Charting the historical development of protest in Soviet and post-Soviet Armenia

Yerevan 1988

Yerevan 1988

While the recent Baghramyan Avenue protests in Armenia over electricity price hikes may have surprised many observers, they are arguably part of a broader tradition of civic activism in Soviet and post-Soviet Armenia.

How do the Baghramyan protests compare to other historical protests in Armenia? These latest demonstrations reportedly brought out as many as 30,000 people into the streets of Yerevan last week. This is a larger number compared to the 2013 post-election protests in Armenia, led by the pro-Western Raffi Hovannisian, which brought out at most 10,000 people into the streets. At the same time, the Baghramyan number is smaller than the 2008 post-election protests, led by Armenia’s former President Levon Ter-Petrosyan, which reportedly brought out about 50,000 to 100,000 people into the streets.

Of course, none of these protests compare to the sheer size and scale of those of the Karabakh Movement during perestroika, in which as many as one million men, women, and children went out to protest on the streets of Yerevan in February 1988. That is approximately one-third of Armenia’s entire population. Of course, the reasons and circumstances for such massive protests were quite exceptional (as was arguably the era in which they took place).  For Armenians, Nagorny Karabakh (or Artsakh) is an existential issue.

Below are figures showing the growth of the perestroika-era protests in Armenia, from September 1987 to February 1988. These figures are derived from data compiled by Mark R. Beissinger, a political scientist at Princeton and author of the book Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State (Cambridge University Press, 2002):

1987:
September: 200
October-December: 2,000-1,000

1988
:
January (early): 5,000
January (early-mid): 30,000
January (mid): 200,000
January (late): 500,000
February: 1,000,000

Five myths of the Soviet effort in World War II – debunked

Raising a flag over the Reichstag (Yevgeny Khaldei)

Raising a flag over the Reichstag (Yevgeny Khaldei).  This iconic wartime image has been compared to the famous Joe Rosenthal photograph of the US Marines raising the American flag at Iwo Jima.

This Saturday (9 May) marked the 70th anniversary of World War II (or the Great Patriotic War) in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Yet, misconceptions of the Soviet involvement in the war and its legacy persist in the West. Here are five of them – debunked:

1. The Americans won World War II in Europe. While one can justifiably state that the Americans won World War II in the Pacific, in fact it is clear that the Soviet Union unambiguously won the war in Europe. The battles of Stalingrad, Kursk, Kiev, and other cities, as well as the sieges of Leningrad and Sevastopol, will be forever burned in the collective memory of the people of Russia and the former Soviet Union. The major Soviet sacrifice in the war can be best illustrated factually by the sheer statistics. At least 27 million Soviet citizens, or 14% of the USSR’s prewar population, died in the war, compared to less than 1% of the British prewar population and less than 0.5% of the American prewar population.  3 million Soviet soldiers from the war remain missing in action action to this day.

Noted Russia scholar Dr. Stephen F. Cohen of NYU and Princeton stated in a recent interview on the war that “when the Germans came in June 1941 and there was an emergency call-up, they called up the class that graduated that May-June from high [secondary] school. 18 year old boys. And sent ’em off to fight. Of every 100 high school boys who went off to fight in June 1941, only three came home… What that meant was, as life went on after the war, was that millions of Soviet women never had a husband, never married. And there was actually a name for them. They were called ‘Ivan’s widows.'”

2. The Soviet victory of World War II in Europe was a Russian victory alone. In fact, the victory of the Soviet Union was not a Russian victory alone. Even though Russians formed the highest number of military casualties (close to 70%), soldiers of other Soviet nationalities also sacrificed greatly for the victory. Ukrainians, Belarusians, Jews, Armenians, Georgians, Kazakhs, and others made major contributions to the war effort. Some of the greatest heroes of the war were non-Russians, such as Marshal Semyon Timoshenko and Marshal Ivan Bagramyan, who were Ukrainian and Armenian respectively.  Belarus, the Soviet republic that served as a major center for partisan activity during the war, proportionally suffered the greatest loss of life against the Nazi onslaught – over 25% of its prewar population. The Soviet soldiers who raised the Soviet flag over the Reichstag in the famous World War II image were from Daghestan (Abdulakhim Ismailov), Ukraine (Aleksey Kovalev), and Belarus (Leonid Gorychev) while the photographer, Yevgeny Khaldei, was a Jew from the Ukrainian Donbas.  To this day, Victory Day is a major holiday in all non-Baltic former Soviet republics.

3. The war is viewed very differently in Ukraine than in Russia. In reality, this only applies to those areas of Western Ukraine, annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939, where the Ukrainian nationalist movement was active and where the Red Army was seen as an “oppressor.” By contrast, throughout the rest of Ukraine, primarily in the Central and Southeastern parts, the war is remembered as a patriotic endeavor against the hated Nazi German invader. The war saw major figures emerge from these parts of Ukraine. They included not only Timoshenko, but also Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, Marshal of Armored Troops Pavel Rybalko, General Mikhail Kirponos, fighter ace and Chief Marshal of Aviation Ivan Kozhedub, and the sniper Major Lyudmila Pavlichenko, who was immortalized in song by the American folk singer Woody Guthrie. The different perceptions of the war in the different regions of Ukraine is perhaps best illustrated by Dr. Ivan Katchanovski of the University of Ottawa in his study on the subject.

4. The Americans liberated the prisoners of Auschwitz. While it is true that the Americans liberated the prisoners of Buchenwald, it was in fact the Soviet Red Army that liberated the prisoners of Auschwitz on 26 January 1945. Further, the Holocaust itself largely took place on the Eastern Front.

5. The orange-and-black St. George Ribbon sported by Russians and other former Soviet peoples on 9 May is a recent invention. In fact, the St. George Ribbon has a history dating all the way back to Tsarist times in the late 18th century. During World War II, the ribbon was later re-adopted by the Soviet military. The ribbon gained greater visibility and public significance in Russia under Putin, beginning in the mid-2000s as a symbol representing the war effort, part of a greater campaign focused on reviving Russian patriotism after the chaotic Yeltsin years.

Since the Ukraine conflict in 2014, the ribbon has become associated by the Ukrainian government and its supporters with the pro-Russian rebels of Donbas.  In response, the Ukrainian government has controversially adopted a new symbol to commemorate the war – the red-and-black poppy common in the UK, Canada, and the British Commonwealth. The poppy is favored by nationalists in the Ukrainian government because the red-and-black colors match those used on the flags of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) which collaborated with the Nazis during the war.  According to Ivan Katchanovski, the red-and-black colors “in turn were adopted from the Nazi blood and soil colors.” The move has consequently met with much controversy in Ukraine, especially among veterans of the Red Army and the pro-Soviet partisan movement.

Davit Gareja: A Disputed Frontier in the Caucasus

The Davit Gareja monastery complex, from the Georgian side of the border.

The Davit Gareja monastery complex, from the Georgian side of the border.

Observers of the post-Soviet space are well aware of the frozen conflicts in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorny Karabakh as well as conflict in Russia’s North Caucasus. However, there are also smaller conflicts in the region, including border disputes that have yet to be resolved. One of these is Davit Gareja.

Davit Gareja is a rock-hewn Georgian Orthodox monastery situated between Georgia’s Kakheti province and Azerbaijan’s Agstafa raion. The complex has been subject to a long-running border dispute between Georgia and Azerbaijan that dates back to the Sovietization of the two republics in the 1920s.  The legacy of Soviet nationalities policy has only further complicated this dispute.

Establishment and development

The vast majority of Western, Russian, and Georgian academics are in agreement that Davit Gareja is clearly a Georgian monastery complex. Its inscriptions, artwork, and architectural character are clearly of Georgian origin and the site has a lengthy Georgian history.  Its two main monasteries are Lavra and Udabno.

Last Supper Fresco, Udabno Monastery

Last Supper Fresco, Udabno Monastery

According to Georgian tradition, the complex was founded by St. Davit Garejeli (hence the name), one of the Thirteen Assyrian Fathers, a group of Christian monastic missionaries who arrived in Georgia from Mesopotamia in the 6th century. It was further developed in the 9th century by St. Hilarion of Georgia, and it reached its apogee during the 11th-13th centuries, especially under the reigns of King David the Builder and Queen Tamar. Notably, it also served as a place of refuge and seclusion for the 12th century Georgian King Demetre I.

Sadly, Davit Gareja was also subject to attack from foreign powers.  It was devastated by the Mongols and the Persians but managed to remain within the Georgian cultural and political sphere.  According to Artur Tsutsiev’s Атлас этнополитической истории Кавказа (now available in English translation from the Yale University Press), the monastery complex was located entirely within the borders of the Georgian Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti at the time of the Russian annexation in 1801. It subsequently became part of the Georgia guberniya and later the Tiflis guberniya under Tsarist rule.  In 1918, it passed to the control of the short-lived Menshevik Democratic Republic of Georgia, though the monastery and its surrounding territory were also claimed by the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic.

Origins of the dispute: Sovietization and division

In 1921, the Georgian republic fell to the Bolsheviks.  In keeping with the Soviet anti-religious policy, the complex was closed and worship was prohibited.  In terms of its location, the complex was initially entirely within the boundaries of the newly proclaimed Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR).  However, during the course of the 1920s, the boundary was readjusted, leaving Davit Gareja divided between the Georgian and Azerbaijani SSRs.

Georgian monks at the monastery in 2007 claimed that this decision was made deliberately by Soviet authorities as a “divide-and-rule” strategy in order to undermine relations between Christian Georgians and Muslim Azerbaijanis.

Location of Davit Gareja in the Caucasus

Location of Davit Gareja in the Caucasus

However, this explanation seems unlikely given that the prior Soviet division of territories in the Caucasus was based less on a divide-and-rule policy and more on geopolitical expediency.  According to the research of the academic Arsène Saparov, the Bolsheviks were primarily concerned with solidifying their control of the region in the 1920s. Establishing long-term boundaries was not their aim.  In fact, the Bolsheviks regarded national boundaries as only a temporary phenomenon that would be rendered irrelevant with the realization of an internationalist communist utopia.  It is more likely that the border in the vicinity of Davit Gareja was adjusted to accommodate the immediate needs of the nomadic Turkic population of the Azerbaijan SSR.

The boundary was finalized between the two republics by 1928.  At that time in Moscow, Joseph Stalin was consolidating his power for the Soviet leadership in the Kremlin. During the subsequent Stalin era, any debate or discussion regarding disputed borders was strongly discouraged, if not strictly prohibited. Lavrentiy Beria served as the party boss of Soviet Georgia and the whole of Soviet Transcaucasia during the 1930s.  He ruthlessly stifled dissent, especially in his native Georgia.  The culture of fear remained widespread after Beria became the chief of the all-Union NKVD in 1938.

