August 9, 2008

The Explosive Caucasus

Just as I’m ready to board a plane for Azerbaijan in the former Soviet Caucasus region, Russia invades South Ossetia in Georgia next door.

The Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy invited me to Baku for a week, and I figured I’d be heading to a region that hardly anyone would be paying attention to. That turned out to be wrong. I won’t be flying to the war, but I’m about to fly over it and will land right next to it.

The whole area is a big mess. Chechnya, of course, is the most notorious part of the Caucasus region, but all these countries are dysfunctionally wrapped up in each others’ business.

Azerbaijan has its own “South Ossetia.” The region known as Nagorno-Karabakh is a self-proclaimed independent republic carved out of the middle of Azerbaijan by the Armenian military and ethnically-cleansed of Azeris. No country on earth recognizes the sovereignty or legitimacy of Nagorno-Karabakh except for Armenia.

Nagorno-Karabakh Map.JPG

The Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic is an Azeri-administered region that looks like it’s more or less inside Armenia. Armenians, naturally, claim it should be theirs, but Nakhchivan is at least internationally recognized as legitimate.

Azerbaijan-Nakhichevan.JPG

Meanwhile, most Azeris don’t even live in Azerbaijan. They live in Iran, where they make up 25 percent of Iran’s population. (Contrary to popular belief, Iran is only 51 percent Persian.) It sort of begs the question then: if you’re in the Azeri parts of Iran and therefore in the Middle East, shouldn’t the Azeri parts of Azerbaijan (which is to say, most of Azerbaijan) also be considered the Middle East?

Shirvanshakh Baku.jpg
Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan

Yet the top portion of Azerbaijan is technically inside Europe. And Azerbaijan is officially a Caucasus country rather than European or Middle Eastern, at least geographically speaking. It would be considered Middle Eastern if the Persians hadn’t lost it to the Russians 180 years ago, and it would still be “Russian” if it hadn’t broken away when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Azerbaijan belongs to that strange region where the sort-of West meets the sort-of East and is another Balkan-style tinderbox with ethnic time bombs that tend to explode. Azerbaijan has lots of oil, too, so it matters to the rest of the world far more than its near absence in the media might suggest. It’s simultaneously being pulled toward Russia, the West, and the Islamic world. No one knows where it will end up, but Russia’s invasion of Georgia next door likely will be a big factor.

Stay tuned. I’ll be there in less than 48 hours.

UPDATE: If you want some solid background reading about the hell that broke loose in Georgia a few days ago, take a look at this dispatch by Joshua Kucera from South Ossetia that Slate published a few months ago. You’ll learn a lot more reading that than you will from wire agency reports that focus mostly on tank movements and body counts.

See also Anne Applebaum in the same publication.

Post-script: The government of Azerbaijan is paying for this trip, so I don’t need money for travel expenses. But I’d still rather not work for free if I can help it. If a couple of dispatches from this strange part of the world are worth something to you, please consider a contribution and help make truly independent writing economically viable.

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at August 9, 2008 4:34 PM
Comments

Deja vu all over again. The 58th Army is the main battle formation moving into South Ossetia. They are mainly famous for pacifying, which seems to be Russian for killing everyone and their dog, Chechnya. But they essentially used a burn it down and then salt the earth strategy so it appears that some of the difficulties it might currently face, many armies learn as they go, a Georgian army that has been trained and advised by the US and which also has many senior staff that are familiar with Russian tactics.
I'm sure the Azeris are wondering what happens next or if they are next!

Posted by: Pat Patterson Author Profile Page at August 9, 2008 6:27 PM

Sounds oil-motivated to me.

This is awful stuff Michael, but the timing for your visit is bizarrely perfect.

I hope travel is still safe.

Posted by: medaura Author Profile Page at August 9, 2008 7:27 PM

How is it oil motivated?

Posted by: leo Author Profile Page at August 9, 2008 9:20 PM

There is a relatively new, BP run, pipeline that runs from Azerbijan through Georgia then to the Turkish port at Ceyhan. All without the sticky fingers of Gazprom being involved. Though I think that this pipeline is one of the issues it is certainly a legitimate point in that independent sources of energy for Europe tends to weaken the effect of Russia's leverage against the EU.

Posted by: Pat Patterson Author Profile Page at August 10, 2008 1:34 AM

Oil concern is legitimate of cause as it always is in any situation.
However, Georgia's desire to join NATO is much greater concern to Russians.
Then again, extra piece of real estate would not hurt either.

