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 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.


Siberia Is More Russian than European Russia

Just as a state-based vision of the world exaggerates the distinctiveness of small countries, so it masks difference within large countries. When macro-countries like Russia, China, or the United States are mapped as singular units, vast disparities between their constituent areas vanish from view.

The public view of massive Russia is especially distorted by the state-based world model. For starters, many people fail to grasp how much larger Russia is than other independent states. Informal polling bears this out. When I recently asked a group of educated Americans how they thought Siberia compared in area to the world’s largest countries, most respondents put it fairly high on the list – but no one put it first. In fact, a sovereign Siberia would be the world’s largest country by a substantial margin, as big as Canada (#2) and India (#7) combined. My respondents did no better when it came to estimating Siberia’s population ranking. Most thought that it would be very low on the list, out-numbered by more than 100 sovereign states. In actuality, Siberia’s 39 million inhabitants would put it 33rd in the world, proximate to Poland and Argentina and well ahead of Canada. Although my poll was hardly scientific, it confirmed my sense that even educated Americans have a very dim understanding of Russian geography.

Historically speaking, the most important divide in Russia is the crest of the Ural Mountains, which separate European Russia from Siberia. Russian culture originated in European Russia; not until roughly 1600 did Moscow push eastward across the Urals (although once it did so, expansion was rapid, reaching the Pacific in about eighty years). Supposedly the distinction between the two parts of Russia is of continental significance, as Siberia forms the northern extent of Asia in the conventional depiction of the world’s major landmasses. Placing the continental divide along the Urals, however, is a relatively recent innovation. Originally, the Don River – the Tanaïs of the ancient Greeks – of southwestern Russia separated Europe from Asia. In the 1700s, an alternative division line was sought, and a Swedish military officer named Philippe-Johann von Strahlenberg proposed the Urals. Russian geographers readily agreed, wanting to place the core areas of the Russian state firmly in Europe while consigning the more recently conquered eastern land to Asia, conceptualized as a quasi-foreign land suitable for colonial rule and exploitation.

Today, “Siberia” is little more than a geographical expression, with no administrative significance. To be sure, a Siberian Federal District loosely joins together a number of the main administrative units (“federal subjects”) of the region. The Siberian Federal District, however, encompasses only central Siberia; eastern Siberia forms the Far Eastern Federal District, whereas western Siberia forms the Urals Federal District.

Siberia retains certain aspects of its colonial past. It is much less densely populated than European Russia, with most inhabitants concentrated along its southwestern front. Although Siberia contains roughly three quarters of Russia’s territory, it holds only about a quarter of its population. “Asian” Russia also encompasses a large array of indigenous ethnic groups, and counts as well Russia’s largest internal republics and other autonomous areas. The Republic of Sakha alone is almost as extensive as the whole of European Russia.

It would be a serious mistake, however, to regard Siberia as any less Russian that European Russia. It may have been a colonial realm in the 1600s and 1700s, but massive settlement by Russian speakers subsequently transformed the region. Today, Siberia is substantially more Russian than European Russia in terms of its population. In the country as a whole, Russians* constitute 80 percent of the population; for Siberia, the figure is over 90 percent. A significant number of indigenous ethnic groups live in Siberia, but most are very small and many are close to extinction. The largest Siberian group, the Sakha (or Yakut), number only about half a million.

The map of republics and other autonomous areas in Russia may convey a misleading view of nationality/ethnicity in the country. Although such areas have been differentiated on the basis of their non-Russian indigenous populations, they have never been off-limits to Russian and other migrants. As a result, some areas classified as autonomous have very small indigenous populations, or “titular nationalities.” In the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug, the Khanty and the Mansi together form only about two percent of the population, whereas Russians account for sixty-six percent, Ukrainians nine percent, and Tatars seven percent. Not coincidently, Khanty-Mansi is the richest unit of the Russian Federation, with a per capita GDP of over $50,000. Overall, as the economic map shows, resource-rich Siberia has a distinctly higher level of per capita GDP than European Russia.