Davit Gareja in the post-Stalin era

Following the deaths of Stalin and Beria, the Soviet state began a limited liberalization initiative under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, known as the Khrushchev Thaw (Хрущёвская оттепель). Suddenly, Georgian intellectuals had more freedom to express their opinions on disputed inter-republican boundaries established by the Bolsheviks in the 1920s.

Territorial claims by Georgian intellectuals and dissidents focused on two regions in Soviet Azerbaijan in particular: the multiethnic territory of Zaktala (Saingilo-Hereti) and the Azerbaijani portion of Davit Gareja.  On the latter, they periodically petitioned Soviet authorities to place the complex entirely within Soviet Georgian territory, but to no avail.  In some cases, they pointed out mistreatment of the site by Soviet Azerbaijani authorities. Georgian dissidents complained to Moscow that medieval frescoes were “blotted out.”  By contrast, they claimed that Islamic cultural monuments in Azerbaijan were receiving active attention and preservation care.

Georgian dissident, nationalist leader, and former President Zviad Gamsakhurdia

Georgian dissident, nationalist leader, and former president Zviad Gamsakhurdia

One report by the Georgian dissident, nationalist leader, and future president Zviad Gamsakhurdia entitled The State of Relics of the Christian Culture in Georgia asserted that the site was also being utilized as a “firing range” by Soviet military authorities.  The report further claimed that specialists had appealed to General Shkrudnev of the Transcausian Military District with no success. In the text, Gamsakhurdia openly wondered why the general, who no doubt knew about efforts to preserve Russian architectural monuments in places like Novgorod, Pskov, and Vladimir, would be so indifferent to the preservation of Davit Gareja.

The launch of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost brought the issue of Davit Gareja from the samizdat to the open public discourse.  At the time, the disputed border between Georgia and Azerbaijan was not the primary focus of discussion.  Instead, the focus was the deplorable state of the monastery on the Georgian side and its use as a firing range by the Soviet military.

In 1987, a group of students, led by the writer Davit Turashvili and others, protested against further use of the site by the Soviet military.  Officials in Tbilisi and Moscow agreed to move the firing range away from the complex site.  However, the shelling continued in late 1988, prompting 10,000 students to angrily demonstrate on the streets of Tbilisi.  The authorities quickly relented and the shelling finally stopped.

The Davit Gareja dispute since 1991

The status of the Davit Gareja entered a new phase after the dissolution of the Soviet state in 1991.   Religious life was revived and efforts to actively restore and preserve the monasteries on the Georgian-controlled part of the site commenced.  Yet, controversy arose in 1996 when it was decided to resume military exercises in the area.  Public protest led to an end to such exercises the following year.  The complex has since become a major tourist attraction in Georgia.

The Soviet collapse also internationalized the Davit Gareja dispute.  No longer was the complex divided along an internal boundary within a single state.  It was now an external frontier between the independent republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan.   The situation was no longer an internal political matter involving Moscow and the local cadres in Tbilisi and Baku.  It now became an international dispute.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (EU)

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (EU)

Border talks began as early as 1992.  Georgian officials proposed the possibility of exchanging the Azerbaijani section of the complex with another section of border territory.  However, Baku has categorically refused such an exchange.  This position only hardened under the authoritarian regime of Ilham Aliyev, citing the monastery’s “strategic importance for Azerbaijan.”

Little progress was made to resolve the dispute during the presidency of Eduard Shevardnadze.  After his ouster in the 2003 Rose Revolution, the new Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, played down the Davit Gareja dispute.  Unabashedly pro-Western, Saakashvili viewed relations with Azerbaijan, Washington-backed regional energy projects, and financial aid from Baku as more important.  This position prompted criticism from the Georgian opposition.

In April 2007, the situation became more complex when Azerbaijan’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Khalaf Khalafov, controversially stated that the monastery “was home to the Caucasian Albanians, who are believed to have been the earliest inhabitants of Azerbaijan.”  These “Caucasian Albanians” to which the envoy referred are not to be confused with the Albanians of the present-day Balkans.  Rather, they were a Christian Caucasian people who maintained close cultural ties with their neighbors, the Armenians and the Georgians, and even shared a similar alphabet.

The traditional Albanian kingdom, known as “Aguank” to Armenians and “Rani” to Georgians, encompassed territories in present-day Azerbaijan east of the Kura River, west of the Absheron and Shirvan, and south of the Greater Caucasus range.  It also included a region historically known as Hereti in modern-day northeastern Azerbaijan (Zakatala-Saingilo) and southeastern Georgia (southern Kakheti), which later became part of the unified Georgian kingdom.  Contested with the neighboring Armenian kingdom were the provinces of Utik and Artsakh, which today form northwestern Azerbaijan, much of the northeastern Armenian province of Tavush, and the disputed, self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic.  Eventually, Albania was overrun by the Arabs in the 7th century and virtually disappeared.  Its people were assimilated by neighboring groups.  The Christian Udi ethnic minority in the Caucasus is said to be the remnant of the Caucasian Albanian people.

While it is true that the original site of Davit Gareja falls within the Hereti region, which was variously controlled by the Albanian and Georgian kingdoms, the fact remains that the area was in the Georgian political and cultural sphere by the time the monastery complex was founded.  Further, the numerous Georgian inscriptions and work of Georgian artists attest to the complex’s distinct Georgian character.  The assertions from Baku that Gareja is an Albanian, not Georgian, monastery complex have caused bafflement and indignation among Georgians.

Georgia’s then-Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili stated that Khalafov’s “history lessons are absolutely incomprehensible” and that he “should read up on world history.”  A monk from the monastery also dismissed Azerbaijani claims as “simply absurd,” adding that if the monastery was built by Caucasian Albanians, then “you might as well say that Georgians built the Great Wall of China.”

Udabno Monastery

Udabno Monastery

However, Khalafov is not alone in his assertions. They are also widely endorsed by Azerbaijani academics who oppose ceding any land whatsoever to Georgia. Khalafov’s statement was also made in the context of a greater effort on the part of Baku to claim “Caucasian Albanian” origins of Armenian cultural monuments, monasteries, and churches in its dispute with Armenia over Nagorny Karabakh.  This “academic war” over the Caucasian Albanians involves such controversial personalities as Ziya Bunyadov and Farida Mammadova.

The influential Georgian Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II stated that Davit Gareja is a “holy shrine” and should be located “entirely on Georgian soil.”  His position is shared by the Georgian public, which is generally opposed to conceding any portion of the monastery to Azerbaijan.  In 2007, Giga Bukia, a member of Georgia’s then-opposition (now a member of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition) stated that “Georgians will never, under any circumstances, give up this territory” and that “Azerbaijan has absolutely no historical rights to this land.”  He also openly wondered if the Aliyev government was planning to go to war with Georgia, given Baku’s interest in the site’s “strategic significance” on a heights overlooking Georgian territory.

In the latest episode, which occurred in May 2012, Azerbaijan stationed border guards inside the complex’s Udabno monastery, refused to allow Georgian pilgrims to pray, and informed them that the monument was not Georgian but Caucasian Albanian. This caused outrage among the Georgian public and protests in Tbilisi.  It also sparked a diplomatic row between Georgia and Azerbaijan, which became so serious that it prompted a direct meeting between Saakashvili and Aliyev on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Chicago. Ultimately, the two sides agreed to allow tourists open access to the site while continuing border negotiations. However, the dispute remains unresolved and tensions persist.

Ukraine: Where Nation-Building and Empire Meet

Ukrainian Girl by a Fence, Ilya Repin, 1876

Ukrainian Girl by a Fence, Ilya Repin, 1876

As the Ukraine crisis continues, there are debates emerging with regard to the relationship between Russians and Ukrainians, in language, culture, and history.

The vast majority of ordinary Russians view Ukrainians, though linguistically distinct, as being a fraternal East Slavic nation, closely bound to Russia by culture, history, and intermarriage. They further assert that Ukraine is an integral part of Russian civilization, owing to the particularly special significance of Kiev to both Russians and Ukrainians. More nationalistic Russians go even further and claim that Ukraine is merely a “concept” and that the people known as “Ukrainians” are merely an extension of the Russian nation who speak a dialect of Russian.

Some Ukrainians, particularly in the Central part of the country, would sympathize with the argument that Russians and Ukrainians are a fraternal people. In the Russian-speaking Southeast this would be further elevated to Russians and Ukrainians being “the same people.” However, as one might imagine, the nationalist discourse in Western Ukraine, particularly Galicia, is radically different. To Ukrainian nationalists, Ukrainians are “completely different” from the Russians. They have they own culture, language and history which they believe is “entirely disconnected” from anything to do with the Russians. Some more extreme Ukrainian nationalists even claim that the Ukrainian language is not only distinct from Russian, but also distinct among all Slavic or even Indo-European languages as well.

Cossack on the Steppe, Ilya Repin, 1890

Cossack on the Steppe, Ilya Repin, 1890

Of course, the truth exists somewhere in-between these conflicting narratives. It is true that Ukrainians do speak their own language and that there are aspects of Ukrainian culture that are indeed unique to Ukrainians. However, it is also true that Kiev is the common point of origin for all East Slavs including Ukrainians and Russians; that at one time in their common history, they used to speak the same language (Old East Slavic); and that the contemporary Ukrainian and Russian languages (though not exactly the same) are indeed very similar. It is also true that the Ukrainians and Russians have much in common in terms of culture, and they have both had a major impact on one another. Examples of this cultural exchange include the squat-and-kick prisyadka dance move and the beet soup borscht, both of Ukrainian origin but deeply influential in Russian culture. Nikolai Gogol was a famous Russian-language author of Ukrainian origin who often included Ukrainian themes in his writings, e.g., Taras Bulba.  The great Russian painter Ilya Repin, though himself an ethnic Russian, was born in Ukraine and also included many Ukrainian themes in his work, signaling his great love for his fellow East Slav brothers.

Mixed Russian-Ukrainian Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his Ukrainian wife Raisa.

Mixed Russian-Ukrainian Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his Ukrainian wife Raisa.

Intermarriage is also a major component of the Russo-Ukrainian relationship. Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev were both products of mixed Russo-Ukrainian parentage; their wives, Nina Kukharchuk and Raisa Titarenko, were both fully Ukrainian. Another former leader, Lenoid Brezhnev, was also of mixed Russian-Ukrainian heritage while another, Konstantin Chernenko, came from a Russified Ukrainian family. In music, the famous Russian rock star Yuri Shevchuck is Ukrainian and the Bessarabian-born Russian tango singer of the 1930s Pyotr Leschenko was also of Ukrainian background. Additionally, the dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and the great Soviet rocket engineer Sergei Korolyov were all born to mixed Russian-Ukrainian parents.

