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

Book review: Eight Pieces of Empire by Lawrence Scott Sheets

eight pieces of empire - coverEight Pieces of Empire — A 20-Year Journey through the Soviet Collapse

Lawrence Scott Sheets

Crown Publishers, New York
November 2011
336 pages
ISBN: 978-0-307-39582-5

The publication of Eight Pieces of Empire is good news, because Lawrence Scott Sheets — currently South Caucasus project director for the International Crisis Group — is one of the few Caucasus journalists deployed on the ground during the conflicts of the early nineties. Unlike his close colleague Thomas Goltz, Sheets has decided not to issue separate monographs for each conflict area — Eight Pieces of Empire is Sheet’s memoire of the whole of his reporting days.

As the title makes clear, Eight Pieces of Empire is also an overview of the fall-out of the Soviet Union’s collapse. The chapters cover the following ground:

  • Saint-Petersburg in 1989 to 1991, the coming apart of Soviet society
  • Early 1990s Georgia and the war with Abkhazia
  • Early 1990s Azerbaijan and Armenia
  • The two Chechen wars
  • The reburial of the Tsar Nicholas II and his family; the conversion of (former) security service members to Christianity
  • Uzbekistan and Afghanistan in late 2001
  • Eduard Shevardnadze during the Rose Revolution; a visit to the Ultas of Sakhalin; current day residents of the exclusion zone around Chernobyl; the Beslan hostage crisis

This amounts to seven chapters, and it is not immediately clear why the title speaks of eight pieces (the number of territories covered is actually greater than eight).

It is possible that Sheets considers himself to be the eighth piece. Throughout the book, the number of corpses accumulates steadily, some those of Sheet’s friends. Sheets more or less became a war reporter by accident, and in a moving passage at the very end of the last chapter, he expresses the damage inflicted upon himself due to his work, comparing the process to the sustained exposure over a long period to low-level radiation. This is the Faustic pact of war reporting: the most gripping parts of the book are those where Sheets is most deeply involved himself — besieged Sukhum, Beslan, and especially the shocking, surreal and deeply intense chapter on Chechnya.

Eight Pieces of Empire gives neither a full overview of the unraveling of the Soviet Union, nor of Sheets’s work — he alludes to several events he covered as a journalist that are not included in the book, like the Orange Revolution and the hostage crisis in Moscow’s Dubrovka Theatre. This is a pity for the mere reason that Sheets would surely have had sensible things to say about them. But on the premise that Eight Pieces of Empire should cover precisely those events that Sheets can bring a unique perspective to, the selection of episodes may have been exactly right.

Thus the book includes the final days of the Georgian army in Sukhum before the Abkhaz reconquest in September 1993. Sheets even has the tenacity to return to Sukhum via Russia mere days later, to witness the full-scale looting then underway. In February 2004, he is present during the handover of Zviad Gamsakhurdia’s body to a Chechen delegation taking it for reburial in Grozny, catching a last glimpse when the coffin is briefly opened for the purpose of double checking the corpse’s identity. Sheets is also in the Presidential Office of Chechnya in November 1994, when TASS reports that Grozny has fallen to the opposition and that the same Presidential office is on fire. He is then connected by phone by Movladi Udugev to President Jokar Dudayev, who is sitting at home, eating borscht prepared by his wife. And Sheets is in Mazar-i-Sharif at the time of the Battle of Qala-i-Jangi in November 2001, the prison uprising with the first American casualty of the Afghan War, which ended in the massacre of a couple of hundred Taliban prisoners.

Originality is also the factor that warrants the inclusion of the more tranquil episodes: Sheets’s experience in late-Perestroika Leningrad, his investigation into ‘virginity reparation’ doctors in early 1990s Georgia, and his visits to the Ultas of Sakhalin, whose traditional livelihood of reindeer herding has become unprofitable after the end of communism, and to the inhabitants of the exclusion zone around Chernobyl, for whom resettlement is a worse fate than exposure to relatively low levels of radiation.