The final map posted above shows the percentage of each autonomous region’s population that belongs to the ethnic group for which it is named (i.e., its titular nationality). The indigenous peoples of Siberia are generally far outnumbered in their own republics by Russians and other groups originating in the west. Tuva is the only exception; the Tuvans constitute 77 percent of the republic’s residents. The situation is not the same in European Russia. To be sure, fewer than ten percent of the residents of the Republic of Karelia are Karelians, but in the republics of the Caucasus, locally rooted peoples generally retain majority status. In Chechnya, for example, some 94 percent of the people are Chechen. In neighboring Ingushetia, more than three-quarters are Ingush, and almost all of the rest are Chechen, with Russians accounting for fewer than two percent of the total population. The six republics of the Middle Volga vary on this score; the ethnic situation in this area is quite complicated, as we shall explore in subsequent Geocurrents posts.

*By “Russian” I mean “Russkie” rather than “Rossijane”: see last Saturday’s Languages of the World blog posting.

The Geography of FIFA & International Recognition

FIFA divides the world into the six regions:

These six “continents” hold a a quarry of curiosities.

Palestine competes as its own country in the South Asian Football Federation, and is a FIFA member. On the other side of the West Bank, Israel is the only country in the region that competes in the European UEFA.

The South American nations Suriname, Guyana, and French Guina, all compete in the North America & Carribean CONCACAF. Curious to see these three nations classified as Carribean, while the evidence points that they clearly lie on the South American continent.

Australia is, strangely, excluded from the Oceania region. Oceania is the smallest region, and receives the fewest bids to the world cup. Kiribati, Micronesia, Niue, and Palau are all part of the Oceanian regional football federation, but are non-FIFA members. New Zealand is the region’s lone upstart representative in the World Cup.

The United Kingdom does not recognize FIFA so that Scotland, Wales, and the English can settle their differences on the pitch. The fact that the UK scoffs at the idea of performing as a single state can be bolstered by the fact that nearly the whole of their former empire competes in the Commonwealth Games.

Other UN states that are not in FIFA include Monaco, Kosovo, Nauru and the Vatican city.

Nauru has declined FIFA membership, as the washed up phosphorous mine has no space or money to spare on football. What will happen to the Tuvalu and Maldives’ federations, as their countries sink. The rule to date has been no country, no state.

After a few head scratchers with the continental groupings, the real fun starts when you get into the areas that begin to call into question the difference between a country and a state.

FIFA really gets interesting when you look into the provisional members of the Nouvelle Nouvelle Fédération-Board, whose members are composed of people without states, new states, and sovereign territories. FIFA has its eyes on would be states, to assist their international recognition on the pitch, should the receive international recognition. Their list of provisional members is an impressive list of obscuro-geography:

The Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, Casamance, Western Sahara, Yap (a Micronesian state), Zanzibar, Sardinia, the Kingdom of the two Sicilies, Easter Island, Maasai, and the micrnoation of Sealand all have made inroads with FIFA through this program for future membership.

Sicily and Kurdistan have already played an international friendly, facilitated by the Nouvelle Fédération-Board. Which now hosts the VIVA world cup, the creme de la creme for non-FIFA-member states. Padania, a province of Northern Italy, most recently defeatedIraqi-Kurdistan for the title of best football team without an internationally recognized state.

For those who are curious, Tibet has been repeatedly thrashed on an international stage. And it’s doubtful China will allow its membership any time soon.

The Assyrian people, a diaspora of 3 million, have a larger population than this world cup’s tiniest contender, Slovenia, a population of 2 million. Still, without an internationally recognized state, a world cup berth is a dream that must follow a revolution.

Many of these tiny countries will remain provisional members, and it’s doubtful we’ll see an independence movement hinging on FIFA membership on its core ideal. Don’t be surprised if you see Somaliland, Greenland, Kosovo, Zanzibar, and Iraqi Kurdistan make the jump to full time membership in the coming decade.

Greenland’s admission begs the question of whether the state should compete in CONCACAF or UEFA, with European cultural ties, but is part of the North American continent.

FIFA recognition would likely follow a tremendous milestone in international recognition.

With that said… Go Zanzibar!

How Many Continents Are There?

