United Caucasus: An Incomplete Vision Without Russia

Ethnolinguistic map of the Caucasus

Ethnolinguistic map of the Caucasus

“No more closed borders!  No more conflicts!  A united Caucasus!” has been the mantra of many outside observers and civil society activists who have been involved with the Caucasus region since the collapse of the USSR.  This complex area, with its multitude of different ethnic groups and conflicts, badly needs unity.  However, can this be achieved without the presence of Russia?

Some activists from across the region would respond in the affirmative.  They would claim that Russia is a neo-imperial force with divisive intentions for the region.  This writer is more skeptical.  If Russia were to entirely withdraw from the Caucasus, then would the leaders of the various republics and territories come together?  If not, then who would become the outside force to help them to achieve such unity?

The United States is far too distant to become a serious player.   Turkey, with its historical legacy in the region, would not sit well with Armenia and Georgia, but may get the support of Azerbaijan.  Yet, regardless of this, Ankara already has enough domestic and foreign policy issues as it stands.  The same likewise applies to Iran.

The EU could help, but its understanding of the region’s complexities is very shallow.  Additionally, while it does offer the “European values” of human rights, freedom of speech, the rule of law, etc., it does not offer any sort of cultural cohesion, e.g., there is no single “European” language.  Further, the European economy is still just recovering from the 2008 Eurozone crisis.  By over-expanding itself, it runs the risk of placing serious stress on the bloc’s unity, thus threatening continental stability and peace.

Finally, independent regional integration among the three independent Caucasus states would not work as an option.  Such an effort would require overcoming mutual distrust, which these countries cannot easily accomplish without the presence of a third-party mediator.  Even if unity was achieved, Azerbaijan, as the largest of the three states in terms of demographics and area and also the richest, would likely dominate the union, thus placing Armenia and Georgia at a disadvantage geopolitically.

Mikheil Saakashvili in Kiev (Getty Images Europe/Brendan Hoffman)

Mikheil Saakashvili in Kiev (Getty Images Europe/Brendan Hoffman)

It should also be noted that in this and the other aforementioned options, the nations and peoples of the North Caucasus would not be included simply because the autonomous states of this region are part of the Russian Federation and cannot willfully join another entity on their own.  The former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, likely channeling the great medieval Georgian monarch King David the Builder, attempted to make common cause with the North Caucasus peoples in his calls for Caucasian unity.  However, the rhetoric and discourse of “Russian occupation,” “Russian aggression,” and “Russian invasion” and potential support for North Caucasus Islamic rebels failed to accomplish anything constructive with regard to regional unity.

If there is to be a sustainable and lasting Caucasus unity, it will require a common language and culture at its core.  In the current state of things, it would be impossible to select one language as being the dominant of the region without another nationality raising complaints.  Thus, a regional language or lingua franca cannot be Armenian, Georgian, or Azerbaijani.  It must be another independent language entirely.  There must also be a uniting regional culture.  Films, television programs, literature, and common cultural experiences can also bring different people close together.

A future unity must also ensure a sense of economic viability and strength.  If these countries were to join a bloc like the EU, where the economy is still in recovery mode, then they may have to implement harsh austerity measures which would threaten regional stability.  Regardless of any austerity, considering the current economic state of the EU, it is unlikely that these three countries, where poverty and unemployment remain major problems, will find “overnight” prosperity.  Instead, they need to join a supranational union wherein there are more immediate economic benefits.

Security is another important factor to unity.  The EU, the US, and any potential solo “United Caucasus” unit could not readily guarantee the region’s security, especially against the geopolitical ambitions of Turkey and Iran.  This is particularly true in the cases of Armenia and Georgia, where historical memories of Turkish and Persians invasions, attacks, and (in the Armenian case) genocide still run deep.  Only a larger outside force, with a deep sense of the region’s history, landscape, and potential benefits, can guarantee its security.

Likewise, a third party is also needed to act as a “mediator” to sort out the messy thicket of disputed regions, territories and borders.  While many blame Stalin and the Bolsheviks for being the root causes of such disputes, the truth of the matter is that the Bolsheviks had no intended “divide-and-rule” policy when drawing the region’s borders during Sovietization.  Instead, the most recent research has illustrated that their policy in the Caucasus during the 1917-22 Russian Civil War was to simply secure the region, making compromises, deals, and autonomies along the way, based more on the principle of who-controlled-what than on some sinister plot to undermine local political ambitions for independence.

In all of these cases, whether one wants to admit it or not, it is Russia that truly has all the levers to bring the Caucasus together.  In terms of culture, language, economics, and security, Moscow offers the Caucasus states optimal benefits.  To this day, it is the culture of Russia and the former Soviet Union that still looms large here. For example, during this past New Year’s, families in Yerevan, Tbilisi, and Baku all ritually tuned in to watch the Russian-language Soviet cult classic Ирония судьбы, или С легким паром! (The Irony of Fate or Enjoy Your Banya!), a much beloved film not just throughout the region but throughout the entire former Soviet space.

Prince Pyotr Bagration, George Dawe (1820)

Prince Pyotr Bagration, a painting by George Dawe (1820)

Socially, the peoples of the Caucasus have been highly integrated into both Russian and Soviet life. In history and politics, Prince Pyotr Bagration, Prince Valerian Madatov, Count Mikhail Loris-Melikov, Anastas Mikoyan, Eduard Shevardnadze, and Sergei Lavrov are among the most notable examples – and Joseph Stalin is perhaps the most notorious.

In culture, Russian and Soviet audiences had the pleasure of experiencing the creative work of great artists like Tengiz Abuladze, Ivan Aivazovsky, Sofiko Chiaureli, Rustam Ibragimbekov, Fazil Iskander, Kara Karayev, Aram Khachaturyan, Vakhtang Kikabidze, Frunzik Mkrtchyan, and Sergei Parajanov. And this is just the short list!  In chess, the Armenians have been especially prominent, particularly World Chess Champions Tigran Petrosyan and Garry Kasparov.

Further, it was an ethnic Georgian Soviet soldier, Meliton Kantaria, who, alongside an ethnic Russian soldier Mikhail Yegorov, famously raised the Soviet flag over the Reichstag at the end of World War II. Indeed, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev expressed such sentiments on the closeness of the Georgians specifically to Russians in a 2009 interview for the Moscow-backed English-language news service RT with Eduard Shevardnadze’s granddaughter, Sophie:

I am tired of these Georgians. I love them just like Russians. And I am glad that through all these things Russians have not gotten disappointed in Georgians and Georgians have not been disappointed in Russians. Your grandfather and I celebrated the anniversary of the Treaty of Georgievsk. It is such a big thing. There is a lot of talk about Russia enslaving Georgia. We never occupied them. And there are so many Georgians who went down in Russian history. Every time I go to and from work, I drive past the monument to Bagration, the Georgian who was a hero of the 1812 war. There is so much to remember about the relations between Russia and Georgia. And even now – do you know how many Georgians live in Russia?

The great Bagration was also depicted (rather accurately) as a brave and selfless hero in Leo Tolstoy’s sweeping epic War and Peace. In the same novel, Pierre Bezukhov saves a local Armenian girl in Moscow from marauding French soldiers.

In short, to neglect Russia’s historic role as a cultural and political mediator in the Caucasus in favor of another, less tenable geopolitical player would only serve to undermine the unity of the entire region.  Consequently, it is principally Russia that can make such the vision of a “United Caucasus” into a viable and lasting reality for the foreseeable future.

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