Posted by: leo Author Profile Page at August 10, 2008 8:08 AM

Azerbaijan has its own “South Ossetia.” The region known as Nagorno-Karabakh is a self-proclaimed independent republic carved out of the middle of Azerbaijan by the Armenian military and ethnically-cleansed of Azeris.

michael, this statement could not be farther off the mark, which has me extremely worried as i'm sure that's how the azeris will be trying to cast the karabagh situation, given current events.

karabagh was severed from armenia by stalin in the early 1920s (NOT carved out of azerbaijan by the armenian military), in an effort to curry favor with turkey and penalize armenia for an anti-soviet rebellion. stalin also altered the borders of the region (which, with its armenian majority, was even at that time officially autonomous) so it would be cut off from armenia (this is why it's in the middle of the country, rather than at the edge).

over the coming decades, the azeris launched a campaign to systematically "azerify" the region, reducing the armenian majority from around 95% in the 1920s to about 75% by the late 1980s (karabagh has been demographically armenian christian for millenia). however, most azeris fled during the worst fighting of the '90s (fled, were NOT cleansed), returning the population more or less to its previous ratio.

finally, a significant part of why the people of karabagh want independence (referendums show well over 90% in favor) is because they have suffered from oppression and countless human rights violations under azeri rule. while i side with georgia in the south ossetia conflict, the moral imperative is clearly on the armenian side in karabagh. despite superficial similarities, it's just not the same thing.

Posted by: cfw Author Profile Page at August 10, 2008 9:03 AM

I agree with cfw with regard to Karabakh.
Although, I have difficulty taking sides in Georgia-Russia war.
Leaning slightly in Georgia direction maybe but mostly because of my dislike of Russia (more of Putin and his policies).
Not sure Georgia is all that innocent though.

Posted by: leo Author Profile Page at August 10, 2008 10:30 AM

Armenia does in fact recognize Nakhichevan as part of Azerbaijan. Armenia does not, currently, recognize Nagorno Karabagh as independent nor claim it as part of Armenia, although it does garantee the security of the Armenian population of Nagorno Karabagh and it maintains that the Karabagh Armenians have the right of self-determination.

These strange borders are the result of Stalin's manipulations, leaving large populations cut off from each other and leading to much of the strife we see now.

The best and most objective book about the war over Nagorno Karabagh was written by British journalist Thomas de Waal - 'Black Garden Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War' http://www.amazon.ca/Black-Garden-Armenia-Azerbaijan-Through/dp/0814719457

De Waal has written a pretty good piece in today's Guardian about the situation in South Ossetia:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/aug/10/georgia.russia

Posted by: Eliot Author Profile Page at August 10, 2008 1:55 PM

Michael,

Any plans to go to Georgia? I don't think the borders are closed, though flights are being diverted. It would probably be possible to get in by land.

We badly need more context on what's happening on the ground. Seems like the only things making the news are interviews with Russian and Georgian officials, neither of whom are providing the full picture.

Posted by: Edgar Author Profile Page at August 11, 2008 6:08 AM

One of the things that irks me about this recent conflict is that Russia and its apologists are making claims and analogies that just do not hold up upon close inspection. For example, some are saying that this is just like Kosovo, so why is the West condemning one and supporting the other? If it were just like Kosovo, one might ask the same of the Russia. Fortunately, the news reports out of Georgia contrasted with your articles and posts on Kosovo made it clear just how fatuous this analogy is.

These strange borders are the result of Stalin's manipulations

Although I'm certainly not an expert here, I'd suspect that the fact that Stalin was Georgian ruling from Moscow complicates matters even more. You hear a lot about Armenia versus Azerbijan, and Russia versus Georgia, but how are the other combinations of relations here? Among these four nations, only Armenia and Russia share no borders.

Posted by: calbear Author Profile Page at August 11, 2008 10:14 AM

cfw: this statement could not be farther off the mark, which has me extremely worried as i'm sure that's how the azeris will be trying to cast the karabagh situation

Yes, I'm only hearing the Azeri side now. I will make that abundantly clear when I write about this. I don't know the Armenian side's arguments as well as I know the Azeri point of view, although it doesn't help the Armenian case that no country on earth takes their side in this dispute. Really, it doesn't. I'll read whatever you put in front of me, though, as long it is not propaganda. (I do want some balance, but I don't want any bullshit.)