How many continents are there?Zealandia, New Caledonia

The main problem with the continental scheme of world division is its mixture of physical geographical criteria (continents are defined as landmasses more or less separated from each other by waterways) with human geographical criteria (Europe is separated from Asia not by the physical landscape but by historical and cultural features). Intellectual coherence calls for one basis of division or the other. When human features are favored, the continental architecture vanishes altogether as North Africa joins the quasi-continent of the “Middle East,” while Latin America links southern North America with South America. Continents are thus essentially regions of physical geography, and should be defined accordingly.

But the standard physical definition of continents remains problematic, as the “more or less” formulation allows conceptual slippage. In much of the world, North and South America are viewed as a single continent, since they are clearly connected by the Panamanian isthmus. But by the same criterion, Eurasia and Africa would also have to be regarded as a single continent, Afroeurasia. And if one takes a long historical perspective, the Americas and Afroeurasia together form a single super-landmass. They are not separated by deep water, and they have been periodically joined together over the past few hundred thousand years; when the world goes into a glacial period, sea levels drop and the vast plains of Beringia emerge to link the two lands. When Beringia appears, temperate and arctic animals migrate between the continents. As a result, the fauna of temperate North America and Eurasia are remarkably similar. Even during non-glacial periods the circum-polar region forms a zone of inter-continental linkage, as is clearly visible on the Dymaxion projection map above.

A strict physical definition would thus hold continents to be landmasses enduringly separated from other landmasses by relatively deep waterways. If one employs this scheme of division, a very different map of the world emerges, one dominated by a mega-continent that we might call Amerafroeurasia, or simply “The World Continent.” This landmass is divided into the macro-continents of the Americas and Afroeurasia, which in turn are split into the “continentoids” of North America, South America, Eurasia, and Africa (the term “continentoid” indicates that these lands are not actually separated by water). A third order division of the world continent separates associated large islands and island groups, most of which are joined with the landmass during glacial periods.

Clearly separated from Amerafroeurasia are the meso-continents of Australia (including New Guinea) and Antarctica, which have not been connected to other lands for millions of years. As a result of such separation, Australia has a highly distinctive fauna. By the same token, Madagascar and New Zealand may be considered micro-continents. Focusing in still more closely, one may even distinguish nano-continents, such as New Caledonia. A nano-continent is distinguished from a mere oceanic island (such as Hawaii) by the fact that it is composed of continental crust that long ago hived off from a larger landmass. Alternatively, both New Caledonia and New Zealand can be regarded as fragments of the largely submerged meso-continent of Zealandia (see map above).

Nonsense about Continents

Basic geographical education in the United States remains, in a word, pathetic. As students are required to learn virtually nothing about the world, we should not be surprised that few young Americans have any idea where Iraq or Afghanistan are located. And the one locational lesson in global geography that young students are required to master, that of the “seven continents,” is, in a word, nonsense. The absurdity of the continental framework is readily apparent in a lesson plan found on the My Schoolhouse website, a prominent educational resource. The page begins by informing students that, “the seven continents are North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and Antarctica.” But the map placed immediately below this assertion (see above) portrays Central America, the Middle East, and Greenland exactly as they do North America, Africa, and the other supposed continents. True irrationality comes with a question listed below the map: “What continent appears to be part of Asia?” But “Europe” and “Asia,” along with “Middle East,” appear on this map merely as labels attached to different areas of a single landmass. As such, students could just as easily deduce that “Asia appears to be part of Europe.”

Nonsense about the supposed continents extends well beyond elementary education. My favorite absurdity comes with the mountaineering quest to bag the “seven summits,” defined as the highest peaks on each of the world’s continents. The list includes some formidable peaks – but it also takes in Australia’s Mount Kosciuszko, a gentle rise that one could surmount on a bicycle, if only authorities would allow it. To be sure, Reinhold Messner proposed dropping Kosciuszko in favor of New Guinea’s Puncak Jaya, which is indeed a difficult climb. By any reasonable standard, Messner was absolutely correct: New Guinea is part of the same piece of continental crust as Australia (see map), and is thus by continental criteria as much part of Australia as Japan is part of Asia. But despite Messner’s fame – and demands of reason – Kosciuszko remains standard.

So what is the actual continental architecture of the world? That issue will be addressed in tomorrow’s post.