The Caucasus

Where Is the Caucasus?

Geopolitical Map of the Caucasus

Geopolitical Map of the Caucasus For the next two weeks or so, GeoCurrents will examine the Caucasus. This unusually long focus on a particular place derives from several reasons. The Caucasus is one of the most culturally complex and linguistically diverse parts of the world, noted as well for its geopolitical intricacy and intractable conflicts. The region contains three internationally recognized sovereign states (Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan), three mostly unrecognized self-declared states (Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh), and seven internal Russian republics (Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, North Ossetia-Alania, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachai-Cherkessia, and Adygea); in addition, Islamist insurgent have declared a virtual “Northern Caucasus Emirate” in the Russian-controlled part of the region. Struggles in the Caucasus have global ramifications, as was made evident in the summer of 2008 when the Russian military triumphed over the U.S-backed government of Georgia. In world historical terms as well, the Caucasus is surprisingly significant. Several Caucasian ethnic groups—particularly the Ossetians, the Circassians, and the Armenians—have played major roles on a vastly wider stage.

Despite the importance of the Caucasus, the region is often overlooked in the international media. When noticed, it is often portrayed as a remote and violence-plagued place, a jumble of mountains situated at the periphery of some other region: the Russian extreme south, the Middle Eastern extreme north, or the European extreme southeast. The region is also often misconstrued. Confusion can be generated by something as simple as replicated place names. As was recently explored in GeoCurrents, the country of Georgia and the U.S. state of Georgia are often mixed-up in web-searches, while the historical Caucasian kingdoms of Iberia and Albania are sometimes taken for the European peninsula and country of the same names. Befuddlement even attaches to the term “Caucasian,” which in some circumstances refers to the peoples and features of the region, yet in others denotes a supposed biological race more generally associated with Europe.

Satellite Image of the Caucasus The peripheralization of the Caucasus, however, is an artifact of conventional ways of dividing the world, not a reflection of the region’s intrinsic position. By changing the frame of reference, the Caucasus is revealed as a key place, one that historically linked the Black Sea and Caspian Sea basins, and, more broadly, the greater Mediterranean world with the Central Asian realm of the Silk Roads. The region may have formidable mountain barriers, but it also contains a broad swath of lower lands sandwiched between the Greater and Lesser Caucasus ranges, which long formed an important trade corridor and is now a major oil-pipeline route. And if one steps back a little further to examine all of Western Eurasia—the zone from Europe to India—the Caucasus appears as a central place. The direct line, or great circle route, from London to Mumbai passes directly through the lowlands of Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Map of the Larger Caucasus Eco-RegionDefinitions of the Caucasus vary, although most regionalization schemes encompass the same general area. A maximal Caucasus, visible in the map posted here, stretches from the Kuma–Manych Depression in the north to northeastern Turkey and northwestern Iran in the south. A more common definition excludes much of the northern plains as well as the southern highlands in Turkey and Iran, essentially covering the area bracketed by the Greater and Lesser Caucasus ranges along with their adjacent lowlands. The Caucasus as a whole is commonly split into two sub-regions: the Ciscaucasus, which encompasses the Russian-controlled area to the north of the main mountain crest, and the Transcaucasus, which takes in the area to the south (Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, essentially). Such terminology, however, is rejected by some for perpetuating a Russian imperial perspective, since the Latin word “cis” means “this side of” where “trans” refers to “the other side of.”

Map of Religion in the CaucasisThe Caucasus does not fit comfortably into any of the basic units of global geography. In the conventional continental scheme, the division between Europe and Asia runs along the crest of the Great Caucasus Range, putting the Ciscaucasus in Europe and the Transcaucasus in Asia. Georgians and Armenians, however, often take offense at this definition, preferring a European over an Asian designation for their homelands.* This continental distinction, some argue, inaptly places the region’s mostly Christian southwest in Asia and its mostly Muslim north in Europe. Yet in practice, the standard Europe/Asia divide means little these days, and few people even realize that the European “continent” officially terminates at the crest of the Great Caucasus. Southwestern Asia, moreover, has gradually been written out of Asia and instead placed in the quasi-continent of the Middle East—but the Middle East rarely includes the Caucasian countries.

Where then does one place the Caucasus, if it does not fit into Europe, Asia, or the Middle East? The default option is to group it with Russia.** Spanning the supposed continental divide, Russia is commonly conceptualized as the core of its own world region, one that also includes Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan as well as a few other former Soviet states. This scheme makes a certain amount of sense. The Caucasus was dominated by Russia from the early 1800s to the late 1900s, and its northern swath is still part of the Russian Federation. Yet when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Armenians and especially Georgians began to seek regional reassignment, wanting clear differentiation from the Russian realm.

