War and Peace in the Caucasus

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Vicken Cheterian, Hurst; £25

In 1992, as the former Yugoslavian Republic tore itself apart in a series of bloody ethnic conflicts, the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic put forward the following explanation for why Serbs, Croats and Muslims were killing each other: "Tito threw us together. We are like oil and water. While he shook us, we stayed together. Once we were left alone, we separated."

This was a simple explanation which was shared by many in the West and it became a template used to shed light on the conflicts which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It was used to explain the three major conflicts in the Caucasus in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse - in Chechnya, South Ossetia and Karabakh. For example, the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh which started in the late 1980s was interpreted in the West as the re-emergence of a feud between Azeris and Armenians which stretched back to antiquity.

The great merit of Vicken Cheterian's book is that he finds these pat explanations inadequate. If, he asks, suppressed ethnic rivalries were behind the wars in the Caucasus, why didn't all former Soviet territories become a bloodbath as 14 former Soviet republics became independent? Why, given there were 30 territorial conflicts in the Caucasus in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse were there only five major inter-ethnic clashes?

Cheterian's main argument is that, far from treating the conflicts in the region as "business as usual" following the experience of Stalinism, understanding how the region developed in this period is the only way to make sense of the subsequent development.

The wars, he argues, weren't inevitable inter-ethnic conflicts. They had their roots in the way the Stalinist ruling class transformed themselves from loyal party hacks into nationalist leaders in the immediate post-Soviet period. The region's very lack of territorial distinction and its multi-ethnic population made attempts at state creation potentially explosive. The ruling order needed fixed territorial boundaries to their newly independent states, but trying to impose them in regions where fixed borders had never existed, and across peoples who didn't recognise them, was inviting conflict.

The wars in the region have been savage. The fighting in South Ossetia and Karabakh was low key but bloody, its casualties numbering thousands. The first Chechen war fought between 1994 and 1996 claimed 35,000 civilian lives and turned 40 percent of the population into refugees. The second cycle of fighting between 1999 and 2000 left a further 25,000 dead.

The region has achieved some sort of stability since then but last year's war between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia shows how fragile this stability is.

The potential for increasingly bloody inter-regional warfare remains high. Georgia's military spending went from $84 million in 2004 to $339 million in 2006. In July 2008 the Georgian parliament approved a military budget of $1 billion. The Azerbaijan military budget rose from $175 million in 2003 to $1.3 billion in 2008. In addition, interest in Caspian oil from American, European, Russian, Turkish, Iranian and Chinese companies has turned the region into a board on which they are playing the new Great Game.

War and Peace in the Caucasus is well worth reading to understand the recent history of this troubled region, especially in the light of Nato's eastward expansion attempts.