All in all, Eight Pieces of Empire recalls Vladimir Putin’s infamous statement that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century. It has rightfully been criticised, because, well, WWII and all that. And WWI. Not to mention communist terror the world over. Moreover — popular sentiments in the region notwithstanding — the consensus says that it is a good thing that the Soviet Union no longer exists. But while that in itself may be true, what Eight Pieces of Empire shows is that the collapse of the Soviet Union — the way it played out — really was a tragedy in many different ways.

Eight Pieces of Empire is not a comprehensive historical account of the fall of the Soviet Union, but it does combine a thoroughly interesting and moving personal story with an invaluable insight into the situation on the ground during a number of key moments.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Book reviews, Chechnya, Georgia, North Ossetia, Russia, Sakhalin, Ukraine, Uzbekistan

Book review: Caucasus by Nicholas Griffin

caucasus - coverCaucasus — In the wake of warriors

Nicholas Griffin

Review, London
August 2001
256 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7472-3630-6

(In subsequent years republished with a variety of different subtitles (A Journey, A Journey in the Crucible of Civilisation, A Journey to the Land between Christianity and Islam and Mountain Men and Holy Wars) and different covers (and various combinations of the two) by Review and other publishers (Thomas Dunne Books (and St. Martin’s Press, of which it is an imprint), University of Chicago Press). At one point I thought Nicholas Griffin might have written a whole series of books set in the Caucasus.)

Despite its apparent popularity in the West (as evidenced by its publishing history), I hadn’t heard too much good about Caucasus, yet was willing to be positively surprised. The book is primarily about Imam Shamil, but the chapters tracing his rise and fall are interweaved with the account of a trip the author made to the Caucasus in 1999.

As feared, Caucasus does contain a significant number of gaffes. When stating that in Yerevan “the European influence is obvious”, the first piece of evidence produced to support this is the observation that “everywhere there are people sipping coffee”. Other dubious assertions include that “what brings the lands of the Caucasus above simpler questions like nationalism and self-determination is oil”, that Stalin is the Caucasus’s most famous hero, that it was “only because of Shamil” that the Caucasus hadn’t yet been fully conquered in the 1870s (completely ignoring the war in the Northwest Caucasus), that the Parthians that defeated Marcus Licinius Crassus at the Battle of Carrhae were ‘nomads’, that “in 1990 […] Armenia invaded the region of Karabagh” and that Zakatala in Azerbaijan is the unofficial capital of Avaria.

Perhaps the most cringe-inducing moments however come when Griffin talks about language, characterising Armenian as “the oldest alphabet in the world, entirely phonetic”. And puzzled by the Caucasus’s linguistic diversity, he states that “There are such diverse explanations for the languages of the Caucasus that no single one makes sense”, “In neighbouring villages professors have found Turkic, Indo-European and Caucasian tongues. Quite how this happened no one knows.” and “Germans colonized a small portion of central Georgia. Christianity took root in Ossetian lands, bringing with it scraps of Latin.”

Caucasus should not be disqualified solely on the basis of these examples. Unfortunately, the rest of the book also disappoints. The account of Shamil’s life is at times exciting, but by its nature cannot be more than introductory. The writing suffers from overinterpretation and clichéd language, and Griffin at times verges dangerously close to making Shamil look like a saint, although he at least acknowledges that Shamil too committed atrocities, and does not fail to point out the fact that throughout the Murid wars, civilians were caught between a rock and a hard place. More worryingly — especially in the light of the mistakes illustrated above — there is no way for the reader to assess the extent to which the text is historically accurate. This because the account seems to be partially fictionalised (Griffin had written two novels before Caucasus), but the extent is not stated, and because references are provided extremely sparingly.

