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Zero-Sum Thinking Prevails. Book Review: Thomas de Waal, “The Caucasus: An Introduction”

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In his latest book, Thomas de Waal undertakes an almost impossible task in trying to explain the South Caucasus in a little more than 200 pages. The book covers the history (or rather histories) of the region; the formation and interrelations of various identity groups; the present day conflicts; the struggle(s) for democracy in the post-Soviet period; and the role of  competition over oil and other natural resources of the Caspian in shaping Great Power politics toward the region.

Writing about history is always a tricky exercise, and certainly so in the context of the South Caucasus where competing historical discourses and counter-discourses fuel negative attitudes and serve as a basis for sustaining conflicts. In this environment, any author who attempts to present a more or less objective picture has the task of selecting from a rich web of contradictory historical evidence without appearing selective or favoring some groups over others.

The book manages this near-impossible task unexpectedly well. It does so by not attempting to find historical truth or presenting history in its entirety. Instead, the book focuses on what matters today to the groups that inhabit the region, summarizing the present day historical narratives that shape the self and other perceptions, the inter-societal relations, the politics, and the conflicts. These present-day narratives are extremely selective, attributing every positive quality to one’s own group and every negative quality to the “others.” These narratives are relatively recent creations. Yet, they are almost universally confused with history.  By relying on a somewhat oversimplified presentation of narratives that are dominant in each group, the book paints a complex picture of a multi-ethnic region and explains many of the roots of present-day relations and competing national aspirations.

The book also excels in describing the causes and the dynamics of ethnic conflicts in the South Caucasus. It can serve as a fascinating illustration of theories of the “security dilemma,” when what one does to enhance one’s own security leads to a reaction that makes one less secure. The book describes in detail how actors in Nagorno-Karabakh, Georgian-Abkhazian, and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts continuously took steps that led to a response that led to counter-response, creating a chain of actions that escalated the conflicts and led to violence in early 1990s and then again in 2008. The book also sounds a severe warning: the term “frozen conflict” as applied to Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia is misleading, and until the conflicts are resolved the possibility of renewal of violence always remains. Any crisis could lead to escalation and violence, even if it is against the best interests of the actors involved.

The book dispels some myths that are central to keeping the conflicts of the region intractable. De Waal shows that the conflicts in the Caucasus do not have an ancient history and that the first cases of interethnic violence were recorded only in the early 20th  century. De Waal also questions another myth popular in literature on the post-soviet conflicts — that the borders of the soviet republics and ethnic autonomies within them were a result of  a “divide and rule” policy. The author suggests that the soviet borders were rather a result of a “unite and rule” policy and the autonomies within soviet republics were created not with an intent to create ethnic animosity but rather to mitigate ethnic animosity inherited by the Soviets from the short but bloody pre-revolutionary period of ethnic wars in the Caucasus.

One of the most commendable features of the book is that it voices the stories of those groups that have been “successfully” silenced by means of deportation, repression, assimilation, or outright extermination. Chechens, Cherkessians, and many other typically Muslim groups have been subject to persecution, ethnic cleansings, and genocides during the Tsarist Russian and later regimes. In soviet times entire ethnic groups were labeled “enemy” or “guilty groups” and subjected to deportations to Kazakhstan and Siberia, often ending in their annihilation. The understanding of the Caucasus would not be complete without consideration of the destinies of these peoples, the scars that remain and might never be healed, and the contribution of these forgotten genocides to the development of culture of violence and fear that dominates the region.

The latter chapters of the book address the processes of democratization within the societies of the South Caucasus and the effect of competition over Caspian oil and gas fields on the politics of the region. Unlike the more comprehensive historical and conflict analysis chapters, here the analysis stays rather on the surface or discusses some dynamics but not others. For example, the Rose Revolution and other internal Georgian processes are analyzed in detail, while the internal dynamics in Azerbaijan, Armenia, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Adjaria do not receive the same treatment.

Judging from the title, “The Caucasus: An Introduction” is written for the external audience interested in understanding the complexities of the region. Yet for the South Caucasus, a region where, as the author puts it, “Zero-Sum thinking prevails,” the book can equally serve as a much-needed introduction of next-door neighbors to one another. If only we could put aside for a moment our lenses of hostile national narratives and perceived competing interests.

Thomas de Waal, “The Caucasus: An Introduction.” Oxford University Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-19-539977-6



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