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Accidental borders and blurred identities

A review of The Caucasus. An Introduction. Second edition. By Thomas de Waal. Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2019.

May 2, 2019 - Krzysztof Strachota - Books and ReviewsIssue 3-4 2019Magazine

Thomas de Waal is one of the top specialists on the Caucasus region. His works often become instant classics. Born in 1966, de Waal is British and has Dutch and Jewish roots. He is a descendent of the famous Ephrussi bankers who had connections with the once multi-cultural Odesa and Vienna. In fact, an interest in world affairs runs deep in the de Waal family: Thomas’s brother, Alex, is a highly regarded expert on Africa.

After having graduated from Oxford University, de Waal became a journalist and foreign correspondent. Starting in 1993 he covered the post-Soviet space for a decade, working with the BBC, The Times, The Moscow Times and The Economist. He has also worked as an expert on the Caucasus and Eastern Europe with such institutions as the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, The Conciliation Resources and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC and Carnegie Europe. Thus far, de Waal has authored four books on contemporary Caucasus. Among them is the controversial Black Garden (2003) which focused on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and was criticised by the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh authorities. In effect, de Waal has been banned from travelling to Russia.

A must read

To put it simply, Thomas de Waal is a very astute author with a special sensitivity to the outside world. In addition, he impresses with his skills as well as his personal experience with the Caucasus – and even more broadly within the post-Soviet space. His writings, therefore, are surely a must read. If an author writes a book with the subtitle An Introduction it is safe to assume that its content will be a reflection of the western debate on the subject matter. In this way, it has also the potential of influencing western thinking about the Caucasus for generations to come.

As the title suggests, de Waal covers the Caucasus region – Transcaucasia and the South Caucasus. He dives into the region’s past, culture and – at long last – politics. He hastily goes through the region’s ancient history, devoting a mere 37 pages out of the book’s 260 pages to it. He introduces the geography of the region and its ancient residents: Georgians, Armenians and Azeri as well as their religions (i.e. Islam and Christianity). His story becomes even more vivid when Russia enters the game – first as the tsarist and later as the Soviet empire. This story takes another 60 pages of the book.

Yet the central – and most mature and best analysed – period in the book is the collapse of the Soviet Union and its aftermath. Here de Waal excels, writing about the establishment of the independent states in the South Caucasus, military conflicts over Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, as well as the “great game” over energy resources in the Caspian Sea region and the transit trails in the Caucasus. Finally, there is a discussion on Georgia’s pro-western reforms, which were cooled down with the 2008 war.

It is clear that de Waal knows the contemporary topics best and their analyses benefit from his personal experience. Consequently, the last decade which – in the case of Armenia has led to the takeover of power by Nikol Pashinyan – is not given much coverage in the book, being rather an impressionistic, even slightly melancholic, completion of history.

Russia as an agency

Because of its subtitle, theauthor has no choice but to write about almost everything – though at different lengths. Despite this, the book can be divided into three or four main themes which, together, create its narrative. The first theme focuses on the nation- and state-building processes. While writing about the Armenians, the Georgians, the Azeri, but also about the Abkhazians, Ossetians and Caucasian Kurds, de Waal illustrates a whole plethora of these processes. In his analysis there is room for the centuries’ long myths that spread as well as historical narratives and identities that were hastily created by academics and ideologists who were fascinated by the nationalistic ideas that were reaching them – mainly via Russia and Turkey – from the West. There is also a story about the nationhood and statehood’s long coming of age and the difficult fights for it, as was most evidenced during the collapse of the Soviet Union. While discussing these matters, de Waal also talks about the emergence of independent republics during the collapse of Tsarist Russia, which was somewhat against the initial intentions of their leaders.

In this part of the story, de Waal presents a strong, almost idyllic, image of the Caucasus as a peaceful, multi-cultural place in Tsarist and Soviet times, as well as the drama centre of bloody ethnic conflicts which accompanied the emergence of the independent republics that led to an almost sterile homogeneity of today’s republics and their capitals. Elaborated idealism and sacrifice are mixed with the most basic of instincts; patriotism is inseparably tied with the criminal world, while intellectuals and academics are simply war instigators. De Waal does his best to keep an equal distance from all the participants, which is never easy. Russia is a very important – fundamental, in fact – theme of the book. For de Waal Russia is explicitly the region’s state. It is the driving force, one that provides a modernising power. It is the vehicle which has allowed the blurred identities of the region’s residents to acquire features of a modern nation, while the borders that were established in Moscow and the status of some territories determined the shape of today’s states. In a sense, the Caucasus always needed Russia which here has no alternative. This is also true today, even when the Russian Federation is a much weaker state.

“In-between” region

The last “grand” topic of the book, which connects the above-mentioned themes, is the crisis and collapse of the Soviet empire. Its first signs were spotted in the Caucasus, specifically in Nagorno-Karabakh and on the streets of Tbilisi. The analysis of these moments is accompanied by descriptions of the metamorphoses through which the structures connecting the centre with the peripheries had undergone. Without any doubt, the anatomy of the functioning and collapse of the empire based on the example of the peripheral region of the Caucasus is the greatest academic and analytical value of the book.

These processes are masterfully analysed. With pietism and eloquence, de Waal takes advantage of his own experience, and also the distance that comes with the passage of time. This is the greatest charm of the book. The story is further energised by anecdotes shared in the text and the specially prepared boxes which allow us to learn more about wine, Baku jazz, and the building of Soviet Florida and Riviera in the Caucasus. There are also references to literature, film and music. Skilfully, de Waal plays with some national stereotypes, which makes the reading of the book particularly enjoyable. At the same time, we get the author’s synthesis of very complicated issues. It is well thought out, but also a result of de Waal’s experience, vigorous but written with distance. Serious, but also ironically nonchalant – I would say British in the best meaning of the term.

And this points to something dangerous that is visible in the book. Namely, the Caucasus (one that de Waal surely likes a lot) is not treated here as an independent agent. Rather it is depicted as a region that has acquired accidental borders and has flexible and blurred identities. There is no guarantee of strong statehood and democracy here (especially in its liberal variation). In a way the Caucasus charmed the West, and the bewitched West somewhat shares responsibility for the 2008 war that was “provoked by Georgia”. For de Waal the Caucasus has always been an “in-between” region, while in fact it was a political and civilisational extension of Russia, or at least its justified claims for domination.

Politics is a domain for large and wise players, as de Waal seems to be telling his readers. To be sure it is not for the weak and broken Caucasus, nor any small or medium-size state. Thus while describing the 2008 war, the author does not mention the visit that five presidents (from Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states) paid to Tbilisi at the most dramatic moment of the war. In this way, de Waal is again very British, but, this time, more in the “good” 19th century meaning of the word. In this sense, the Caucasus remains an interesting place on the map. However, if anyone thought that the region means anything to the world, their views got outdated in 2008. Thereby, it could be a topic for interesting books.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

Krzysztof Strachota is the head of the department for Turkey, Caucasus and Central Asia at the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW).



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