Kievan ruler Vladimir the Great was baptized at Khersones (in modern-day Sevastopol) and converted the Kievan Rus' to Christianity in the 10th century.  He is widely respected by all East Slavs (including Russians and Ukrainians) to this day.

Kievan ruler Vladimir the Great was baptized at Khersones (in modern-day Sevastopol) and converted the Kievan Rus’ to Christianity in the 10th century. Vladimir is widely revered by all East Slavs (including Russians and Ukrainians) to this day.

Rus’, Malorussia, Ukraine, and the Politics of Identity

Another aspect of the very close relationship between the Russians and the Ukrainians is the historical development of the identity of the Ukrainian people. At one point, all of the East Slavs (Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Carpatho-Rusyns) used to comprise a single people – the people of the Rus’ – who used to speak a single language known as Old East Slavic. Their faith was Orthodox Christianity. The only exception to this were the Kievan territories of Galicia and Volhynia. Forming the westernmost regions of the old Rus’, Catholic and Polish influence was very strong in these areas, particularly Galicia, and their princely families even intermarried with nearby Catholic Polish and Hungarian houses. Significantly, while there was a distrust of Catholicism in the other Rus’ territories further east, in Galicia and Volhynia, Catholic and Western ideas were welcomed and fully embraced. This early cultural division would later play a role in Ukraine’s regional identity differences centuries later.

Another key factor was language. In the 13th century, the Kievan Rus’ fell into decline and became subjected to the Mongol invasions. Its western principalities (largely correspondent to much of modern-day Central Ukraine and Belarus) were absorbed by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which later unified with the Kingdom of Poland at the Union of Lublin in 1569, forming the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The gradual “break-up” of the single Old East Slavic language into several different languages – Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Carpatho-Rusyn – occurred during this period. Yet, even into the early 20th century, many of these East Slavs still self-identified as “Rusyni” and spoke a language which they called “Rusynski,” both referring to the old Rus’ state.

Foreign rule further created a new dimension to the situation which involved religion. Rus’ lands under Mongol rule remained free to worship and practice their Orthodox Christian faith. By comparison, in those Rus’ lands under Polish-Lithuanian rule, Orthodoxy was at first tolerated. Later, however, the separateness in faith concerned the Polish monarchs as the Orthodox locals of the historic Rus’ lands saw their affinity not with Catholic Poland or Western Europe but with the world of Russian Orthodoxy. As such, Orthodox Christians were persecuted under Polish rule until in 1595, in exchange for an end to this persecution, the Orthodox clergy of the Polish-ruled lands agreed to the Union of Brest, forming the Ukrainian Greek Catholic (or Uniate) Church. However, in subsequent centuries, as the Russian Tsars later reclaimed the old western Rus’ lands from Poland-Lithuania in the 18th century Partitions of Poland, the Orthodox faith was reintroduced.  Significantly, in the Partitions, the Habsburg monarchy in Austria acquired the Catholic- and Western-leaning region of Galicia.

Additionally, an entirely separate situation existed further west in the region of Carpathian Rus’ (Zakarpattia). This distant western region was a borderland frontier area at the time of Kievan Rus’.  It fluctuated between the control of Orthodox East Slav Kievan rulers to the north and east and Magyar (Hungarian) Catholic rulers to the south and west. With the fall of Kievan Rus’, this Carpathian territory fell under the complete control of the Hungarian monarchs. Overtime, the close proximity of the Catholic Slovak and Magyar populations combined with the area’s separateness from the other historic Rus’ lands due to the Carpathian Mountains led it to develop its own entirely distinct identity and language (Carpatho-Rusyn). This difference was reinforced with the Union of Uzhgorod in 1646 in which the Orthodox Rusyns joined the Catholic Church as part of the Byzantine rite, forming the separate Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic Church.

Renown Russian writer and ethnic Ukrainian, Nikolai Gogol.  A native of Central Ukraine, Gogol was the author of Dead Souls among other works.

Renown Russian writer and ethnic Ukrainian, Nikolai Gogol.

As mentioned earlier, the Russian Tsars later reclaimed much of the old western Kievan Rus’ territories in modern-day Ukraine in Belarus during the Partitions of Poland in the 18th century.  Orthodoxy was also reintroduced in these regions. The “Rusyni” identity of old persisted among the locals and, during the 19th century, two rival nation-building projects on the territory of contemporary Ukraine sought to supplement this old “Rusyni” identity with a new identity. One was the Malorussian (“Little Russian”) identity, with the name “Little Russia” derivative from old Byzantine maps referring to modern Ukraine as “Lesser Rus'” or “Rus’ Minor.” The Malorussian project claimed that modern Ukraine was a natural extension of the Russian nation. In the Malorussian view, the Ukrainian language that developed from the break-up of Old East Slavic had to be supplemented by a common standard language. In their view, this was to be Russian, a language seen by Malorussian activists as the “successor” of Old East Slavic. Nikolai Gogol, an ethnic Ukrainian who wrote in Russian, was among those who favored Malorussianism.

Taras Shevchenko

Taras Shevchenko

Opposing Malorussianism, was Ukrainianism. Ukrainianism postulated that the East Slavic language that developed in Ukraine signified the development of an entirely separate ethnic identity, independent of other East Slavs. They called their nation “Ukraine,” a name that like “Malorussia” developed from cartographic toponyms and has been literally translated as “borderland.” Ukrainianists emphasized the unique and distinct culture of the people of the area above all else, with a special emphasis on language and culture. Of course, this did not exclude those who viewed themselves as “Ukrainian” but also saw Russia as a fraternal East Slavic nation nonetheless. The writer Taras Shevchenko is perhaps best representative of the “Ukrainianist” group, writing almost exclusively in the Ukrainian language, though occasionally writing in Russian as well.

Of these movements, Malorussianism was favored by the Tsars who regarded themselves as the legitimate successors to the rulers of the old Kievan Rus’. Consequently, the Malorussianist policies of official Petersburg should be viewed not within the context of an empire attempting to force an assimilation on a “conquered” people, but rather as part of a nation-building project, as part of the great “reunification of Old Rus'” and “gathering of the Russian lands” as the Tsars saw it.

A similar national project was also taking place in Italy, which had just been unified under the leadership of Giuseppe Garibaldi. There, the Italian language, based on Tuscan and the Central Italian dialects, was to become the literary standard. However, in the southern island of Sicily, the locals spoke their own Romance language Sicilian, related to Italian but also distinct in its own right. In Rome, the king regarded Sicilian just as the Tsar regarded Ukrainian, as a backward provincial dialect which, with the expansion of education and literacy, would be eventually supplemented by “clean Italian” or in the Tsar’s case, “clean Russian.” Indeed, like Ukrainian, Sicilian developed distinct from other languages in Italy by virtue of its geographic separation from the mainland and historical invasions of the island by Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Germans, Spanish, and others. Yet Sicily was viewed by Italianist advocates as an integral and historical part of Italy, just as Ukraine was regarded as an integral and historical part of Russia by the educated class, the bourgeoisie, and the aristocracy.

Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, 1880-91, Ilya Repin

Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, 1880-91, Ilya Repin

An additional development to all of this was the emergence of three new historical territories overtime. They included Zaporozhia which established itself in the “wild fields” south of Polish-ruled territory in the 15th and 16th centuries.  In this region, rebellious Orthodox Christian Cossacks fought against the Polish monarchs.  Then, in the 17th century, the area of Slobozhanshchina (or Sloboda Ukraine) emerged around the cities of Kharkiv and Sumy.  Finally, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the area of Novorossiya was formed along the Black Sea after the Russian Tsars had finally succeeded in taking Ottoman-held territory along the coast.  In all of these regions, Ukrainian (or Malorussian) populations played primary roles in their historical formation and settlement.  Further, in all three of these regions, Orthodoxy was the primary faith.

The Malorussian-Ukrainian debate also took place across the border in the Austro-Hungarian-ruled East Slavic territories of Galicia, North Bukovina (Chernivsti), and Carpathian Rus’. There, the debate existed between Ukrainianists and Russophiles (effectively Malorussian activists under a different name). It became even more complex in Carpathian Rus’ ruled under the the Hungarian realm of the dual monarchy, between Ukrainianists, Russophiles, and Rusynists (those who chose to self-identify as Rusyn or Carpatho-Rusyn). In Galicia where Catholic influence of both the direct Roman Catholic and Uniate strands remained strong, the debate was eventually won by the Ukrainianists. However, in Carpathian Rus’, the debate over ethnic identity still persists to this day.  Notably, during this period, many people from these Austro-Hungarian-controlled territories (particularly Galicia and Carpathian Rus’) also emigrated further west in search of opportunity.  They arrived in the United States and Canada, establishing the core of what would become the contemporary Ukrainian and Carpatho-Rusyn diasporas of today.

National Identity in the Soviet Era

Original avant-garde poster for Aleksandr Dovzhenko's "Earth" (1930).  The film is perhaps Dovzhenko's best-known work and it is part three of the director's "Ukrainian trilogy" which also included "Zvenigora" (1928) and "Arsenal" (1929).

Original avant-garde poster for Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930). The film is perhaps Dovzhenko’s best-known work and it is part three of the director’s “Ukrainian trilogy” which also included Zvenigora (1928) and Arsenal (1929).

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the civil war in Ukraine of 1917-21, and the establishment of the USSR, Ukrainianism as a movement won out over Malorussianism.  In the 1920s, the new Soviet government undertook a “Ukrainization” policy in the newly-declared Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, as part of its broader nativization or korenizatsiya (коренизация) policy toward nationalities, by promoting and advancing the Ukrainian literary language. This had the effect of encouraging a major cultural and literary renaissance in Ukraine during the NEP that many Ukrainians still fondly remember today.  The advent of new art forms, like film, helped advance this renaissance, in which the great Ukrainian filmmaker Aleksandr Dovzhenko played a leading role.  A pioneer of early Soviet film, Dovzhenko is credited for not only his contributions to the development of Ukrainian cinema but also for Soviet and Russian cinema overall.

The Ukrainization policies were abruptly halted in the 1930s under Stalin whose NKVD purged the republic of real or perceived nationalists, “kulaki,” and “enemies of the people.” Yet, it should be noted that Stalin was not interested in the Malorussian-Ukrainian identity debate, but more concerned with strengthening his position throughout the entire USSR, and to this end he purged writers and intellectuals in all Soviet republics.

