more poorly known regions, located at the corner where Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East meet.

March 2012

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%T The Caucasus: An Introduction
%A de Waal, Thomas
%I Oxford University Press
%D 2010
%O paperback, notes, index
%G ISBN-13 9780195399776
%P 259pp