All this could still be compensated for if Griffin’s road trip provided any insights into Shamil’s legacy in present day society, or the state of the Caucasus in 1999. Alas, Griffin’s expedition, starting off in Baku, doesn’t make it to Chechnya (understandably), and Dagestan is only reached by one team member, who is sent across the border for two days. The closest Griffin gets to Shamil is when they visit the Georgian estate of Tsinondali, which Shamil famously raided (capturing Princess Varvara Orbeliani, her niece and her French governess, whom he was then able to trade for his son, raised at the Russian court), and when talking to Shamil’s great-great-granddaughter Tamara (whose family story is perhaps the single most interesting element of the book). The general geographic disconnect between Griffin’s journey and Imam Shamil’s legacy reaches a low point when in Armenia the author seems perplexed that Shamil does not occupy a prominent place in the national consciousness.

We also don’t learn too much about the people the travel party interacts with, apart from their general hospitality and its occasional limits. This is mostly because the varying tensions and companionship within the group require too great a share of the author’s attention. Griffin successfully convinces the reader that the expedition itself was deeply memorable for its participants, but the ultimate levity of the various incidents makes their description unmemorable for the reader.

Caucasus may still be enjoyable for individual readers for whom the Caucasus is a new topic, but there is a risk they carry away from it a shallow impression, and the generally high quality of Caucasus literature means there are better alternatives available.

Filed under: Azerbaijan, Book reviews, Chechnya, Dagestan, Georgia, , , ,

Book review: The Caucasus by Thomas de Waal

the caucasus (de waal) - coverThe Caucasus — an introduction

Thomas de Waal

Oxford University Press, New York
August 2010
272 pages
ISBN: 978-0-1953-9976-9

It is always possible to find fault with a book if only one makes an effort. In the case of The Caucasus, Thomas de Waal’s new book, the most serious issue thus revealed is an off-hand remark about Abkhazia’s 2004 Presidential election. The author states that this “did not involve its Georgian population”, which is inaccurate, because unlike in the later elections of 2009 and 2011, the Georgian residents of the Gali District actually did participate. The reason why this is even worth bringing up here is that in the ensuing post-election crisis, the question whether their participation — without holding Abkhazian citizenship — was constitutional constituted the principal legal challenge against the narrow victory of opposition candidate Sergei Bagapsh. Moreover, it is probably not an exageration to say that he would not have won without the Georgian vote.

If pressed further, one quickly enters the realm of the trivial, which to bring up would not do The Caucasus justice. In fact, throughout the book, Thomas de Waal’s extensive knowledge of the region is apparent as he lays connections and interjects delightful bits of extra information, like the wonderful anecdote that one member of the Georgian Mkhedrioni described it as a ‘paramilitary charity organisation’.

The book can be said to consist of two parts. The first three chapters give a very good overview of the history of the South Caucasus — the first chapter is devoted to the pre-Russian period and the development of the regions’ major religions and nations, the second to the period that the South Caucasus formed part of the Russian Empire and the third to the Soviet period. The second part of the book covers political developments since the unravelling of the Soviet Union, with two chapters on Georgia and its conflicts with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a chapter covering Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Nagorno Karabakh conflict and a chapter about Energy politics.

Specific topics as diverse as wine, Rustaveli Avenue and Baku Jazz are fleshed out in dedicated sections throughout the main text. Controversial subjects like the Armenian Genocide, Stalin and the August 2008 War are treated deftly and with a lot of nuance. Furthermore, De Waal demonstrates that after the death of Stalin, the Soviet Union was not the totalitarian, uniform dictatorship it is commonly believed to have been, as street protests were not uncommon and local governments did in fact determine local policy, with nationalism playing a significant role — historians propagated their nation’s version of history and thousands of people migrated — Armenians from Tbilisi to Armenia, Azeri from Armenia to Azerbaijan.

Overall, there are only two minor things left to remark, which Thomas de Waal may have had no control over. Firstly, the title, which is too general (and incidentally, 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 — a legitimate choice in itself. Even if simplicity was the primary aim behind the title, one could have simply chosen The South Caucasus — An Introduction.

Secondly, the book contains a number of small editorial mistakes. Frankly, this comes off as unprofessional for what is a major publication. Curiously, the mistakes start to appear only in the fourth chapter, as if error-checking had stopped there.

