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

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: Let Our Fame be Great by Oliver Bullough

let our fame be great - coverLet Our Fame be Great — Journeys Among the Defiant Peoples of the Caucasus

Oliver Bullough

Allen Lane, London
March 2010
508 pages
ISBN: 978-1-846-14141-6

Let Our Fame be Great takes its name from an episode of North Caucasus mythology. In the tale, the Narts — the heroes of these stories — are offered the choice between long, comfortable but uneventful life, and a short but heroic life and eternal glory. Naturally, they choose the latter, with the words let our fame be great.

The book is about the various peoples of the Caucasus who during the last two centuries were confronted with Russian injustice and, because they dared to stand up to this, horrendous punishment. According to Bullough, they have been cheated by history — they chose the path expressed by the book’s title, but their fame is anything but great.

More specifically, the author discusses the fate of three groups of peoples, and with them, three lowpoints of Russia’s involvement in the Caucasus. The book’s first part is devoted to Russia’s Nineteenth Century conquest of the Northwest Caucasus in the face of the bitter resistance of its inhabitants, and their subsequent expulsion to the Ottoman Empire, if not to death. In the second part, Bullough looks at Joseph Stalin’s deportation of the Karachays, Balkars, Chechens and Ingush to Central Asia, each collectively deemed ‘guilty’ of supporting the German enemy, carried out with enormous cruelty and additional loss of life due to disease and famine. Finally, the last two parts of the book are devoted to the conflict in Chechnya that has been ongoing since the early 1990s, and that has to some extent been exported to Russia and to the rest of the North Caucasus, but it also extensively discusses Russia’s Nineteenth Century conquest of the Northeast Caucasus, and Chechen and Dagestani resistance to it.

While the three conflicts covered in Let Our Fame be Great have in common the fact that they originate in Russia’s desire to subjugate the North Caucasus, they are not the same scenario played out thrice. Stalin’s deportations are perhaps the most straightforward, because they were largely unprovoked — people were accused of collaboration with the enemy despite living in areas not even reached by German troops.

Bullough looks in detail at one episode where a few hundred local troops did rise up against Soviet authorities. These troops had been part of the Kabardino-Balkarian cavalry division that had been sent into battle against German tanks and consequently masacred. They subsequently deserted and withdrew to the Cherek valley, where they resisted Soviet troops ordered to subdue them. More drastic measures where then taken, as the NKVD sent in a unit of 152 soldiers led by Captain Nakin, who, encouraged by his superiors, killed everyone they encountered — men, women and children — systematically moving from village to village. During the lingering days of Glasnost in the early nineties, the Karbardino-Balkaria Parliament declared the event a genocide, but before and since it has mostly been ignored and hushed over by authorities.

In contrast, the war in the Northwest Caucasus started out like many others. It ended in genocide because of the enormous social and economical differences between Russia and the Circassians, and the blank refusal of the latter to compromise with injustice. Its primitive economy meant Circassia had great difficulty to sustain its war effort and had to sell off men of weapons-bearing age into Ottoman slavery. Its lack of central government and its otherwise admirable tradition of consensual policy making prevented the planning and execution of any effective long term strategy. Nevertheless, for decades the Circassians resisted, eventually leading Russia to conclude that it had to permanently destroy the Circassians’ way of life.

Bullough illustrates the Circassians’ ineffectual war effort with one episode where for once, a large number of Circassian fighters had taken the initiative to stage a surprise attack on Russian troops accross the frozen river Kuban. The decision to proceed with the plan required much deliberation and the Russian troops received advance warning of it. When the Circassians arrived at the Kuban and it turned out that the ice was fracturing, most withdrew, but a significant number of young horsemen went ahead anyway, rather pointlessly, and right into a waiting Russian ambush.