Most Georgians and Armenians would prefer to have their countries grouped with Europe. Although Europe as a supposed continent does not include the Transcaucasus, there is no reason why all or part of the region cannot be slotted into a politically or economically defined Europe. In fact, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan already belong to the Council of Europe. All three are also officially tied to the European Union through its Eastern Partnership (EaP), along with Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine. Evidently, leaders of some EU states see the Eastern Partnership as a stepping-stone for actual membership, whereas others hope to avoid such a possibility. Public opinion polling shows that a substantial majority of Armenians want their country to eventually join the European Union, while key politicians in Georgia have expressed a more immediate desire for membership.

The question of where the Caucasian countries should be regionally classified cannot be clearly answered: it is simply not feasible to divide all parts of the world into ideally demarcated, non-overlapping regions. As far as I am concerned, Georgia can simultaneously be regarded as part of Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and a Russian-focused region. Certain regional frameworks work better than others for certain issues. But it is also true that some parts of the world do not fit well into any of our standard regions, the Caucasus among them. As a result, it is often best to regard the entire area as forming its own distinctive world region. Doing so helps place the Caucasus on the map of the world, positioning it not as an interstitial zone “between” Europe and Asia or Russia and the Middle East, but rather as an important and fascinating place in its own right.

* See the comments in this About.com geography page, which takes on the question: “Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in Asia or Europe?”

** Five of the six leading college-level world regional geography textbooks in the United States, for example, place Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in the following regions: Russia, the Russian Realm, Russia and the Post-Soviet States, Russia and Its Neighboring Countries, and Russia and the Near Abroad. The sixth text, my own co-authored Diversity Amid Globalization, takes a different strategy, putting Azerbaijan in Central Asia while slotting Armenia and Georgia into a Russian-based region. I have never been happy with this expedient, which divides the Caucasus and tends to offend Armenians and Georgians.

 

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What’s in a (Country) Name: The Georgia/Grúziya Controversy

Map of Georgia Showing Different Names Used For the CountryNames of countries in foreign languages (exonyms) often bear no relationship to the names of the same countries in their own official language or languages (endonyms). Such differences are generally accepted without complaint; the fact that English speakers refer to Deutschland as Germany and Nihon as Japan is not a problem for the governments or the people of those countries.

Occasionally, however, diplomats from a given country request that other governments change its name. In 1985, francophone Ivory Coast asked the international community to use its name in French only: Côte d’Ivoire. The request was honored by governments across the globe, although many English-language news agencies still use “Ivory Coast.” When East Timor gained independence in 2002, it asked to be called Timor-Leste, leste being the Tetum* word for “east.” (As “Timor” derives from a Malay word meaning “east,” Timor-Leste would translate into English as “East-East.”) Most countries followed suit, but Australia still uses “East Timor.” Such rejections of name-change requests usually reflect diplomatic tensions. Although Burma has insisted on being called Myanmar since 1989, Britain and the United States continue to call it Burma, in deference to Burma’s own democratic opposition. News agencies in the United States vary on this score. It will be interesting to see how this issue works out now that Burma is opening diplomatically and perhaps moving toward democratization.

Diplomatic requests for country name-changes do not necessarily reflect a desire to substitute indigenous names for those of foreign derivation. Both “Myanmar” and “Burma” are Burmese terms for the country—pronounced “Myanma” and “Bama”—the former being more formal, the latter more colloquial. In some cases, foreign governments are asked to switch from one exonym to another. Over the past several years, Georgia has been trying to convince a number of countries to call it “Georgia,” even though the Georgian name for the country is Sakart’velo.

            As the map shows, Georgia is referred to by a number of distinctive names in different languages. The government of Georgia has no problems with most of these terms. That Armenians call the country Vrastan, for example, is not an issue; the President of Georgia recently congratulated the Georgia-based Armenian-language newspaper Vrastan for “strengthening friendly relations between the two neighbor nations.” But the Tblisi government does object to the Russian term Gruziya, and all names derived from it. In June 2011, the Georgian foreign ministry announced with satisfaction that South Korea had agreed to drop Gruzya in favor of “Georgia.” It also pledged to continue to pressure Japan, China, Bulgaria, Belarus, Croatia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Serbia, Hungary, Macedonia, and Ukraine to make the same change.