Neither of these issues should distract from the fact that The Caucasus is a wonderful book, which confirms Thomas de Waal’s stature as a leading expert on the region.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Book reviews, Georgia, Nagorno Karabakh, Russia, South Ossetia, Wider Region, , , , ,

Book review: The Post-Soviet Wars by Christoph Zürcher

The Post-Soviet Wars — Rebellion, Ethnic Conflict, and Nationhood in the Caucasus

Christoph Zürcher

New York University Press, New York
November 2007
302 pages
ISBN: 978-0-8147-9709-9

Despite its general title, The Post-Soviet Wars covers only the major wars that took place in the Caucasus: the Karabakh war, the two Russo-Chechen wars, the 1991–1992 Georgian-South Ossetian war, the Georgian civil war and the 1992–1993 Georgian-Abkhazian war.

In the Preface, Zürcher thanks Graham Stack and Erica Richardson respectively for translating a previous version of the book into English and for editing the style and language. The result could easily have been messy, but is actually eminently readable. There remain only a number of typos (especially with dates) and some inconsistencies (the table on pages 28–31, the repeated introduction of a cease-fire in three consecutive sentences on page 126, and the claim that Shamil Basayev received his first combat experience in Abkhazia, whereas he participated in the Karabakh war before that). These are regrettable, but don’t distract from the pleasant reading experience.

The book starts with an overview of the history of the Caucasus. At times, this is very good, at times, less so. Thus, it glosses over the entire North-Western theatre of the 19th Century Caucasian war, stating that “the epic struggles in the North Caucasus through the 19th century […] took place in the east” and “in 1859, the wars in the North Caucasus ended”, whereas at that point, fighting in the North-West had yet to reach its climax with the mass expulsion of Circassians, Ubykh and Abkhaz in the period 1860–1867, which is only hinted at in the text.

Perhaps of more concern for the rest of the book, the characterisation of the formation of the Soviet federal framework also leaves a lot to be desired. Most vexing is the claim that in all South Caucasian union republics, autonomous territories were instituted “as counterweights to any possible nationalist politics”. This is a claim made all to often all too easily by those who wish to somehow frame the Soviet Union for pre-engineering the conflicts of the early 1990s. As such, it needs to be backed up by actual evidence. (Moreover, it is also inaccurate because the Armenian SSR did not contain any autonomous territories.) The running text also does not mention Abkhazia’s initial, peculiar, status as a treaty-SSR, nor the Transcaucasian SFSR. Lastly, in this chapter, and in general throughout the book, Zürcher appears to exaggerate the ‘positive discrimination’ enjoyed by the titular nationalities in the autonomous territories. While a case can be made that this applied in Abkhazia (after 1953) and Adygea (not discussed in the book), it cannot for Nagorno Karabakh and South Ossetia and certainly not for Chechnya, where — as Zürcher himself points out — Chechens were systematically kept from power.

The core of the book is formed by three chapters (the wars involving Georgia are grouped together) in which Zürcher gives succinct but sharp analyses of how the conflicts unfolded and how one of the parties managed to gain the upper hand. That these overviews are not overly detailed and focus mostly on the early stages is due to the fact that Zürcher’s primary goal is not description but explanation. Taking recent insights from quantitive conflict theory as his starting point, he aims to determine whether they apply in the cases at hand and whether these conflicts can provide new insights for conflict theory. To further this end, Zürcher also looks at two territories where war was avoided, Dagestan and Adjara.

Zürcher has many sensible things to say about the causation of conflict, and he successfully demonstrates that one has to take into account exactly how a conflict unfolds to determine whether a certain factor contributed to it. For instance, Zürcher demonstrates that the presence of resources did not play a decisive role. Azerbaijan and Chechnya both possess oil reserves and various diasporas and neighboring kin people can be viewed as an economic resource, but while these did perhaps prolong war, they did not cause it.