Joseph Stalin smoking his pipe at his desk. (Getty)

Joseph Stalin smoking his pipe at his desk. (Getty)

Compounding all of this was the terrible Soviet famine of the early 1930s. The famine hit Ukraine very hard and some Ukrainian nationalist historians even go so far as to assert that what happened was a deliberate attempt at genocide against the Ukrainian people by the Soviet government. However, this fails to take into account the fact that the famine also affected many non-Ukrainians too, including Germans, Poles, Jews, and Russians.  Likewise, the famine also hit southern Russia and northern Kazakhstan, two other major cereal-producing regions of the Soviet Union, very hard. Among those who witnessed the starvation was a young Mikhail Gorbachev, a native of southern Russia, who personally experienced the horrors of the terrible famine first-hand. It affected his own family and killed off half of his village.

Millions starved to death in this cruel campaign of forced collectivization and suppression of the so-called “kulaki.”  Yet, Western correspondents like Walter Duranty disguised the facts while Stalin and Soviet officials claimed that the campaign had made the “eternally happy” people of the Soviet agricultural heartland “dizzy with success.”  Overall, ethnicity meant little to Stalin.  Nobody was safe from the terror of the vozhd.  He was an equal-opportunity mass murderer.

The Stakhanovite Movement in the Donbas

The Stakhanovite Movement in the Donbas

The Soviet era also saw the rise of industrialization.  The heavily industrial coal-mining region of the Donbas (Donets Basin), centered on the cities of Donetsk (also known as Yuzovka or Stalino) and Luhansk (also known as Voroshilovgrad) really emerged during this period.  Prior to this, the Donbas had been an area with a mixed Ukrainian and Russian Cossack population divided between historical Sloboda Ukraine, Novorossiya, and the Don Cossack Host.  The Soviet era firmly established the Donbas as a unique region in its own right, a truly working-class “Soviet” region where Russian was the primary language.  It was in this area that, during the Stalin era, Aleksei Stakhanov and the Stakhanovite movement emerged.

World War II left an indelible mark on Ukraine.  In the war, most Ukrainians fought alongside the Russians against the onslaught of the Nazi German war machine.  Many Ukrainian villagers in present-day Central and Southeastern Ukraine experienced violent atrocities at the hands of the hated Nazi invader and the country’s sizeable and historically significant Jewish community was decimated by the Holocaust.  The war also brought about the unification of Ukraine with the West Ukrainian territories of Galicia, Volhynia, North Bukovina, and Carpathian Rus’ (Zakarpattia).  The addition of these new territories not only “unified” Ukraine but signal a “reunification” of all East Slavic territories for the first time in history since the fall of the Kievan Rus’ in the 13th century.  The new territories also presented (and continue to present) new complications for Ukraine’s collective identity.

Stepan Bandera, a man regarded throughout much of Ukraine as a wartime collaborator with Nazi Germany and in Western Ukraine (especially Galicia) as a "hero."

Stepan Bandera, a man regarded throughout much of Ukraine as a wartime collaborator with Nazi Germany and in Western Ukraine (especially Galicia) as a “hero.”

While the vast majority of the people in Central and Southeastern Ukraine view World War II as the “Great Patriotic War” and the Red Army as “saviors,” the view is different in Western Ukraine.  In Galicia (centered on the city of Lviv), the Soviet Union is looked on as a “conqueror” or “oppressor” while the OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) and Stepan Bandera who are viewed throughout most of Ukraine as wartime collaborators with the Nazis, are seen as “heroes.”  The “hero” view of Bandera also exists but is less prevalent in Volhynia where there are more positive views of the Red Army.

Meanwhile, in North Bukovina and Carpathian Rus’, the view of the Red Army as a “liberator” is much more common and there are reasons for this. North Bukovina’s Slavic population had been repressed under Romania’s chauvinistic government. Meanwhile, Carpathian Rus’ faced attempted Magyarization under Hungarian rule and neglect as part of Czechoslovakia. This, together with the region’s traditional Russophile sentiments, led the locals to welcome inclusion into the Soviet state.  Further, the additional factor of the unique Carpatho-Rusyn culture of Carpathian Rus’ also added to the complexity of Ukraine’s collective identity.  The region’s absorption into Soviet Ukraine also signaled their official shift in ethno-identification from “Carpatho-Rusyns” to “Ukrainians.”  Still, a sense of distinctiveness among the people of Zakarpattia continued to persist.

Following Stalin’s death, Ukraine experienced a very brief renaissance under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.  Khrushchev, who was himself of partial Ukrainian background, even awarded the peninsula of Crimea to Soviet Ukraine, partially out of Slavic sentimentality, partially for economic and irrigation reasons. However, by the 1970s, Ukraine, along with the rest of the USSR, began to fall into stagnation.

Still, Ukrainian speakers co-existed alongside Russian speakers with no problems. Intermarriage and cultural exchange with Russians was commonplace.  The only issue with which the Soviet government had to deal was in newly-acquired Galicia, where the insurgent forces of the OUN continued conducting guerrilla operations into the mid-1950s. Yet, overall, Ukraine remained well-integrated into the Soviet Union.

By the time of glasnost, no significant national movement emerged in Ukraine except for the Rukh movement based in Galicia. Generally, most Ukrainians were uninterested in nationalism and more interested in a stable country and a working economy. 72% backed Gorbachev’s New Union Treaty in 1991, though later that year, an overwhelming majority voted in favor of a vaguely-worded referendum on “independence” with no explicit mention of an actual separation from the USSR (which was present, for example, in the wording of Armenia’s referendum on independence).

Russian President Boris Yeltsin with Ukraine's first post-Soviet President Lenoid Kravchuk.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin with Ukraine’s first post-Soviet President Lenoid Kravchuk.

Post-Soviet Ukraine

Following the Soviet collapse, Ukraine was widely expected to do well as an independent state. Despite the stagnation of the Soviet economy, Ukraine fared as one of the more prosperous Soviet republics. It had an extensive Black Sea coast, rich farmlands, Carpathian Mountain pastures, and heavy industry. However, these expectations faded within the first years of the country’s independence. From the outset, Ukraine faced two challenges: state-building and nation-building.  Its corrupt political class was unable to meet both.

In terms of state building, Ukraine had to develop independent institutions and a functional national economy. Kiev was able to develop institutions which were basically successors to the pre-existing Soviet republican institutions. However, Kiev was never able to establish a national economy. Kravchuk, Ukraine’s first post-Soviet president oversaw a corrupt privatization in the 1990s. An oligarchy and a corrupt political elite quickly emerged, stifling Ukraine’s potential development. Poverty, unemployment, organized crime, human trafficking, and other social ills that became characteristic of Ukraine’s post-independence landscape also came to the fore.

Regional politics also remained. Throughout the post-Soviet era, the people of Galicia, the epicenter of Ukrainian nationalism, continued to vote for candidates with nationalist, pro-Western, or anti-Russian credentials. By contrast, the Russian-speaking Southeast (including the Donbas and Crimea) consistently voted for pro-Russian candidates. The more divided, Surzhyk-speaking Central oblasti oscillated between candidates, as did the remote Rusyn-speaking Zakarpattia oblast. Outside of Galicia and Western Ukraine, nationalism generally gained little traction. In the Center and Zakarpattia, it was viewed with indifference and distrust. In the Southeast, it was met with outright hostility.

Orange Revolution 2004 (FotoArt.org.ua)

Orange Revolution 2004 (FotoArt.org.ua)

The Impact of the 2004 Orange Revolution

Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, backed by Washington and American NGOs, was viewed by many Ukrainians as a means of solving the country’s problems and bringing it back on its feet. However, it only exacerbated them. Fundamental issues, such as corruption, remained largely unaddressed. Meanwhile, the pro-Western and nationalist policies of President Viktor Yushchenko enhanced the divisions among Ukrainians. His total affinity for Washington, his push to see Ukraine join the EU and especially NATO, as well as his efforts to rehabilitate and bestow awards on controversial figures like Stepan Bandera, created joy in Western Ukraine, confusion in the Center, and anger in the Southeast. Notably, in 2006, the landing of the US marines in the Crimean city of Feodosiya as part of a US-Ukrainian military exercise prompted major anti-NATO protests from the local population.

The Orange Revolution also intensified these regional divisions on an electoral level. Before the revolution, the politics of Central Ukraine had been more divided, with its oblasti acting as “swing states” and “election spoilers” between pro-Russian and pro-Western candidates. But the Orange Revolution somehow changed this pattern. Though divisions in Central Ukraine persisted and still do persist to this day, the threshold majority began favoring more pro-Western politicians. Coincidental to this development was the rise of Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions (henceforth PoR) which claimed to represent the interests of Russian-speaking Ukrainians and ethnic Russians in Ukraine. In elections, the PoR began to secure the solidly Russian-speaking oblasti from Odessa to the Donbas.

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko (AFP)

Most striking how these new political divisions began to change historical relations between oblasti in Ukraine. A good example is the division that now exists between Sumy and Kharkiv. Historically, these two cities and their oblasti had a long history together, going back to their common foundation in the 17th century as part of the frontier region of Slobozhanshchina (or Sloboda Ukraine). In post-Soviet Ukraine, both the Sumy and Kharkiv oblasti followed each other’s electoral patterns. However, starting with the Orange Revolution, these two oblasti began to diverge from one another. Sumy, despite its Russian-speaking culture and heritage, was the native region of Viktor Yushchenko who became “nationalized” in Galicia. Yet, despite his nationalist ideology, Yushchenko’s place of birth in Russian-speaking Sumy strengthened his credentials in Washington and among American NGOs as “the man who could bring East and West together.” However, as the case of Sumy illustrates, Yushchenko only intensified the divisions. As a result of the Orange Revolution, the Sumy oblast and city began to be carried by pro-Western politicians. Pro-Russian politicians still came close to them in elections, but the overall political orientation began to shift. By contrast, Kharkiv became a solidly pro-Russian PoR oblast.

Superimposed on all of this was the growing geopolitical competition between the United States and Russia for influence in the post-Soviet space. Many commentators warned against the expansion of US influence in the region, particularly with regard to the NATO military alliance. Yet in the 2000s, Washington began to push beyond expanding NATO into Central-East Europe. They also began to look toward the former USSR, particularly the two most strategic ex-Soviet republics: Ukraine and Georgia. The sponsorship by Washington and American NGOs of the Rose and Orange Revolutions in these countries deeply troubled Moscow. The Kremlin subsequently began to throw its support behind the PoR and Yanukovych as the most “pro-Russian” force in the country.

Therefore, the development of divergent political forces domestically within Ukraine, combined with the geopolitical competition between Russia and the West, have effectively set the stage for the present-day conflict in the country.  A solution to Ukraine’s protracted crisis can still be found – but it first and foremost requires a ceasefire, humanitarian aid relief for the people of the Donbas, and, most importantly, political will.   Moscow has signaled its readiness for such a process.