Finally, the war in the Northeast Caucasus initially started out similarly to the war in the Northwest, but it soon took a different turn when Chechen and Dagestani forces were united by a number of successive political-religious leaders, of which the most famous is Imam Shamil. On the one hand, Shamil managed to organise resistance against Russia much more effectively than the Circassians. On the other hand, his ideology of Muslim reform represented itself a new force in the region, setting him apart from the more traditional population of Chechnya. His ultimate defeat did not require the physical elimination of all Chechens, only the abandoning of their support for him. In two very interesting chapters, Bullough describes Shamil’s life after his capture, and his surprising appreciation for Russia’s efforts to pacify the Caucasus.

The continued presence of the Chechen nation in the Caucasus, their traumatic deportation by Stalin and the continued discrimination after their return made possible the renewed conflict since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Although Russia started the war in 1994, Bullough does not fail to point out the spectacular failure of the Chechens to build their state, and the injustifiability of the invasion of Dagestan that triggered the second war in 1999. He also gives a nuanced picture of Akhmat Kadyrov, Chechnya’s Head Mufti who went over to the Russians at the start of the second war and whose son Ramzan now holds a sway of terror over Chechnya. (It is all the more surprising that he does not discuss the similar — although of course not identical — role played by Communist Party Head Doku Zavgayev during the first war, being dismissed from the narrative through the September 1991 revolution with the words that it “effectively ended [his] career”. He is currently Russia’s ambassador to Slovenia.) Most of all, however, Bullough condemns the way Russia has waged war, destroying Grozny and its mostly Russian inhabitants apartment block by apartment block and inflicting torture, rape and death on thousands, in turn provoking the transformation of Chechen troops into terrorists reduced to exploiting vulnerable women as suicide bombers and killing innocent Muscovites out of revenge and cold calculation, as exemplified by the very gripping story of Zarema Muzhakhoyeva, who in the last moment decided not to blow herself up. The final irony is that while for all intents and purposes, Russia has won a military victory, under Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya has de facto almost become independent.

Besides covering the main events of the three conlicts, Bullough also provides a few short excursions to related topics. These include an account of the British mountain expeditions to the Caucasus and the various attempts to scale the Elbrus, which is interesting, but somewhat unrelated to the rest of the book. Of more direct relevance is a very interesting discussion of Russia’s 19th century Caucasus literature. Here the only regret is that Bullough does not mention Lev Tolstoy. His absence is especially frustrating because Bullough provocatively (but otherwise persuasively) argues that Mikhail Lermontov‘s A Hero of Our Time is the only great Caucasus work, and because Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat is based on the eponymous real-life resistance fighter who repeatedly switched allegiance between the Russians and Imam Shamil.

Let Our Fame be Great is not a straightforward history book. Rather, Bullough approaches the subject matter by looking at individual lives, to demonstrate how catastrophic the various conflicts have truly been. To this end, the author has interviewed a large number of people, not staying in the Caucasus but seeking out elderly survivors of Stalin’s deportations in Central Asia, members of the Circassian and Dagestani diasporas in Turkey, Israel and Jordan and more recent Chechen emigrants in Europe, which results in a number of heart-wrenching stories. Among the interviewed are the Chechen Umar Israilov, who was first tortured by Kadyrov’s troops, then became one of his bodyguards, then fled to Vienna and then was murdered — not long after the interview. And the mother of Rasul Kudayev, a former wrestling champion turned Guantanamo detainee, eventualy extradited to Russia and released without trial. After the 2005 Nalchik attack that he was likely not involved in, Kudayev was again arrested by the Russian government — he has not been released since, nor faced trial. Bullough also courageously defends the mystifying case of Nur-Pashi Kulayev, the only (known) surviving hostage taker of Beslan, whose claims that he did not have an active part in the operation, and that he did not know of it in advance, may in fact be true — although Bullough is careful to acknowledge that there is no hard evidence either way.

For the events of the Nineteenth Century where there is no one left to interview, Bullough instead carefully investigates the primary written sources available. Both approaches must have required a tremendous amount of work by the author, and the labour was not in vain — they make Let Our Fame be Great a genuinely authorative account. The written sources ultimately cannot rival the intimacy of the interviews, making the tragedies of the Nineteenth Century harder to imagine than the more recent ones. Bullough is not to blame for this, but curiously, it seems to affect himself as well, when he describes the Chechen conflict of the 1990s as “the most brutal war the mountains has ever seen”. The sheer death toll of the Northwest Caucasian Genocide at the very least means that Bullough should have provided an explanation for this claim.