However, other aspects of Zürcher’s analysis raise more questions. Notably, some of his claims are undercut by insights presented elsewhere in the text. Since analysis of the causes of the conflicts is Zürcher’s ultimate aim, the rest of this review will address these issues in some greater detail.

Evaluating another of the risk-factors established by quantitive research, Zürcher remarks that the Caucasus was not a particularly underdeveloped place in 1990, neither in a worldwide nor in a Soviet context. However, in each of his analyses of the individual conflicts, the dramatically reduced recruitment cost of fighters due to the economic collapse of the Soviet Union at the time of its break-up plays a crucial role to explain the proliferation of armed formations, which does seem to lend credence to the view that economic hardship makes war more likely.

Zürcher also argues that somewhat counter-intuitively, the Caucasian conflicts do not support a third risk-factor, mountainous terrain. In Chechnya, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the principle battles were fought in the plains, and while mountainous terrain may have prolonged the war in Chechnya, it cannot be said to have caused it. But while these cases are convincing, the case of Nagorno Karabakh is less clear. Zürcher points out that Armenian ‘rebels’ there were actually at a disadvantage because Azeri forces held the high ground in the beginning of the war. But in his description of the escalation of violence in Nagorno Karabakh, an important role is reserved for the failure of Soviet troops to bring under control Armenian and Azeri armed formations. Mountainous terrain may very well have played an important role in this.

Another claim commonly made in the literature is that war is caused by ‘a history of wrongs suffered’. Here too, Zürcher’s analysis is inconsistent. In the cases of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, he states that this does not explain the conflicts, claiming that appeals to past injustices were only invoked to support a cause already awakened by other concerns — the fear of demographic domination and loss of control over economic resources. However, it remains unclear how he makes the decision that these are the primary causes. Zürcher suggests that there was no political disagreement between Abkhaz and Georgians before Glasnost, but at the same time admits that Abkhaz had never accepted their incorporation into the Georgian SSR, sending out appeals to Moscow on a semi-permanent basis. His rejection of ‘wrongs suffered’ in the case of Chechnya receives even less explanation, despite the fact that it seems obvious that this played a big role in Chechnya’s desire to become independent. Conversely, in the case of Nagorno Karabakh, Zürcher admits that it is hard to deny that past injustices were one of the causes for the conflict. Zürcher gives no reason for this difference, but it may be related to the fact that he barely mentions the conflicts between Georgia and Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the period 1917–1921, the incorporation of Abkhazia into the Georgian SSR in 1931 and the Georgification of Abkhazia under Beria and Stalin.

The one risk-factor put forward by quantitive conflict research that Zürcher does embrace is state instability, which in the cases at hand was caused by the collapse of the communist system. However, given that this applied throughout the Soviet Union, but most places were spared war, Zürcher rightly reasons that one has to investigate in detail how state instability contributed to the outbreak of war. One very useful variable in this respect is the relationship between nationalists and nomenklatura during the transition from communism. Territories where nationalists did not pose a great challenge to the nomenklatura (Central Asia, Dagestan) or where nationalists managed to co-opt the Soviet apparatus (Baltic states, Armenia) maintained far greater stability than territories where nationalists broke radically with existing institutions (Georgia, Azerbaijan and Chechnya). In particular, the failure of the Georgian government to control its armed formations directly led to the war with Abkhazia. (Although it is a shame that Zürcher does not discuss Doku Zavgayev, who in 1989 became the first Chechen First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR, had a hand in the Russian invasion of Chechnya and then became Russia’s first counter-President of Chechnya. He is now the Russian ambassador to Slovenia.)

Zürcher also blames Soviet ethnofederalism for the Georgian wars, pointing out that Armenians and Azeris, who had no autonomous territory, made no attempt to secede from Georgia despite actually being more numerous than Ossetians and Abkhaz. But correlation is not causation, and there is a plausible alternative explanation. The existence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as distinct administrative units in the Soviet Union is a direct consequence of their political ambitions in the period 1917–1921. This same ambition then may have meant Abkhazia and South Ossetia were not willing to join an independent Georgian state in 1991.