For more information on Ukraine’s historical, regional, and linguistic dynamics, see my earlier entries: What Is Ukraine? (2 March 2014, updated 15 May 2014), Who Are the Rusyns? (19 April 2014), The Historical Geography of Ukraine (15 May 2014, updated 24 August 2014), and 10 Points on the People of Southeastern Ukraine (21 June 2014).

A Guide to the “Stans” of Central Asia

Location of Central Asia in the former Soviet Union

Location of Central Asia in the former Soviet Union

One of the most interesting parts the former Soviet space is Central Asia. It is a region of diverse geography and beautiful people, with a lot of fascinating history behind it. In the West, the five countries of the area have become colloquially known as the “stans” because all of them bear the Persian suffix “-stan” meaning “land of.” The majority of the ethnic groups who live in this region are Sunni Muslims, with the exception of the Orthodox Christian Russians, the Ismaili Pamiris, and other smaller groups. The majority of the titular nationalities also speak Turkic languages, the only exception being Farsi-speaking Tajikistan.

In the Russian language, the term “Средняя Азия” (Srednyaya Aziya), literally “Middle Asia,” is used to denote the former Soviet Central Asian republics. By contrast, the term “Центральная Азия” (Tsentralnaya Aziya), or “Central Asia,” denotes a much broader geographic region, encompassing not only the former Soviet Central Asian states, but also Mongolia, Tibet, Xinjiang, Afghanistan, portions of southern Siberia, and other areas.

Post-Soviet Central Asia was gradually absorbed into the Russian Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. Russia’s expansion into the area prompted concern from the British, who governed India further south. The result was what Rudyard Kipling called the “Great Game,” as the two great powers vied for influence in the region. The sporting geopolitical competition ended in 1907 with the Anglo-Russian Entente. In the end, much of the region went to Russia and later its successor, the Soviet Union. The Soviet government set to work on establishing ethno-national entities in the region, which eventually became full-fledged union republics. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, these countries became fully independent states. Below are concise overviews of each:

Countries:

Location of Kazakhstan in post-Soviet Central Asia

Location of Kazakhstan in post-Soviet Central Asia

Kazakhstan
Capital: Astana
Official language(s): Kazakh, Russian
President: Nursultan Nazarbayev
Area: 2,724,900 км²
Population: 17,948,816 (CIA 2014 est.)
GDP per capita: $14,100 (CIA 2013 est.)
Geography: Steppe, grassland, arid desert, mountains
Ethnic groups (2009 census): Kazakhs (63%), Russians (23%), Uzbeks (3%), Ukrainians (2%), Uygurs (1%), Tatars (1%), Germans (1%), Others (6%)

Eagle hunters in Kazakhstan (Getty)

Eagle hunters in Kazakhstan (Getty)

Overview:

Kazakhstan is the largest of all the ex-Soviet Central Asian countries. It is the homeland of the Kazakhs (not to be confused with the similar-sounding Slavic Cossacks) who are a nomadic Turkic-speaking people with strong Mongol cultural influences.  Falconry, especially eagle falconry, and horsemanship are very popular among the Kazakhs. The Kazakhs are divided among three historical hordes: the Great Horde in the Southeast, the Middle Horde in the Center and North, and the Lesser Horde in the West.

Baikonur Cosmodrome (NASA / Bill Ingalls)

The “Gagarin’s Start” Soyuz launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome.  It was from here where the famous cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (after whom the launch pad is named) launched into space on Vostok 1 in 1961. (NASA / Bill Ingalls)

In addition to the Kazakhs, there are also many ethnic minorities in Kazakhstan, including a very large ethnic Russian minority concentrated in the North.  The sizable Russian community has a historic presence in Kazakhstan, dating back to the Tsarist era.  The community grew in the Soviet era, especially in the 1960s during Nikita Khrushchev’s Virgin Lands Campaign.  Ethnic relations have been peaceful between the Kazakhs and the large Russian minority. Likewise, relations between the governments of Kazakhstan and Russia are also very amicable. The great Baikonur Cosmodrome from which the famous Sputnik and Vostok operations were launched, is located on the territory of Kazakhstan. However, it is still controlled by Russia per a treaty between Moscow and Astana.

Viktor Tsoi

Viktor Tsoi

Kazakhstan’s ethnic mosaic also consists of a variety of other minorities such as Uzbeks, Uygurs, Ukrainians, Poles, Germans, Chechens, Ingush, Koreans, Crimean Tatars, and others. Many of these have a long history in Kazakhstan. Others arrived during the Stalin era as part of a series of forced population transfers.

Notably, the late glasnost-era Soviet rock musician, Viktor Tsoi, was partially descended from Kazakhstan’s significant Korean community. The film, The Needle (Игла), which starred Tsoi, was produced in Kazakhstan and directed by the New Wave Kazakh filmmaker, Rashid Nugmanov.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in 1997 (Robert D. Ward)

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in 1997 (Robert D. Ward)

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been in power since Mikhail Gorbachev appointed him to lead then-Soviet Kazakhstan in 1989. Though he essentially runs the country as a one-man dictatorship where corruption remains a major problem, he nonetheless enjoys popular support for keeping stability, a balanced relationship with Moscow, and for tirelessly promoting Kazakhstan on the international stage. Nazarbayev has also been a vocal proponent for integration among the ex-Soviet states.  He has likewise succeeded in attracting foreign investment to Kazakhstan for its vast natural resources, including oil, natural gas, uranium, manganese, copper, and more.  In 1997, he moved Kazakhstan’s capital from Alma-Ata (Almaty) to Astana in a more north-central location of the country.

Location of Kyrgyzstan in post-Soviet Central Asia

Location of Kyrgyzstan in post-Soviet Central Asia

Kyrgyzstan
Capital: Bishkek
Official language(s): Kyrgyz, Russian
President: Almazbek Atambayev
Area: 199,951 км²
Population: 5,604,212 (2014 CIA est.)
GDP per capita: $2,500 (2013 CIA est.)
Geography: Mountains, fertile valleys
Ethnic groups (2014 census): Kyrgyz (73%), Uzbeks (14%), Russians (6%), Others (7%)

Kyrgyz writer Chinghiz Aitmatov

Kyrgyz writer Chinghiz Aitmatov

Overview:

Kyrgyzstan (also known as Kirghizia) is a small and mountainous country located south of Kazakhstan and just west of China. The Kyrgyz are a Turkic-speaking people who, like the Kazakhs, have a nomadic tradition and share many cultural influences from the Mongols. The Tian Shan mountain range runs through much of the country’s west near the much-celebrated Issyk Kul lake. Issyk Kul was a famous resort in Soviet times and also the setting for the Issyk Kul Forum.  Founded by the Soviet Kyrgyz writer Chinghiz Aitmatov during glasnost, the Forum was a way of bringing intellectuals from the East and West together. Aitmatov, who passed away in 2008, was a friend and advisor of Mikhail Gorbachev. The Kyrgyz author is still widely respected throughout the former Soviet Union and his stories are still cherished by many in the region to this day.

Kyrgyz yurt (nomadic dwelling) near Issyk Kul

Kyrgyz yurt (nomadic dwelling) near Issyk Kul

Though not as rich as its northern neighbor Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan has distinguished itself as the most democratic country in post-Soviet Central Asia. The current President Almazbek Atambayev claims that this derives from a democratic tradition among the Kyrgyz nomads and thus has labeled his country a “nomadic democracy.” Despite this, Kyrgyzstan is no stranger to unrest. Since the end of the Soviet era, this small country has experienced two political revolutions, one in 2005 and another in 2010. It has also seen ethnic unrest between the dominant Kyrgyz and the significant Uzbek minority in the southern city of Osh in the Fergana Valley. Clashes occurred in both 1990 and most recently in 2010. Kyrgyzstan is still recovering from the more recent ethnic riots.

Kyrgyz women in traditional costume (AFP)

Kyrgyz women in traditional costume (AFP)

After September 11, the US opened the Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan. Russia’s Vladimir Putin initially approved of this move and allowed the US to operate this base in former Soviet territory as part of its war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. However, as US-Russian relations became strained, Putin decided to pull the plug on the Manas base and sought to have Bishkek close it. After his election in 2011, Kyrgyz President Atambayev announced that he would seek the closure of the base when its lease expires. In June 2014, the US vacated the base.

Location of Tajikistan in post-Soviet Central Asia

Location of Tajikistan in post-Soviet Central Asia

Tajikistan
Capital: Dushanbe
Official language(s): Tajik
President: Emomali Rahmon
Area: 143,100 км²
Population: 8,051,512 (2014 CIA est.)
GDP per capita: $2,300 (2013 CIA est.)
Geography: Mountains, fertile valleys
Ethnic groups (2010 census): Tajiks (84% including Pamiris), Uzbeks (14%), Others (2%)

Tajik woman in national dress

Tajik woman in national dress

Overview:

Geographically, Tajikistan is the smallest of the ex-Soviet Central Asian states. It is also the most mountainous. The Pamir Mountains cover most of the eastern part of the country in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast. The Tajiks are basically a subgroup of ethnic Persians. Their native language, Tajik, is a dialect of Farsi, distinguishing them from their Turkic-speaking neighbors.

The Tajiks live not only in Tajikistan but also in significant numbers in neighboring Uzbekistan and to the south in northern Afghanistan. Ahmad Shah Massoud, the famed leader of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance was an ethnic Tajik. In addition, Tajikistan is also home to the Pamiri people who are natives of Gorno-Badakhshan.

Spetsnaz troops in the Tajikistan Civil War (Ussuriysk Military School / Dmitry Ivlyov)

Spetsnaz troops in the Tajikistan Civil War (Ussuriysk Military School /
Dmitry Ivlyov)

Tajikistan is the poorest ex-Soviet state in Central Asia and it has a history of instability going back to the time of the Soviet collapse. After independence, the country plunged into a violent civil war.  The civil war had its origins in the unequal power distribution among the country’s regions.  The government was dominated by people from the Leninabad (today Khujand) region in the north and the republic’s security forces were dominated by people from Kulyab in the south. The people from the central Garm region and the eastern Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, inspired by Gorbachev’s glasnost, demanded more of a say in the government. Their political coalition was an ideological hodge-podge mix of liberal democrats, nationalists, and Islamists. Ultimately, the government refused to share power and it was this that led to the civil war between the sides.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon (Getty / Majid Saeedi)

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon (Getty / Majid Saeedi)

The conflict in Tajikistan lasted until 1997 when a power-sharing peace deal was finally agreed upon with the help of negotiation by Moscow.  Since then, the country has been relatively stable. Emomali Rahmon, the country’s longtime strongman, has remained in power since the 1990s. The drug trade, which runs from neighboring Afghanistan, seeks to use Tajikistan as a major transit route to the former Soviet states and Europe, posing a serious challenge for the government.

