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

Book review: Atlas Géopolitique du Caucase by Jean Radvanyi and Nicolas Beroutchachvili

Atlas Géopolitique du Caucase: Russie, Géorgie, Arménie, Azerbaïdjan: un Avenir Commun Possible?

Jean Radvanyi and Nicolas Beroutchachvili
(Cartography: Manana Kourtoubadzé and Philippe Rekacewicz)

Éditions Autrement, Paris
January 2010
80 pages
ISBN: 978-2-7467-1296-6

Many a book designated ‘atlas’ is not in fact that, but rather a glossy reference work with an occasional map thrown in. Not so the Atlas Géopolitique du Caucase. To be sure, it contains a fair share of running text, but it has maps on most pages, and these form the core of the book.

The Atlas Géopolitique du Caucase is divided into four chapters. The first contains some historical and geographical maps, the second is devoted to the inhabitants of the Caucasus, the third to its economies and the fourth to its conflicts. Apart from the standard political, physical and ethnolinguistic maps, there are plenty of maps not readily available elsewhere. These include a map showing where Europe might end and where Asia start according to various definitions, a map indicating what parts of the Caucasus were vassals of respectively the Turkish, Persian and Russian empires in 1783 and maps comparing the competing Georgian, Armenian and Azerbaijani territorial claims in 1919 and 1920. There are two maps showing the largest and second largest ethnicities per district, thus highlighting the distribution of minorities, such as the widespread Armenian presence in Krasnodar and Stavropol Krais, and the growing Dargin presence in the latter. There are maps indicating the presence of industries, various forms of agriculture, natural parks, tourism and infrastructure. There is even a map indicating Georgian and Armenian pollution along the river Kura and its tributaries.

Some maps stand out for showing different divides within the Caucasus. One map shows that between 1989 and 2002 the Russian population did not just (strongly) decrease in the Non-Russian South Caucasus, but also in Dagestan, Chechnya and to a lesser extend the other North Caucasian Republics except Adygea. Birth rates are high in the east (Azerbaijan, Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia) and low in the west (especially Georgia). Mortality rates are especially high in Krasnodar, Stavropol, Adygea, North Ossetia and Ingushetia (no figures for Chechnya). The result is that population growth is strongly positive in Azerbaijan, Dagestan, Ingushetia and Ajara and negative in Krasnodar, Stavropol, Adygea, North and South Ossetia and large parts of Georgia (outside Ajara).

The book is not perfect. The texts in the Abkhazia and South Ossetia conflict sections lack depth, failing to mention the ‘little wars’ of 1998 and 2001 in Abkhazia and 2004 in South Ossetia. The chronologies that accompany these and the Nagorno Karabakh sections completely omit the brutal 1918-1920 Georgian-Ossetian war, the 1918 Baku and 1920 Shushi massacres and Stalins terror in Abkhazia, instead devoting space to legal acts.

Overall, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno Karabakh form a problem for the Atlas Géopolitique du Caucase. It is understandable, although still regrettable that on a number of maps, some of these states (or Chechnya) turn up grey, there being no figures available. More generally, they don’t fit the narrative of many sections, where Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Russian Caucasus are compared to one another. In the introduction, the authors indicate that they have decided to ignore their independence, given that they have no international recognition, which is of course patently false, in fact by their own admission elsewhere in the book. More importantly, it would have been useful to pay more attention to Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno Karabakh, as they can be expected to score differently on many of the indicators compared to Georgia and Azerbaijan.

The sensible thing would have been to include these as independent states, along with indicators that the legality of this independence is widely contested. To be sure, the indicators are still present at the bottom of each map, which feels rather obsessive: Abkhazia is presented no differently from Ajara, and still every map explicitly says that Georgia does not recognise its independence.

That said, these issues don’t detract from the fact that the Atlas Géopolitique du Caucase contains many useful and interesting maps. On top of that, it is almost mistake-free and it is designed very elegantly. To name but one detail, every section includes a black disk with Russian, Georgian, Armenian and Azeri translations of its topic. Perhaps it could have been bigger, but as it stands, it is a bargain at a mere €17,–.

Filed under: Book reviews, Cartography, Wider Region, , , ,

Cartography: the Russo-Abkhazian border dispute

When it was first reported that during the Russo-Abkhazian meetings on border demarcation, Russia had proposed that Abkhazia should cede some 160 sq km of land of its Gagra District, it was unclear exactly what part was meant. Was Gagra itself to be included? Now thanks to an article by Vladimir Vorobin in the Komsomolskaya Pravda we have a map:

Initial stretch of Abkhazian territory supposedly to be ceded to Russia

Official statements first denied that the disagreement was over such a large amount of territory, but the head of the Abkhazian delegation, MP Valeri Kvarchia, then confirmed that the Russian side had indeed at first made this ‘proposal’. From the second meeting onwards, the dispute instead narrowed on the small village of Aibga, as displayed on this Soviet map (one segment of the grid corresponds to 2 km):

The village of Aibga, which straddles the river Psou and hence the Russo-Abkhazian border

Aibga straddles the river Psou (the thick blue line on the map) which marked the border in Soviet times, dividing Aibga into a northern, Russian and a southern, Abkhazian half. Abkhazia wants to perpetuate this state of affairs, whereas Russia apparently claims the entire village. As can be seen from the map, the amount of land and people involved is very small. Most of Aibga lies north of the Psou. In addition, even the southern half of Aibga is de facto part of Russia, in the sense that by car it can only be reached from Russia, it probably gets all its services from Russia, it is principally inhabited by Russians and there are no border controls on Aibga’s two bridges. It would even be a surprise if Aibga was included in the Abkhazian census of last February. Thus if Abkhazia were to give in, it wouldn’t lose much in practical terms. But of course, the symbolic impact would be much larger, hence the outrage in Abkhazian society.

The Russian stance in this dispute is puzzling. Russia appears to have no legal arguments for its claims. The 160 sq km of the first proposal would certainly have been a lucrative acquisition. But while the territory is sparsely populated, it does include Lake Ritsa, and it is unthinkable that Abkhazia would give up its principal touristic asset next to its Black Sea coastline. The more recent proposal over Aibga is much more modest, but the lack of practical benefits raises the question, why bother? Why risk permanently alienating your friendly and grateful neighbour, which offers you many lucrative business opportunities, over a tiny, insignificant jot of land? The only plausible explanation that comes to mind is that Russia is using this issue to force concessions in other areas, such as the ownership of Abkhazian land by non-Abkhazian (i.e. Russian) nationals, or Russian influence over Abkhazia’s army. (In this context, see Abkhazian Army Purge? – part 3.)

Filed under: Abkhazia, Cartography, Negotiations, Russia, , , ,

Photography: TNT not impressed by Azerbaijan

The photo was taken in Yerevan last August, outside a post office.

For those unfamiliar: TNT is a global mail and express company centred in the Netherlands. They introduced their slogan sure we can at the time of the 2008 American Presidential campaign, but claim to have come up with it before Barack Obama introduced his Yes We Can.

The map beneath the slogan outlines Armenia and its provinces (in white) and, suggestively, Nagorno-Karabakh (in grey), speckled with dots indicating the main towns and cities. There is one dot which falls outside the map. This is Aşağı Ağcakəndit, known to Armenians as Shahumian, which is claimed by Nagorno-Karabakh but controlled by Azerbaijan. Interestingly, the map follows the de facto border, perhaps so as not to suggest that TNT can deliver anything to there.

Filed under: Armenia, Cartography, Nagorno Karabakh, Photography, , , , , , , ,

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