In fact, even the correlation does not hold — Zürcher’s incomplete sample of post-Soviet wars leads to oversimplification. The cases of Nistria and Gagauzia in the Moldovan SSR show that administrative status in the Soviet Union was not a necessary condition for territories to declare independence when it dissolved.

And even if one does want to make the point that their administrative status was of crucial importance to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, blaming this situation on Soviet ethnofederalism suggests that leaving Abkhaz and Ossetians without an administrative territory was a historical plausible alternative, let alone the only alternative. This is doubtful at best, especially if one considers that Abkhazia at first enjoyed union republic status.

Finally, while Armenians and Azeris may have been more happy to become part of an independent Georgian state than were Abkhaz and Ossetians, the flat claim that “Armenians and Azerbaijanis living in Georgia did not mobilize, and […] demonstrated no separatist tendencies” is not true.

While Zürcher critically evaluates the real explanatory power of the factors singled out by quantitative research as making war more likely, there are two inherent problems he fails to fully acknowledge. Firstly, if a war takes place between two territories, then where do we evaluate the presence of risk-factors? For the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, do we look at Nagorno Karabakh, Armenia, Azerbaijan or all three? And if the latter, what do we do if this gives conflicting results?

What use is it to assess the demographic situation in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Chechnya when Zürcher finds that ethnic relations remained remarkably peaceful until war was introduced by external forces? In fact, this may resolve one minor puzzle raised by Zürcher. According to quantitive research, ethnic diversity increases conflict risk, although as Zürcher points out, only if a territory has a dominant ethnic group that makes up 45% or more of its population. The common explanation of this finding is that an ethnic group will only be more keen for conflict if it can be confident to dominate the rest of society, and that it will otherwise be opposed by a coalition of other ethnic groups. Zürcher remarks that this makes a wrong prediction for Abkhazia, where it was Georgians who formed 45.7% of the population, with Abkhaz at 17.8% only. However, there is nothing surprising here if war was started by a Georgian invasion. And as predicted by theory, the other ethnic groups then mostly rallied around Abkhaz opposition to this invasion.

Secondly, it is actual military conflict we are concerned about, not just political conflict, but of the wars studied, all but the Karabakh war had a clear starting point. These were invasions by Russian (Chechnya) and Georgian (Abkhazia, South Ossetia) forces and a coup (the Georgian civil war). According to Zürcher, these invasions and the coup against Gamsakhurdia were all essentially due to internal politics. Doesn’t that mean then that ‘a desire to strengthen one’s domestic position’ is the main cause of war in the cases at hand?

This is especially relevant for the case of Adjara, where war was avoided. One might think that conflict risk was reduced by the fact that Adjarans speak Georgian and are now generally considered part of the Georgian nation, the main difference being religion (Adjarans are muslim) — perhaps not that salient in late Soviet times. However, Zürcher argues that there was enough distinctness left in Adjara for it to want to go its own way, plus the necessary state apparatus. Moreover, for quite some time, the situation actually deteriorated in parallel to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, with rising tension, heated rhetoric and low-intensity violence. In the end, Zürcher attributes the avoidance of war to a mix of the persistence of communist elites, the succesful Georgification of Adjara in Soviet times, Aslan Abashidze’s personal character and chance. But while these are undoubtedly valid points, it seems that the overriding difference vis-à-vis Abkhazia and South Ossetia was that Georgia didn’t send its troops into Adjara. The question then becomes why Georgia didn’t do so, but Zürcher doesn’t investigate the side that could have started war.

One could argue that one should focus on the side that declares independence, because such an act automatically triggers war. But that is not true. Chechen nationalism around 1990 can be said to have been no more radical than Georgian nationalism, and yet no Russo-Georgian war broke out. The relevant difference is that Russia accepted Georgia’s independence, but not Chechnya’s. For another example, consider once more Gagauzia. Its declaration of independence did not induce Moldova to start a war. It is probably not a coincidence that in 1995, Gagauzia was peacefully incorporated into the Moldovan Republic. Most independence declarations in the disintegrating Soviet Union did not lead to war, so the thought that Chechnya, South Ossetia and Nagorno Karabakh willingly chose war by declaring independence is an oversimplification, due to the knowledge of what followed. (And Abkhazia hadn’t even declared independence, and was still actively seeking a political agreement with Georgia when the war started.)