Recently, Tajikistan has sought to enrich itself by capitalizing on its major glacier and water resources.  Water resources are highly valued in a region like Central Asia which includes large arid desert areas.  Tajik interest in using their water resources for hydroelectric energy has created tension with drier neighbor Uzbekistan.  Tashkent is fearful that such projects could adversely affect its water supply and, by extension, its cotton production.

Location of Uzbekistan in post-Soviet Central Asia

Location of Uzbekistan in post-Soviet Central Asia

Uzbekistan
Capital: Tashkent
Official language(s): Uzbek
President: Islam Karimov
Area: 447,400 км²
Population: 28,929,716 (2014 CIA est.)
GDP per capita: $3,800 (2013 CIA est.)
Geography: Arid desert, fertile valleys, mountains
Ethnic groups (2000 estimate): Uzbeks (78%), Russians (5%), Tajiks (5%), Kazakhs (4%), Karakalpaks (2%), Others (6%)

Samarkand (Malika Hotels)

Samarkand (Malika Hotels)

Overview:

Uzbekistan is the most populous country in Central Asia. Uzbeks, a Turkic-speaking people,  are the dominant population of Uzbekistan.  Their ethnonym “uzbek” literally translates as “his own lord,” meaning a “free” or “independent” person. The country also includes many ethnic minorities including Russians, Tajiks, Kazakhs, and Karakalpaks. The capital Tashkent was founded in the 8th century as an oasis on the Silk Road. Uzbekistan is also home to great Islamic cultural centers such as Bukhara, Samarkand, and the historic Khwarezm capital of Khiva, all boasting visually stunning art and architecture.  Many Tajiks live in Samarakand and Bukhara and some Tajik nationalists have even claimed these cities for Tajikistan.  However, the beauty of these great centers go beyond any ethnic or national divisions and are treasured by all Central Asians as part of their collective cultural heritage.

Kyzyl Kum (VisitUzbekistan)

The Kyzyl Kum (VisitUzbekistan)

Uzbekistan’s landscape is diverse. Much of the country’s west is covered by the hot Kyzyl Kum (“Red Sands”) desert. The large Aral Sea used to be a major feature of western Uzbekistan. However, due to Soviet-era irrigation schemes involving the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers and the Karimov government’s inaction, the once-great sea has now shrunk to near-nonexistence. The eastern part of Uzbekistan, centered on the Fergana Valley is more fertile, though this part of Central Asia has also been known for ethnic tension, disputed borders, and Islamic extremism. The country also has a wealth of natural resources including natural gas, oil, and gold and is renown for its cotton growth.

Uzbek Leader Islam Karimov (RIA Novosti / Sergey Guneev)

Uzbek Leader Islam Karimov (RIA Novosti / Sergey Guneev)

Of all the post-Soviet Central Asian states, Uzbekistan is the most repressive. The president, Islam Karimov, was elected to lead the country in 1990 and has remained in this position, establishing himself as an authoritarian despot. Rampantly corrupt, Karimov’s regime is particularly notorious for its use of medieval-style torture. Though potential Islamic extremism is a serious concern for Uzbekistan, the government has used this liberally as an excuse to crackdown on any dissent in the country. As a police state, it keeps a watchful eye on all of its citizens.  In 2005, a popular uprising against the regime in the eastern city of Andijan was put down brutally, with the Uzbek government forces cruelly firing into a crowd of men, women, and children. Estimates of those killed range from 400 to more than 1,000.

Gulnara Karimova (Getty)

Gulnara Karimova (Getty)

In recent years, Karimov’s daughter, Gulnara, has also been in the news. An oligarch with a taste for fashion and pop-singing, she is regarded as a very controversial figure. She lost her influence in Uzbekistan after she criticized her father’s repressive regime. Since then, her father has attempted to silence her, but she has continued her criticism of his policies regardless.  She was recently arrested.

After the 9/11 attacks, Russian President Vladimir Putin allowed the US to use Uzbekistan’s Karshi-Khanabad Air Base for its operations in Afghanistan. However, after the US criticized Karimov’s crackdown at Andijan, Tashkent told Washington to vacate the base. Russia, whose relations were already souring with the US at this time, approved of the evacuation of the base.  However, relations between Moscow and Tashkent have also been uneasy. In 2012, Uzbekistan withdrew from the Moscow-backed CSTO military alliance.

Location of Turkmenistan in post-Soviet Central Asia

Location of Turkmenistan in post-Soviet Central Asia

Turkmenistan
Capital: Ashgabat
Official language(s): Turkmen
President: Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov
Area: 491,210 км²
Population: 5,171,943 (2014 CIA est.)
GDP per capita: $9,700 (2013 CIA est.)
Geography: Arid desert
Ethnic groups (2010 estimate): Turkmen (79%), Uzbeks (9%), Russians (3%), Kazakhs (3%), Others (6%)

Turkmen man with camel, early 20th century (Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky)

Turkmen man with camel, early 20th century (Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky)

Overview:

Turkmenistan (also known as Turkmenia) is the homeland of the Turkmen, a traditionally nomadic Turkic-speaking people. The country borders Iran to the southwest and Afghanistan to the southeast. About 70% of its territory is covered by the inhospitable Karakum (“Black Sands”) Desert and its population is consequently sparse and spread out. Camel herding is a major occupation for many Turkmen and it is not uncommon to see dromedaries lazily walking alongside Turkmenistan’s vast desert highways. Many great powers have passed through far-flung Turkmenistan’s desert landscape over the centuries, particularly the Persians who left behind historical ruined cities like Merv and Nisa.

Darvaza Natural Gas Crater, Turkmenistan (National Geographic / Nick Hannes and Hollandse Hoogte)

Darvaza Natural Gas Crater, Turkmenistan (National Geographic / Nick Hannes and Hollandse Hoogte)

On the surface, Turkmenistan appears to be a desolate country with little to offer. Yet appearances can be deceiving.  Underneath Turkmenistan’s barren land are rich deposits of oil and especially natural gas. In fact, Turkmenistan has the fourth largest reserves of natural gas in the world. This has attracted a lot of interest, from the traditional power of Russia to new players in the region, such as the US and China. Perhaps the best illustration of the scale of Turkmenistan’s reserves is the fiery Darvaza natural gas crater (also known as the “Doorway to Hell”) located in the middle of the Karakum. In 1971, Soviet engineers began to drill for natural gas in this area. However, the ground beneath the drilling rig sank below grade, creating a large pit. The Soviets decided to burn the pit, fearful of the release of poisonous gases. It was initially believed that the gas would burn out in a matter of weeks. However, it has persisted for nearly 43 years.  The first human expedition of the fiery pit was made by explorer George Kourounis in November 2013.

Saparmurat Niyazov gold statue in Ashgabat (Robert Preston)

Saparmurat Niyazov gold statue in Ashgabat (Robert Preston)

One of the more unusual phenomena to emerge from Turkmenistan since the Soviet collapse has been its late President Saparmurat Niyazov. Niyazov was an authoritarian leader who was just as eccentric as he was autocratic. Channeling Turkey’s Atatürk, he Latinized the previously Cyrillic-based Turkmen alphabet and styled himself “Turkmenbashi,” meaning “Leader of the Turkmen.” He established an all-pervasive personality cult and even erected a gold statue to himself in the capital Ashgabat. Niyazov also issued bizarre decrees such as banning ballet, opera, makeup, and lip-syncing, and named months after his own family members. In addition, he authored a book known as the Ruhnama, a text comparable to Mao’s Little Red Book or Muammar Gaddafi’s Green Book, containing a mix of spiritual guidance, pseudo-history, autobiography, and poetic verse. The book was made mandatory in all Turkmen schools and a monument to it was even built in Ashgabat. Following Niyazov’s death in 2006, his successor Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov reversed many of his absurd decrees and removed his personality cult. However, Berdymuhamedov too appears to prefer ruling as an all-powerful authoritarian leader as opposed to introducing any sort of competitive democracy to Turkmenistan.

Anatoly Kuznetsov as Comrade Sukhov in White Sun of the Desert

Anatoly Kuznetsov as Comrade Sukhov in White Sun of the Desert (1970).

In the post-Soviet world Turkmenistan is also widely renown as the setting for the much celebrated 1970 Soviet film White Sun of the Desert (Белое солнце пустыни). This film, which featured the famous song Your Honor Lady Luck (Ваше благородие, госпожа Удача) by the bard Bulat Okudzhava, was one of many in the Soviet “Ostern” genre.  These “Osterns” (or “Easterns”) very much resembled American Westerners, except they were set in the deserts of Soviet Central Asia as opposed to the American southwest. Directed by Vladimir Motyl, White Sun of the Desert also introduced many common phrases into the Russian language including “Восток — дело тонкое” (“The East — a delicate matter”), “Вопросы есть? Вопросов нет!” (“Are there any questions? Of course not!”), “Таможня дает добро!” (“Customs gives the green light!”), and “Гюльчатай, открой личико!” (“Gyulchatai, show your face!”).

Autonomous regions:

Location of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast within Tajikistan in post-Soviet Central Asia

Location of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast within Tajikistan in post-Soviet Central Asia

Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, Tajikistan
Capital: Khorog
Official language(s): Tajik (Pamiri languages widely spoken)
Governor: Shodikhon Jamshedov
Area: 64,200 км²
Population: 218,000 (2008 est.)
Geography: Mountainous
Ethnic groups: Pamiris, Kyrgyz

Overview:

The Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast is perhaps the highest region in the former Soviet Union. It is almost completely covered by the Pamir mountains which, along with the nearby Himalayas, have been dubbed the “Roof of the World.” The tallest mountain peak of the former Russian Empire and the former USSR, Peak Kommunism (now Ismoil Somoni Peak) is located in Gorno-Badakhshan.

Pamiri children in Barchadev, Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, Tajikistan (Robert Middleton)

Pamiri children in Barchadev, Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, Tajikistan (Robert Middleton)

The population of the oblast is primarily comprised of ethnic Pamiris, an Iranic people distinct from the Tajiks who speak the Pamiri languages, not Farsi. Unlike the mostly Sunni Tajiks, the Pamiris are Ismaili Muslims (an off-shoot of Shiism). In addition to their homeland in Gorno-Badakhshan, the Pamiris also live in Afghanistan’s northernmost province of Badakhshan and in the westernmost portions of China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (particularly in the Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous County). They are closely related to the Wakhi speakers of Afghanistan’s Wakhan corridor and Pakistan’s far-northern Gilgit-Baltistan territory (part of disputed Kashmir).