Several years earlier, in 2005, Georgia began lobbying Israel to drop Gruzia in favor of Georgia. The Israeli case was considered particularly important, as a Hebrew variant of “Georgia” had been widely used before the influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union shifted the designation to the Russian-derived term.  Georgian diplomats argued that the switch to Gruzia could generate historical confusion in Israel, as “Georgian” has long been used to denote the Christian pilgrims and monks from Sakart’velo who once maintained prominent positions in the Holy Land. It was also suggested that Georgia objected to the “Gruzni jokes,” targeting Georgian Jews, that circulate widely in Israel. The Georgian ambassador in Tel Aviv, however, insisted that such crude humor is “an internal Israeli matter.”

The name Georgia itself has a complex and contested history. Various etymologies have been suggested, but most scholars now agree that it derives from “the Persian-Arabic designation of the Georgians—gurğ—which reached the Western European crusaders and pilgrims in the Holy Land who rendered the name as Georgia (also Jorgania, Giorginia, etc.).” The use of “Georgia,” in its various forms, seems to have been solidified in Western Europe through a false etymology; many people concluded that the name must have stemmed from Saint George, an exceedingly popular figure in Georgian Christianity. Supposedly, 365 Orthodox churches in the country are named after Saint George.

As a geography teacher in the United States, I would not mind the international community dropping “Georgia” altogether in favor of Sakart’velo. This is not a matter of preferring endonyns to exonyms; on the contrary, I usually use “Ivory Coast” rather than “Côte d’Ivoire,” as I see no reason to translate an English term into French. The problem with “Georgia” is rather the confusion generated by the existence of a U.S. state with that name. Internet searches of “Georgia” mostly return articles on the American state, making it cumbersome to conduct research on the country that shares its name.

Map Showing Countries Blocking YouTube in Mid 2010Georgian nationals often find this situation frustrating as well. But rather than changing the exonym of their country, some would prefer to rename American Georgia. In response to a YouTube video of Ray Charles singing “Georgia on My Mind” in early December 2011, one commentator opined, “americans rename your matherfucker state! when i want to look something about my country searching system show me your state! from GEORGIA (caucasus) with hate.” That comment, no surprise, elicited an outpouring of obscenity-laced vitriol from offended Americans. One responder, however, tried a more diplomatic approach: “This is an AMERICAN website! Georgian or russian language websites might cater more to your desires. Or maybe you might try searching for T’bilisi. Beautiful city that one! In fact both your country and our state are lovely places!”

But to what extent is YouTube an “American website?” The company, now a subsidiary of Google, is indeed headquartered in San Bruno, California. But the firm isList of YouTube Languages highly international. YouTube videos are readily accessible across most of the world, although a number of countries periodically put up total or partial blocks. Increasingly, YouTube is customized to various languages. According to the Wikipedia article on the company, “The interface of the website is available with localized versions in 34 countries,” employing “51 different language versions.” Georgian is not yet one of these languages, but there is a Facebook page for “YouTube in Georgia.”

*Tetum and Portuguese are the two official languages of Timor-Leste

 

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Circassia and the 2014 Winter Olympics

Yesterday’s post referred to the Ossetians as a people of “profound world-historical significance,” a phrase that fits their neighbors, the Circassians, even better. That members of the so-called White race are called “Caucasians” stems largely from the widespread nineteenth-century European notion that the Circassians, natives of the northwestern Caucasus, somehow represented the ideal human form. A hundred and fifty years ago, the Circassians were well known in Europe and the United States, celebrated for their bravery and especially their beauty. Mass-marketing advertisement campaigns hawked “Circassian lotion,” “Circassian Hair Dye,” and “Circassian soap”; P.T. Barnum even exhibited fake “Circassian beauties.” Yet in our time, this once-famous group has virtually vanished from view; when I recently asked a class of 160 Stanford undergraduates if anyone had heard of them, not a single hand was raised.

The Circassians’ world-historical significance derives not from their supposed physical attributes, but from the singular niche they occupied in the eastern Mediterranean from late medieval to early modern times. To put it starkly, Circassians served as elite slaves in the major Muslim states of the region. Although the notion of “elite slaves” may seem self-contradictory, unfree individuals could rise to very high positions. Muslim rulers had long staffed their armies in part with enslaved soldiers – Mamluks – and at several times and places such troops essentially took over the state. The Mamluk Burji dynasty that ruled Egypt from 1382 to 1517 was founded by, and composed largely of, Circassian soldiers of servile background. Circassian women who were exported into servitude could end up as concubines or even wives of Ottoman and Persian sultans. Such women could become powerful in their own right, especially if one of their sons rose to the top position.