While the study into the development of nationalism is certainly relevant, it is not clear whether in the cases where war is started by an invasion from one side, structural factors have any explanatory power. Of the wars Zürcher considers, only the Karabakh war did not have a clear start, with violence slowly spiralling out of control. Perhaps only in this case the question becomes pertinent what factors stimulated this process.

Finally, it would also have been useful to set the Georgian civil war apart from the other conflicts in The Post-Soviet Wars. Unlike the other wars, this was not an ethnic war over political status, and it also had a clear cause that calls into question the relevance of structural factors — the coup against Zviad Gamsakhurdia. In order to understand why this coup was followed by a war, it is not sufficient to look at Dagestan and Adjara — one would have to investigate similar situations that did not provoke a civil war, the most pertinent being the ousting from power of Abulfaz Elchibey in Azerbaijan.

All analyses can be argued with, so the fact that The Post-Soviet Wars invites criticism is not surprising. By going beyond mere description of the conflicts, Zürcher has taken a risk, with mixed results. But even if it is not definitive, The Post-Soviet Wars contains important insights, and Zürcher has provided a worthwhile contribution to the study of the Caucasian conflicts of the early 1990s.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Adjara, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Book reviews, Chechnya, Dagestan, Gagauzia, Georgia, Moldova, Nagorno Karabakh, Pridnestrovie, Russia, South Ossetia, ,

Book review: Nooit een thuiswedstrijd by Arthur Huizinga

Nooit een thuiswedstrijd — Een voetbaloorlog in de Kaukasus

Arthur Huizinga

Prometheus, Amsterdam
June 2012
288 pages
ISBN: 978-90-446-1665-1

When Armenian troops conquered the town of Ağdam in 1993, its entire population (some 30000 people) was forced to flee. Nooit een thuiswedstrijd is about the exiled football club FK Qarabağ Ağdam and its people, and by extension, the entire refugee community.

Arthur Huizinga has chosen to write the book in a highly personal style. As a result, the text feels at times almost like a travelogue, and in the first half of the book there are some passages where somewhat confusingly, Huizinga adopts the perspective of some of the characters during events he did not himself attend, but overall this was clearly the right approach to the subject matter — this is a book about people first and political history second.

That said, this choice carries with it the risk that the portrayal of the political context suffers, and to be sure, the book does contain some errors. Some of these are ultimately inconsequential, such as the claim that in 1995, Robert Kocharyan won a great election victory over incumbent President of Armenia Levon Ter-Petrosyan, whereas in reality, the two never competed against each other. (In fact, Ter-Petrosyan won the parliamentary election of 1995 and was re-elected President in 1996. Only in 1998 was he forced to resign under pressure from Kocharyan, by then Prime Minister, who succeeded him as President in the subsequent election.)

There is a more regrettable omission in the second chapter, where Huizinga points out that when the Autonomous Oblast of Nagorno Karabakh was formed in 1923, the town of Shushi, the only major town with an Azeri majority, was not chosen as its capital, despite being the cultural centre of Nagorno Karabakh. In itself, this is true, but the author fails to mention that Shushi only had an Azeri majority due to the pogrom in 1920 that resulted in the flight of virtually all of its Armenian inhabitants and the death of hundreds, if not thousands. If for no other reason, Shushi was not suited to be made capital in 1923 because it lay completely in ruins. This traumatic event is likewise absent from the chronology at the end of the book, as is any mention of the Armenian Genocide.