Khorog, capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (Bakhriddin Isamutdinov)

Khorog, capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (Bakhriddin Isamutdinov)

The region was the last part of post-Soviet Central Asia to become part of the Russian Empire in 1895.  It was also the last territory acquired by the Russian Empire before the Revolution of 1917. [CORRECTION (11 Sept. 2016): The last territory acquired by the Russian Empire was actually the Severnaya Zemlya archipelago in the high Arctic in 1913.  Other northern islands were also claimed by the Russian Empire prior to 1917, including Franz Josef Land, Victoria Island, and Wrangel Island.  However, all of these islands would only be formally annexed to Russia in 1926 by the Soviet government.]

The boundary was drawn dividing the historic Badakhshan region between the Russian and British Empires (the latter of which controlled the foreign affairs of Afghanistan).   The Chinese Qing dynasty also had claim over the region.  It was not until 2002 that the People’s Republic of China finalized its frontiers with then post-Soviet Tajikistan.  However, the Republic of China, exiled in Taiwan, refuses to recognize this and continues to claim Gorno-Badakhshan as part of mainland China.

During the 1990s civil war in Tajikistan, the Pamiris of Gorno-Badakhshan sided with the Garmis in demanding more equal power from the government.  Many people from Garm and Gorno-Badakhshan had been relocated to the country’s south and western cotton-growing areas during the Soviet era.  During the early part of the war, many of the Garmis and Pamiris in this part of the country faced attacks and expulsions from government forces in what Human Rights Watch dubbed an “ethnic cleansing campaign.” Many fled back to their traditional native regions in Tajikistan, while others fled across the border into Afghanistan.  The result was a radicalization of the sides and an intensification of the conflict.

Clashes in Gorno-Badakhshan, 2012 (Reuters)

Clashes in Gorno-Badakhshan, 2012 (Reuters)

The civil war continued in Tajikistan until a power-sharing a agreement was brokered with Russian assistance in 1997.  Since then, Gorno-Badakhshan has remained relatively peaceful. However, in 2012, clashes erupted in the region between loyalists of the warlord Tolib Ayombekov and the Tajik military. Moscow observed the situation with concern.  After intense fighting on July 24, Tajik leader Emomali Rahmon called for a ceasefire. Peace and stability have since been restored to the area.

Location of the Karakalpakstan within Uzbekistan in post-Soviet Central Asia

Location of the Karakalpakstan within Uzbekistan in post-Soviet Central Asia

Karakalpakstan Autonomous Republic, Uzbekistan
Capital: Nukus
Official language(s): Karakalpak, Uzbek
Governor: Musa Erniyazov
Area: 164,900 км²
Population: 1,711,800 (2013 est.)
Geography: Arid desert
Ethnic groups (2007 estimate): Karakalpaks (33%), Uzbeks (33%), Kazakhs (25%), Others (9%)

Overview:

Karakalpakstan is an autonomous region that encompasses much of western Uzbekistan. Linguistically and culturally, the Karakalpaks closely resemble the Kazakhs more than the Uzbeks.  It is noteworthy that the area was once an autonomous region within Soviet Kazakhstan during the NEP era of the 1920s, before its jurisdiction was transferred to the Russian SFSR in 1930 and eventually to Soviet Uzbekistan in 1936. The name “Karakalpak” roughly translates as “black hat,” but the origin of this name is obscure. There are theories linking the Karakalpaks to the Chorni Klobuky (“black hat”) mercenaries of the Kievan Rus’ from the 11th and 12th centuries, though aside from the common meaning of their names, there is no evidence linking these two groups.  The Karakalpak homeland is arid and almost completely covered by desert.

Photographs illustrating the diminution of the Aral Sea. From left to right: (top row) 1973, 1989, 1999, (bottom row) 2001, 2003, 2009 (US Geological Survey and NASA)

Photographs illustrating the diminution of the Aral Sea. From left to right: (top row) 1973, 1989, 1999, (bottom row) 2001, 2003, 2009 (US Geological Survey and NASA)

Karakalpakstan was once a prosperous region in Soviet times. However, in the post-Soviet era, the region has fared badly within independent Uzbekistan. It has become the country’s poorest region and has suffered the greatest from the rapidly diminishing and now disappearing Aral Sea, which used to be a major feature of the region. The area is now experiencing a severe drought. Temperatures have increased. Sea salt and other chemicals from the dried bed of the salient sea have become wind-borne, poisoning the local environment and creating serious respiratory problems for the people living in the area. Meanwhile, the sea continues to shrink and Tashkent has done nothing to prevent what many regard as an environmental catastrophe. There are rumblings by some Karakalpak activists about possible independence from Uzbekistan, though Tashkent has been quick to deny this.

Nukus Art Museum (Panoramio)

Nukus Art Museum (Panoramio)

The ancient oasis region of Khwarezm encompassed a significant portion of modern Karakalpakstan, particularly in the Amu Darya river delta.  As such, the area has inherited many historic ruins and archeological sites of interest.  Additionally, the capital Nukus is also the home of the famed Nukus Art Museum, or more formally the State Art Museum of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, after I. V. Savitsky. The museum houses the second largest collection of Russian avant-garde art in the world after the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. Igor Savitsky, the museum’s founder, collected them at great risk of his own life, especially during Stalin’s era. In 2010, the museum was prominently featured in the documentary, The Desert of Forbidden Art with narration by Ben Kingsley and others.

Historical footage of Zakarpattia from the Czech National Film Archive

In a “sequel” to my earlier overview on the Carpatho-Rusyns and the Zakarpattia oblast of Ukraine, below are some glimpses of life in the Zakarpattia/Carpathian Rus’ region during the interwar period, when the area was formally part of Czechoslovakia. I came across this footage from 1922-1930 online which comes the Czech National Film Archive in Prague. Enjoy!:

 

 

 

 

Abkhazia’s Revolution: Background and Analysis

UN Map of Abkhazia, 2014

UN Map of Abkhazia, 2014

As the attention of the world was fixed on the violence, unrest, and uncertainty in Ukraine, a revolution erupted in another former Soviet territory. This was the self-proclaimed republic of Abkhazia, a subtropical breakaway territory of post-Soviet Georgia located along the Black Sea coast. However, in order to fully understand what is happening in Abkhazia now, a brief background of the region is required.

What is Abkhazia?

Mural of Bagrat II of Abkhazia from the Gelati Monastery in Imereti, Georgia

Mural of Bagrat II of Abkhazia from the Gelati Monastery in Imereti, Georgia

An autonomous republic of Georgia in Soviet times, Abkhazia is the home of the Abkhaz, a people who speak a Northwestern Caucasian language that is unrelated to Georgian but more closely related to the language of the Adyghe people, better known to the English-speaking world as Circassians. At the same time, the Abkhaz have a long historical relationship with the Georgians. Though linguistically distinct, Abkhazia was part of the old West Georgian Kingdoms of Colchis and Lazica. Further, the celebrated King Bagrat II of Abkhazia (himself of mixed Abkhaz and Georgian ancestry) unified Georgia as a single, feudal state in the Middle Ages. Consequently, as a people, the Abkhaz have a mixed cultural heritage, incorporating Circassian and Georgian influences as well as Russian, Byzantine, and Turkish ones – and also elements that are uniquely “Abkhaz.” Like the Georgians, the Abkhaz are renowned for their polyphonic singing. In terms of religion, most Abkhaz are Orthodox Christians with significant Muslim and pagan minorities (though pagan traditions generally persist among all Abkhaz).

The Abkhaz-Georgian relationship is complex. In the 19th century, several Abkhaz perceived to be sympathetic to the Ottoman Sultan were deported, along with almost all of their Adyghe neighbors, to the Ottoman Empire by Imperial Russia. Though many Abkhaz remained in Abkhazia, members of other ethnicities moved into their territory as well. These included Russians, Germans, Baltic peoples, Armenians, and Greeks. They also included Mingrelians, a subgroup of Georgians. Many of these Mingrelians were peasants who sought to find free land that was unavailable in their own historic region of Mingrelia.

Nestor Lakoba and his wife Sariya.  Both were victims of Stalin and Beria's Terror in the 1930s.

Nestor Lakoba and his wife Sariya. Both were victims of Stalin and Beria’s Terror in the 1930s.

By the early 20th century, Abkhazia was a distinctly heterogeneous region. Abkhaz comprised roughly the same proportion or a slightly higher proportion of the population to Georgians, with other ethnicities forming the remainder of the population. During Sovietization, Abkhazia was made a contractual, co-equal republic affiliated with Soviet Georgia. However, the territory’s status changed when it was downgraded in the 1930s from being a co-equal region within Georgia, to an autonomous republic of Georgia. Nevertheless, its leader Nestor Lakoba enjoyed popular support from the local population. Abkhaz and Georgians within the republic generally got along well with one another. In fact, Lakoba’s own wife Sariya was a beautiful ethnic Georgian woman from Batumi.

However, Lavrentiy Beria, the leader of Soviet Georgia and of Soviet Transcaucasia despised Lakoba. Born to a Mingrelian family in Abkhazia, Beria viewed Lakoba as a rival for influence with Stalin especially because Stalin seemed to favor Lakoba. The rivalry is perhaps best illustrated in the glasnost-era film Belshazzar’s Feasts, or A Night with Stalin based on a story from the novel Sandro of Chegem by the celebrated Russian-language Abkhaz writer Fazil Iskander. The enmity did not end well for Lakoba or Abkhazia. He was assassinated by Beria in 1936. Shortly afterward, he was declared an “enemy of the people” and his family was persecuted. Beria then flooded Abkhazia with large numbers of ethnic Mingrelian settlers and encouraged the invention of a false academic discourse claiming that the Abkhaz were not indigenous to Abkhazia, but “new arrivals.” By the 1950s, the Abkhaz were reduced to only 15% of the population in their own homeland.

Beautiful Gagra on the Black Sea Coast (Panoramio)

Beautiful Gagra on the Black Sea Coast (Panoramio)

After Stalin’s death, the Abkhaz began to experience an era of limited freedom. Abkhaz-language publishing returned and the Abkhaz representation in Abkhazia increased. Gradually, the Abkhaz portion of the population was beginning to bounce back as well. The situation in the republic remained largely peaceful. Abkhazia was known throughout the Soviet Union as a popular and prosperous holiday destination. Gagra, Sukhumi, Pitsunda, and other coastal cities became highlights of the Soviet Black Sea Riviera. Its citrus trees, spas, and the famous Sukhumi botanical garden became legendary throughout the Soviet Union. Politics meant little to vacationers on Abkhazia’s inviting Black Sea coast. The republic’s diverse ethnic groups generally lived in peace with one another.