The Circassians’ downfall came at the hands of the Russians in the 1860s. The Russia Empire reached across the Caucasus to encompass Christian Georgia in the early 1800s, but – as the map above indicates – it failed to subdue Circassia. (Note that the map incorrectly places Chechnya and adjacent areas within Circassia.) Having fought the Circassians for roughly a century, Russia’s leaders decided to expel the population. Some 80 to 90 percent of the Circassians were forced out; most found refuge in the Ottoman Empire, but nearly half died in the process. Today the Circassian population in Russia has recovered to number some 900,000. In Turkey, roughly two to four million people are of Circassian descent, and the Circassian community in Jordan numbers about 150,000. It is doubtful, however, whether Circassian culture can survive outside of the Caucasian homeland.

Circassian activists are now pushing Russia and the global community to recognize the events of the 1860s as constituting genocide. They hope to use the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia – once a Circassian port – to bring their historical plight to global attention. As Sufian Zhemukhov reported in the Circassian World website in September, 2009, “Most Circassians see the Sochi Olympics as an opportunity to plead their case, rather than as an offense to be resisted. Still, many Circassians have opposed the Winter Games on the grounds that they will take place on ‘ethnically-cleansed’ land. Some Circassian NGOs have branded the Olympics the “Games on Bones” and opposed construction work [that] could endanger important burial sites. In October 2007, … Circassian activists organized meetings in front of Russian consulates in New York and Istanbul to protest against holding the Winter Games in Sochi. Finally, the Circassian anti-Olympic movement began to seek official Russian recognition of the Circassian genocide and called on the IOC to move the Games.” (http://www.circassianworld.com/new/general/1382-circassian-dimension-2014sochi-szhemukh.html)

More immediately, Circassian activists want Russia to create a single internal republic for the four legally defined ethnic groups (the Adyghe, Cherkesm, Shapsugs, and Kabardin) that together constitute the Circassian people. That complicated issue, however, must be the subject of a later posting.

 

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Caucasus Emirate: A Self-Proclaimed Virtual State Entity

In the global hierarchy of polities, a “self-proclaimed virtual state entity” occupies a lowly position, being little more than a dream. But such dreams must be taken seriously if they are accompanied by violent actions intended to make them come true, as is the case in regard to the Caucasus Emirate. This Islamist “virtual state entity” claims (eventual) dominion over the northern Caucasus Mountains and adjacent lowlands. Currently part of the Russian Federation, the northern Caucasus is divided into handful of internal Russian republics, including Dagestan and Chechnya. Although violence in the region has diminished in recent years, it has hardly vanished. On February 3, 2010, for example, Russian security officials claimed that they killed a top Al Qaeda operative, Mokhmad Mohamad Shabban, in the mountains of Dagestan (see http://www.itar-tass.com/eng/level2.html?NewsID=14783934&PageNum=0).

Any efforts to create an actual Caucasus Emirate will be strenuously resisted by Russia. They also clash against the designs of another “self-proclaimed virtual state entity,” that of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. This Chechen republic was proclaimed in 1991 as Chechnya unsuccessfully tried to secede from Russia. In 2007, its “president” merged the “republic” into the much larger “Emirate,” thereby reducing its status to that of a mere (virtual) province. Many Chechen insurgent leaders rejected this move, preferring to fight for an independent, stand-alone Chechnya.

The so-called Caucasus Emirate aims to unite all of the Muslim areas of the northern Caucasus into a single state. Its proposed territory, however, includes a substantial non-Muslim area, the Russian republic of North Ossetia-Alania. The Ossetians (or Alans) are mostly Christians, although a few are Muslims and many still practice quasi-pagan rituals. Tensions between Christian Ossetians and their Muslim neighbors can be severe. In 2004, for example, Chechen and Ingush insurgents took more than 1,000 people hostage in a school in the Ossetian town of Beslan, an event that resulted in some 385 deaths.

The Ossetians, a surviving remnant of the once-powerful Sarmatians, are a people of profound world-historical significance. It is believed by many scholars that most of the legends of King Arthur can be traced back to the Ossetians’ Nart Sagas — but that is a story for another post.

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Kalmykia: The Republic of Chess

Certain parts of the world are so closely associated with a specific issue or activity that other matters tend to fade from view, at least as far as the international media are concerned. Consider, for example, Kalmykia, a Russian internal republic located northwest of the Caspian Sea. Larger in area than the Republic of Ireland, Kalmykia is a significant place with a fascinating history. In the international news, however, Kalmykia means one thing: chess. Today’s Google news search on the region yielded 23 articles: three concern inflation in Russia, one examines a local offshore oilfield, another mentions the republic’s improvements in beef processing, and the rest focus on chess.

The prominence of chess in Kalmykia stems from the efforts of the republic’s president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a multi-millionaire who has been president of FIDE (the World Chess Federation) since 1995. A chess fanatic, Ilyumzhinov has made the study of the game compulsory in Kalmykia’s elementary schools. With a reputation for being both charismatic and authoritarian, Ilyumzhinov has bragged about introducing an “economic dictatorship” to the republic.