About the only things about Let Our Fame be Great that leave something to be desired are the occasional use of hyperbole, and the fact that the book is structured a bit confusingly. It covers three eras and three groups of peoples, but these don’t completely correspond to each other. In fact, the western and eastern theatres of the 19th century Caucasus wars are relatively self-contained, giving us a total of four components, but these still don’t correspond to the four parts of the book. Moreover, of the four components, one stands relatively apart — the 19th Century war in the Northwest Caucasus, since it ended in genocide. Conversely, Stalin’s deportations and the Chechen conflict organically connect to each other, since the Chechens were one of the deported peoples and this has played a crucial role in their national awakening and desire for independence towards the end of the Soviet period. Moreover, as the second Chechen war fizzled out and transformed into a terrorist conflict motivated more by religion, it has also spread to Dagestan, Ingushetia, Karachaya and Balkaria, the other territories affected by the 19th Century war in the Northeast Caucasus and/or Stalin’s deportations.

Ultimately then, Let Our Fame be Great tells two big overarching stories, covering on the one hand the Northwest Caucasian peoples, who were broken in 1864 with some finality, and who best exemplify the philosophy behind the book’s title, and on the other hand the Northeast Caucasian peoples and the Karachay-Balkars, whose conflict with Russia is ongoing to this day. (Inter alia, it is refreshing to read about the Karachay-Balkars, who — undeservedly — of all the peoples of the Caucasus perhaps least capture the imagination, because they only rarely make news headlines and perhaps because they are seen as not very Caucasian, being of Turkic stock, a fate that somehow less affects the Indo-European Armenians and Ossetians.) Since the book is quite long, it might perhaps profitably have been split into two, especially since Bullough makes it clear that his goal is not to give a comprehensive account of all Russian injustice ever in the Caucasus, leaving untold for instance Stalin’s deportation of the Pontic Greeks.

Splitting the book in two would also have left room for some minor expansions in other areas. As it is, Let Our Fame be Great is mostly about the peoples that did not compromise with Russia, but in each case, there were close neighbours that did. While most Northwest Caucasian peoples so bitterly resisted Russian conquest in the 19th Century, the East-Circassian Kabardians mostly acquiesced. This stark difference is especially interesting in the light of the generally accepted view that Circassians are one people divided by Soviet national policy. Moving to the present, Bullough visits the resorts on the Black Sea coast line and concludes that the remaining Circassians have been marginalised and Russified, but this begs for a comparison with present-day Kabarda, where Circassians still form a majority, and with Abkhazia, where for the first time since the 19th century, an independent Northwest Caucasian state has once more become reality. To what extent have they been able to preserve or resuscitate their traditional culture? In the Northeast Caucasus, Chechnya’s rapid descend in the late 1980s and early 1990s towards independence also strongly suggests comparison with neighbouring Ingushetia. Why did it not follow suit, given that its historical path had been roughly similar up until that point, and even formed part of the same Soviet Republic with Chechnya, necessitating a formal split when Chechnya declared independence?

These issues of a more conceptual nature demonstrate the ambitious scope of the project undertaken in Let Our Fame be Great. But the potential avenues not explored in the book do not diminish the worth of the material that is contained in it. Backed up by an impressive amount of research, the moral at the heart of Let Our Fame be Great is simple: Russian military interventions in the last two hundred years have more often than not had horrible consequences. The undesirability of a conclusion like this oftentimes makes people want to ignore it. But Bullough is right: the millions of people affected by smaller and greater tragedies deserve better. Most of all, the modern day inhabitants of the North Caucasus and Russia at large have a moral obligation to be aware of their shared history.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Balkaria, Book reviews, Chechnya, Cherkessia, Circassians, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabarda, Karachaya, Russia, 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, ,

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