However, ethnic tension arose with the start of glasnost. Some Abkhaz nationalists demanded to elevate their territory to the status of a full union republic while Georgian nationalist dissidents, led by the eccentric Zviad Gamsakhurdia (also a Mingrelian) began to encourage a chauvinistic discourse of a “Georgia for the Georgians.” They claimed that Abkhaz, Ossetians, and others were “new arrivals” in Georgia and consequently alienated them. Clashes erupted between Abkhaz and Georgians in Sukhumi in 1989. Yet despite the violence and the rival nationalisms, Gamsakhurdia reached a compromise with the Abkhaz in a power-sharing agreement. Thus, as ethnic tension engulfed South Ossetia and civil war in Georgia proper erupted over Gamsakhurdia’s nationalist discourse and authoritarian rule, Abkhazia remained relatively peaceful. Notably, the Abkhaz leadership expressed the desire for their republic to become a full co-equal republic within a federated Georgia, an offer that was rejected by Tbilisi.

The Council of Ministers Building of Abkhazia, still damaged from the 1992-93 Abkhaz-Georgian war (RFE/RL)

The Council of Ministers Building of Abkhazia, still damaged from the 1992-93 Abkhaz-Georgian war (RFE/RL)

In December 1991, the rouge general Tengiz Kitovani led a coup against Gamsakhurdia that deposed the controversial nationalist president. After Gamsakhurdia was ousted from power, the more moderate Soviet-era Georgian leader and former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze was invited to return to Tbilisi as Georgia’s new President. Undeterred, Gamsakhurdia fled to his home region of Mingrelia where the “Zviadists” launched a revolt against the new government in Tbilisi. Acting on his own accord, Kitovani invaded Mingrelia and then pressed on to Abkhazia, claiming that Gamsakhurdia’s supporters were sabotaging the Abkhazian railway. In reality, Kitovani was moving to bring the Abkhaz firmly under Tbilisi’s rule.  His operation resulted in a full-fledged and violent war in Abkhazia with atrocities committed by all sides. The Abkhaz side was assisted by rouge Russian nationalists (though not the Russian government) and by militants from the North Caucasus like the notorious Shamil Basayev. By the end of the war, much of Abkhazia’s Georgian population either fled or was expelled. Many still live as IDPs in Georgia today, though a sizable number have returned, notably to the southern Gali district.

Post-war Abkhazia and lost alternatives toward peace

Abkhazia's Sergey Shamba (RFE/RL)

Abkhazia’s Sergey Shamba (RFE/RL)

Peace talks subsequently ensued, often with Yeltsin’s Russia leading the way in the negotiations. Several proposals existed in the 1990s to create a common Georgian-Abkhaz federal or confederal state structure. The Abkhaz side claims that they accepted such proposals, but that they were rejected by Shevardnadze who wanted to retain a unitary Georgian state with an autonomous Abkhazia. The Abkhaz refused this and talks ultimately fell through. However, a renewed effort toward peace began after the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia. Mikheil Saakashvili’s new envoy to the disputed territories was Irakli Alasania (now Defense Minister of Georgia).  Born to a Mingrelian family, Alasania was able to forge very good working relations and friendship with the Abkhaz.  He invited the Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergey Shamba to Tbilisi, a request with which Shamba accepted with pleasure. The visit was by all accounts a success, except for the fact that President Saakashvili refused to meet with Shamba. Instead, confident that he had the full backing of the United States and NATO, Saakashvili planned (according to many Georgian observers) to retake Abkhazia and Georgia’s other breakaway region, South Ossetia, by force. On the day of Shamba’s Tbilisi visit, Saakashvili was on the Georgian-Abkhaz frontier making military preparations.

Yet Alasania was undeterred. With Shamba he agreed to sign a non-use-of-force agreement as a confidence-building measure with the Abkhaz. This would have taken place in Sochi under the auspices of then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. It would have been a serious alternative leading to a de-escalation in tensions not only between Tbilisi and Sukhumi, but also Tbilisi and Moscow as well. However, Saakashvili refused to permit the meeting to take place. Instead, according to Nino Burjanadze and others, Saakashvili continued preparations for war on the two territories, and brazenly informed Russia’s Vladimir Putin about it. Putin warned Saakashvili that invading either of the two territories would result in a Russian intervention and a formal recognition of their independence. But Saakashvili dismissed this. The result was the August 2008 war in which Saakashvili’s Georgia lost. Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia were recognized by Russia.  Any sort of peace or reconciliation now seemed more distant than ever.

Georgian Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili (VOA)

Georgian Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili (VOA)

A renewed chance for peace?

In October 2012, Mikheil Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement lost parliamentary elections to the Georgian Dream coalition, led by the Imeretian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. Unlike Saakashvili and his party who were unequivocally pro-Western, Ivanishvili and his party can be best described as neither pro-Western, nor pro-Russian, but pro-Georgian. While Ivanishvili has spoken of the historical importance of joining the EU, he has, at the same time, not completely ruled out joining the Moscow-backed Eurasian Union either. The party’s control on power increased following Saakashvili’s loss of the Georgian presidency to the bon-vivant philosopher-turned-politician Giorgi Margvelashvili. Then, Ivanishvili himself stepped down as Prime Minister, appointing Irakli Garibashvili as his successor.

One of the cornerstones of the new Georgian government’s foreign policy is reunification with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, even more so perhaps than membership in the EU and NATO. Evidence of this is the fact that the Ivanishvili government is filled with people who have good working relations with the Abkhaz and Ossetians who understand fundamentally the ethnic concerns of both groups. These include individuals like Alasania, Guram Odisharia, and Paata Zakareishvili. Many were featured in the documentary, Absence of Will, a must-see film for anyone wanting to get a true understanding of the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict. Indeed, the present Georgian Dream government can truly be described as the first post-Soviet Georgian government that really understands Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Ivanishvili has kept both the EU and NATO on the table, likely as bargaining chips with Moscow to regain the two breakaway regions. However, the sentiments of the Abkhaz and the Ossetes have to be taken into consideration as well, and Russia will not simply “reverse” its recognition of these two regions. Rather, it may work to promote a “reunification” of these regions with Georgia proper into a co-equal federation or confederation (though Tbilisi would be more accepting of the former than the latter). This would be a logical resolution to the issue and it would certainly help Moscow both geopolitically and domestically with the Georgian public (the Georgian Dream would receive the credit for reunifying the country, not Saakashvili). I have written about such a resolution in the past and others, including Dmitri Trenin of the Moscow Carnegie Center, have done so as well.

What is happening in Abkhazia now?

Protests in Sukhumi (AFP / Getty Images / Ibragim Chkaduaibragim Chkadua)

Protests in Sukhumi (AFP / Getty Images / Ibragim Chkaduaibragim Chkadua)

Since last Tuesday, there have been massive protests in Sukhumi against the Abkhaz President Aleksandr Ankvab. The opposition has accused the leader of authoritarian tendencies and of misspending funds by Russia. On Saturday, the Abkhaz parliament relieved Ankvab of his presidential duties. He resigned the next day. Snap elections have been called for August 24.

What is happening now in Abkhazia is either:

A) Genuine discontent and frustration with the Ankvab government by the people of Abkhazia and by the political opposition, or,

B) Moscow covertly working through the opposition in Abkhazia to unseat Ankvab and to bring to power a government more compliant to Moscow that would be more willing to compromise with Georgia. This is possible given the sheer timing and speed with which the events have been proceeding (kind of like Crimea) since last Tuesday.

Both are reasonable explanations for the present situation.

However, it must also be noted that the Abkhaz opposition is a diverse group. One of its leaders Raul Khajimba is a hardline nationalist and former KGB agent who has categorically ruled out any compromise with Georgia, let alone granting ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia Abkhaz citizenship. Another, Sergei Shamba is the man who both led the peace negotiations with Abkhazia in the 1990s and forged a good working relationship with Georgia’s Irakli Alasania. If anyone in Abkhazia can find a compromise solution to the problem, it would be Shamba.

Former Abkhaz President Aleksandr Ankvab (RIA Novosti / Vladimir Popov)

Former Abkhaz President Aleksandr Ankvab (RIA Novosti / Vladimir Popov)

The most interesting development is the sudden request by the Abkhaz opposition to join Moscow’s Eurasian Union. Prior to this, the idea of joining the Eurasian Union never figured in Abkhaz politics much at all. The rapidity of such a request, and the fact that it has appeared almost coincidentally with the signing of the Eurasian Union deal between Moscow, Astana, and Minsk, also makes one wonder whether or not Moscow is involved. This may be intended to further illustrate to Tbilisi that it risks being permanently separated from Abkhazia if it joins the EU and NATO. On the other hand, if this request emerged from the genuine sentiments of the Abkhaz opposition, it could be in response to the Georgian Defense Minister Alasania’s statements calling for NATO bases in Georgia, which Abkhaz politicians of all political strands oppose. Such statements may have been made by the traditionally more moderate Alasania to call Moscow’s bluff. Likewise the request to join the Eurasian Union could also be a combination of both factors (i.e., Moscow’s involvement and concerns of the Abkhaz regarding Georgian NATO membership).

In the meantime, it will be interesting to see how Moscow responds to the demand of the Abkhaz opposition to join the Eurasian Union. Will they welcome them with open arms, or will they shuffle their feet? My guess is the latter, not only because Moscow still wants to have a card on the table to lure back Tbilisi, but also because the other two founding members of the Eurasian club, Belarus and Kazakhstan, do not recognize Abkhazia’s independence. Minsk and Astana would need to recognize Abkhazia’s independence before supporting Sukhumi’s membership in the Eurasian Union, which they will likely not do because they have their own geopolitical priorities (especially Nazarbayev with his traditionally balanced foreign policy). All of this adds credence to the scenario that Moscow is involved in the present revolution in Abkhazia because, under the present geopolitical circumstances, Abkhazia can never fully join the Eurasian Union without Georgia largely due to the position of Minsk and Astana. Hence, the ouster of Ankvab may very well be step one to a detente between Tbilisi, Sukhumi, and Moscow.

It should likewise be noted that Moscow does not need to do this in South Ossetia because it already has a government in Tskhinvali that is now more or less under its control. To illustrate this, it should be recalled that the former interim South Ossetian President Vadim Brovtsev was an ethnic Russian businessman from Chelyabinsk with no prior ties to the region.

In any case, one can safely say that unless Moscow, Tbilisi, and Sukhumi resolve their differences, Abkhazia could become another “frontline” in the emerging new Cold War. If this happens, it would make the situation in the Caucasus region much more dangerous and it would ultimately be a negative development for Russian, American, European, Middle Eastern, and international security.