Kalmykia deserves notice for more than its role in the chess world. The Kalmyks, who constitute a bit more than half of the republic’s roughly 300,000 people, speak a Mongolian language and traditionally follow Tibetan Buddhism. The notion of a Tibetan Buddhist majority republic lying within Europe (as Europe is “continentally” defined) would strike most readers as odd indeed, but the Kalmyk presence in the region dates back to the early 1600s. The current Kalmyk community is actually a remnant group, as “Kalmyk” literally means “those who remained.” The far western Mongols had been important allies of the Russian Empire as it expanded into the Caucasus and Central Asia, but when the Czar’s government started to undermine local autonomy, most of the community undertook a vast – and deadly – exodus back to Mongolia.

Much of Kalmykia’s subsequent history has been painful. Many Kalmyks sided with anti-communist forces during the Russian civil war, provoking harsh retribution after the war ended. In the 1930s, Stalin disastrously collectivized Kalmyk herding, resulting indirectly in some 60,000 deaths. He also attacked the Buddhist establishment, burning libraries and shuttering monasteries. Not surprisingly, many Kalmyks welcomed the German invaders in 1942; some 3,000 local men actually joined the German army, serving in three Kalmyk units. In retaliation, Stalin ordered the entire Kalmyk population deported to Central Asia in 1943. An estimated one in three perished in route. In 1957, Khrushchev allowed the Kalmyks to return, restoring their (supposedly) autonomous republic.

Today the Republic is doing reasonably well, thanks to oil, agriculture, and perhaps chess. The Kalmyks benefit from their relatively high levels of education and their international connections. Overseas communities are found today in many parts of Europe and in the United States. The U.S. center of the Kalmyk diaspora—Monmouth County, New Jersey—supports several Kalmyk Buddhist temples as well as a monastery. The head of the religious establishment in Kalmykia itself is Philadelphia-born Erdne Ombadykow (Telo Tulku Rinpoche), who was recognized by the Dalai Lama as a reincarnation of a Buddhist saint. Ombadykow spends half of each year with his followers in Kalmykia, and the other half with his family in Colorado.

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South Ossetia Gains Recognition

Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia

South Ossetia is a self-declared independent country located in what the United States and most of the international community regards as Georgian territory. It has functioned as an autonomous client state of Russia ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. When Georgia made moves to reclaim South Ossetia in the summer of 2008, Russia invaded and defeated Georgia, and then officially recognized South Ossetia as an independent state. Russia’s diplomatic recognition of the breakaway region was in part done in protest against the recognition of the independence of Kosovo (formerly part of Serbia) by the United States and most European countries.

Russia is now attempting to bolster its diplomatic position by encouraging other countries to recognize South Ossetia. Nicaragua was the first to sign on, followed by Venezuela. In mid-December, 2009, South Ossetia gained another political partner: the tiny Pacific country of Nauru. Informed sources claim that Russia essentially purchased such recognition with a $50 million economic aid package. Nauru, once one of the world’s richest counties on a per capita basis, certainly needs the money, as it has exhausted the phosphate deposits that once gave it wealth, generating an environmental disaster in the process.

North Ossetia and South Ossetia

Such diplomatic maneuverings are not unique to South Ossetia and Kosovo. Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China, for example, have long dangled out aid packages in exchange for recognition, a game that Beijing is slowly winning. Thus far, Russia has fared poorly in its quest for international support for its client state. While only four internationally legitimate countries recognize South Ossetia, sixty-four currently recognize Kosovo. (South Ossetia is, however, recognized by several other generally unrecognized countries, such as Abkhazia).

How many countries are there in the world today? As the South Ossetia example shows, no precise answer can be given, as it all depends on what one counts as a country.

South Ossetia is plenty interesting in its own right, regardless of such diplomatic games. The Ossetians are the descendents of the ancient Alans, who were themselves an offshoot of the ancient Scythians. According to C. Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor’s fascinating book From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail, most of the Arthurian legends stem directly from the folklore of the Alans, many of whom were among the invaders of the dying Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. For a film interpretation of the Littleton and Malcor thesis, see Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 King Arthur.

Also to note is the fact that South Ossetia is a small part of the larger Ossetian “nation.” Only some 70,000 people reside in South Ossetia, while over 700,000 live in neighboring North Ossetia-Alania, which is an internal republic of the Russian Federation (it is part of Russia, in other words). Roughly two thirds of the people of both North and South Ossetia are ethnically Ossetian.

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