Analysis, book reviews and photography from Abkhazia and the wider Caucasus — updates when time permits

Book review: The Caucasus by Frederik Coene

The Caucasus – An Introduction
Frederik Coene
Routledge, London
October 2009
240 pages
ISBN: 978-0-415-48660-6

“There are two important Meshketian movements, and each has its own view on the nationality issue. Vatan (Homeland) is a pro-Turkish organization, while Khsna is aware of its Georgian conciousness.” (page 160)

“Six months after the rose revolution demonstrations took place in Batumi, and on 6 May 2004, following a second rose revolution, Abashidze was forced to step down and leave for Moscow.” (page 163)

“Until recently the concept of geopolitics has been at the centre of the foreign policy-making of modern states. However, this idea has become outdated and been replaced by the notion of geo-economics, where the emphasis is on the combination of geographical location and economic opportunities.” (page 169, which does not otherwise contain a general exposition on either geopolitics or geo-economics)

Perhaps it is unfair to take a book of 240 pages and highlight three poorly written passages. But then, the publisher explicitly describes it as “clear” and “written throughout in an accessible style”. And all things considered, the unclear, inelegant and even inaccurate passages are one of the most frustrating things about The Caucasus, especially since it is said (again by the publisher) not to require “prior knowledge of the Caucasus”. Individually, they are insignificant, but they add up.

In the very first sentence on the first page of the book it is claimed that the term ‘Caucasian Studies’ should not be confused with the term ‘Caucasiology’ “which deals only with the Caucasian language family”. The International Caucasological Research Institute and the International Caucasology Congress would certainly disagree with that assessment. It is also false in that to the best of modern linguistic knowledge, there is no single Caucasian language family, since despite countless efforts, South and North Caucasian languages have not been shown to be related. This is in fact acknowledged on page 70, in the section devoted to languages. But there instead the author errs on the side of caution when he suggests that the division into North-west, North-east and South Caucasian languages is based more on geography than on linguistics, “as it is often questionable how much they are related to one another”. Indeed, it is uncontroversial that the North-west, North-east and South Caucasian languages form genetic language families. Finally, on page 71 the Caucasian languages are once again presented as constituting one family in a diagram that is labelled an “ethnogenetic tree”. It also lists without comment the Hurrian-Urartian languages as a branch of the North-east Caucasian family, a claim that is far more speculative than the genetic association between Northwest and Northwest Caucasian languages, which is not even mentioned in the text.

On page 165 the author writes that is has “been suggested that Cossacks have assisted the pro-Russian factions in Abkhazia, Transdniestra and the former Yugoslavia”, which is a funny understatement when one considers the fact that Cossack units proudly participate in Abkhazia’s and Transdiestra’s respective annual independence parades. On page 180 it is claimed that after 9/11, Iran has sought to strengthen its ties with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, “in order to counter their support for the global war against terrorism”. And when the author writes on page 185 that before the August 2008 war “all the signs were that Georgia would join [NATO] in 2009” he confuses membership with the conclusion of a membership action plan (MAP).

The Caucasus is presented as filling a lacuna, there not being any introductory book to the region to date. One could argue whether this is really true, but more importantly, The Caucasus doesn’t read much like an introduction. Instead, it is much more a comprehensive reference work which systematically describes the Caucasus in all its facets, and as such it could also present a valuable addition to the existing literature. Unfortunately, its performance is somewhat uneven.

The book is divided into chapters detailing the region’s geography, its administrations, its population and societies, its history, its conflicts, its international politics, its economy and its culture. The most valuable chapters are probably those on geography, population and history.

Happily, the history chapter starts out in the Stone Age and systematically works its way through the ages up to the present day, although at times it devotes more attention to the region’s surrounding empires than the Caucasus itself. Also, the description of the Caucasus’s late- and post-Soviet history and conflicts is not as detailed as one might have whished, but existing literature already covers those adequately.

The population chapter discusses in different sections all the ethnicities that populate the Caucasus, the languages spoken by them and their religions. It ends with two sections on Russian and Soviet nationality policies and on social structure, but these would have been much more useful had they been longer. There is some overlap between the sections, which is perhaps inevitable, although curiously the massive Jewish emigration from the 1970s onwards is only mentioned in the section on religion. The subsection on Islam is especially well-informed, and there are even subsection on Yezidism and Zoroastrianism, although the latter claims that there is still a Zoroastrian temple in existence in Suraxanı near Baku which may in fact rather be a Hindu temple.

Regrettably, as in many descriptions of the Caucasus, the disputed states of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno Karabakh are a problem for The Caucasus. In his introduction, the author states that he has chosen to follow the UN in not considering them sovereign. This is dubious, since it is not clear that the UN as a body can be said to have a stance on the normative sovereignty of these states, and even if so, whether this should really trump the empirical sovereignty which these states most certainly enjoy in a book which according to the same introduction “tries merely to give the latest factual stance”. But even if one accepts this, it is inexplicable why these states are blind spots for some parts of the book.

The chapter on geography is otherwise very good and detailed, but it misses out on the fact that as many as four of the world’s ten deepest caves are located in Abkhazia, among which the two very deepest. It discusses airports, but omits the airports near Sukhum and Stepanakert, despite the fact that the former has the longest runway of the Caucasus. It discusses seaports, but doesn’t mention Ochamchira in Abkhazia, which is about the only port deep enough to potentially host Russia’s Black Sea fleet, should it ever be forced to move from Sevastopol. Even if these states are eventually integrated into Georgia and Azerbaijan, these caves, airports and seaports will not go away.

Remarkably, in some cases Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno Karabakh (and also autonomies in the South Caucasus like Adjara and Nakhchevan) receive less attention than the various Russian administrative units. For example, the latter are treated separately in the economy chapter, whereas the former are not, even though their economies function more independently. Inexplicably, the same holds true for the maps throughout the book. In general, the maps are very rudimentary, and present a big missed opportunity given the wealth of geographical data in the running text.

It is clear that a lot of effort has gone into The Caucasus, and indeed the wide variety of topics it dwells upon must have demanded extensive research. But, regrettably, the end-result is nevertheless uneven, and there are too many places where it feels half-finished. A thoroughly updated second edition could turn this into a truly valuable reference work.

Filed under: Book reviews, Wider Region, ,

One Response

  1. […] exactly identical — subtitle included — to the October 2009 book by Frederik Coene reviewed earlier), because Thomas de Waal has limited himself to the history and the politics of the South Caucasus […]

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