The second chapter also gives rise to an inconsistency within the text, when it introduces the football club Karabakh Stepanakert. It and Qarabağ Ağdam did not compete often in Soviet times, but could still be considered traditional rivals. Huizinga then mistakenly claims that since Karabakh Stepanakert disappeared after the war in Nagorno Karabakh, no more derbies can be played. The error is especially surprising since Huizinga later visits the team (now called Lernayin Artsakh Stepanakert) and its people, whose fortunes in some ways mirror those of Qarabağ Ağdam (first exile to Yerevan, later return to Stepanakert). Huizinga also mistakenly implies that professional football is impossible in Nagorno Karabakh because it is disallowed by FIFA, whereas of course FIFA is a private company that can only impose its will on its member associations — Nagorno Karabakh now in fact has its own competition.

Finally, one more error that is again more or less inconsequential, but too unfortunate not to mention here. When discussing the temple at Suraxanı, Huizinga caricatures members of the world religion of Zoroastrianism (which has its origins in Persia) as “adherents of the cult of Zoroaster, a sect from India that lets itself be enraptured by fire”. In fact, the current temple complex is not Zoroastrian at all, but Hindu, which may have added to Huizinga’s confusion.

Lest these observations give off to the impression that Nooit een thuiswedstrijd is poorly researched, let me quickly add that, luckily, they are the exception. More generally, it is important to note that Nooit een thuiswedstrijd is not a naive book. Despite mostly portraying Azeri perspectives, it manages to provide a fair characterisation of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, focusing on the lot of the refugees, and certainly not glossing over the dubious commitment of the Azerbaijani government.

The book is not overly long, and it covers all the ground it needs to. The one matter that could have received more explicit attention is the relation between Ağdam and Nagorno Karabakh proper. Despite the historical links between them, and the fact that the government of Nagorno Karabakh has formally annexed Ağdam, it was not part of the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast in Soviet Times, and it seems clear that Nagorno Karabakh will give up Ağdam in case a peace agreement is reached. This means that the refugees may rightly hope that they can one day return to their town. But also that the more years pass before a peace agreement is reached, the less of Ağdam’s pre-war society can be salvaged. And this in turn raises the question whether the former inhabitants of Ağdam would be willing to give up Nagorno Karabakh proper if it means they can return to their homes sooner rather than later. This is a sensitive question, but it would nevertheless have been interesting to hear the opinions of some of the characters in the book on this matter.

That this question arises is a tribute to the fact that Nooit een thuiswedstrijd succeeds in giving a voice to the refugees of Ağdam — the book’s greatest feat. The choice of its subject, FK Qarabağ Ağdam, provides the necessary catalyst for this, and Huizinga manages to tell a great story about both the conflict and about football. Enhanced by its narrative, its not always chronological structure, both the fortunes of FK Qarabağ Ağdam (in Azerbaijan and in Europe) and its people and Huizinga’s attempts to reach Ağdam are varyingly moving, funny and genuinely exciting, and are best left for the reader themself to explore.

Filed under: Azerbaijan, Book reviews, Nagorno Karabakh, Sport, , , , ,

Not the latest peace proposal for the Nagorno Karabakh conflict

On the 15th of March, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov gave a press conference on the ongoing peace talks with Armenia over the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. Mammadyarov claimed that the latest draft proposal discussed by the parties proposed to resolve the conflict in two phases:

– The first phase would witness the withdrawal of all Armenian forces from all Azerbaijani districts (outside of Nagorno Karabakh itself) except for Kalbajar and part of Lachin, the restoration of communications, the organisation of a donor conference and the deployment of peacekeeping troops.

– The second phase would see all Azerbaijani refugees return to Nagorno Karabakh, followed by the determination of Nagorno Karabakh’s status within Azerbaijan.

Then on the 18th, Mammadyarov said in another press conference that Nagorno Karabakh’s status would not be determined in a referendum.

These proposals do not in fact look very realistic – in every way they give Azerbaijan what it wants, and Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh nothing what they want. It is unimaginable that Armenia would agree with anything even remotely similar – we have to conclude that Mammadyarov is misrepresenting the proposal being debated at the moment between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Filed under: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Nagorno Karabakh, Negotiations, , , , , ,

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