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at August 11, 2008 1:41 PM

By the way, cfw, I trust you not to send me dumb propaganda. I didn't recognize your initials at first, but now that I know who I'm talking to, let me say that I do want you to send me some reading material. Thanks.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at August 11, 2008 1:50 PM

It sort of begs the question then: if you’re in the Azeri parts of Iran and therefore in the Middle East, shouldn’t the Azeri parts of Azerbaijan (which is to say, most of Azerbaijan) also be considered the Middle East?

You can flip this. Maybe Iran should not be considered part of the Middle East, at best it's tangential to it the way Turkey is. Culturally and linguistically Iran is part of Central Asia - Iranians are mostly Persians or Turks (like Azeris), not Arabs. The "Middle East" is really the Arab world. Now that the artificial walls created by the USSR between Iran and Central Asia and the Caucuses are gone Iran's influence will probably be felt a lot more to the North and East of the country than in the "Middle East".

Posted by: Dyadya Vanya Author Profile Page at August 11, 2008 4:06 PM

ha! well, glad you figured it out :)

anyways, michael, i'll be happy to send you some non-propaganda reading material.

but in the meantime -- you should be aware that what you've written above is blatant azeri propaganda. if you don't believe me, please, check ANY credible encyclopedia or history book.

i get that there are two sides here, but there is little to no dispute over karabagh's history and how the azeris ended up with it.

Posted by: cfw Author Profile Page at August 11, 2008 6:36 PM

also - in reference to your observation that "no country on earth takes the armenian side in this dispute."

that's not entirely accurate. no country on earth recognizes karabagh's independence (including armenia), because no final settlement has yet been reached in the ongoing negotiations (mediated for the last decade+ by the OSCE minsk group, between armenia, karabagh, and azerbaijan) and to do so under such circumstances would be highly provocative.

Posted by: cfw Author Profile Page at August 11, 2008 7:17 PM

Mike,

Since you're already so close, you should go to Georgia. Dig up the dirt. Did Georgia bring this upon themselves? Saakashvili seemed to play a gamble by shelling South Ossetia thinking that maybe NATO or at least the US would help. That was not a smart move. To paraphrase Mao... Russia may be a paper tiger but it is a tiger with nuclear teeth. I hope this doesn't draw the US into another long confrontation with Russia.

Posted by: Graham Author Profile Page at August 11, 2008 10:15 PM

OOps, Mao didn't make the "paper tiger" comment. It was Kruschev. At any rate I think it still applies. The US should not get into a conflict with Russia over this. It would end in tears.

Posted by: Graham Author Profile Page at August 12, 2008 10:13 AM

The Atlantic is republishing some great background by Robert Kaplan on the area.

http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200011/kaplan-georgia

You've absorbed and surpassed his style.

Your maps are great.

Russia opposed Kosovo's independence and the redrawing of borders. Going ahead with it, it does set a precedent.

There should be multi-national peacekeepers, including Russians and Americans, allowing the Ossetes to vote on whether to stay or go. That should be the democratic standard.

Even if the Georgian oppression is much less, smaller groups should be allowed to leave -- killing to keep non-nationals in a nation-state isn't morally worth it.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad Author Profile Page at August 13, 2008 7:21 PM

Hi, Michael,

I have a question if you could answer whenever you might get a chance.

Russians (following Ossetians) are claiming Saakashvili killed 1400+ Ts'hinvali residents in first 24 hours of war before Russians moved in.

Yesterday I run into supposed Human Rights Watch claim that numbers are slightly off:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/aug/13/georgia

Since you are in the neighborhood I am wondering if you might have a better idea.

Thank you very much

Leo

PS. Have fun in Azerbaijan. It is beautiful country. If you are going to bring caviar back home take black, do not bother with red. Taste it before you buy it. Make sure it is not too salty, not too fishy and granular, not mushy.

Posted by: leo Author Profile Page at August 14, 2008 9:56 AM

Its 'mashy'. Sorry.

Posted by: leo Author Profile Page at August 14, 2008 10:41 AM

Except the vote in South Ossetia by passport holding "Russians" will not be followed up by a vote by the Chechens anytime soon. Or the Ainu of Sahalin!

Posted by: Pat Patterson Author Profile Page at August 14, 2008 3:09 PM

Keep up the good work Michael, your blog is always interesting to read.

Posted by: sweden1975 Author Profile Page at August 17, 2008 4:12 AM

Sorry to go OT but you really have to see this:

http://digg.com/politics/REAL_Iranian_President_cries_and_slaps_himself_in_concert

Posted by: Lookie Author Profile Page at August 22, 2008 6:00 PM
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