A Dozen Crossroads – The Context of Chechnya’s Violence

If one were to list regions in the world currently beset by war and insurrection, or uncomfortably held by foreign colonizers, a few place names would appear immediately: the Arab world, Tibet, Afghanistan. One name that many can offer but few can recognize is Chechnya. The warfare surrounding Chechnya, and the operations of Chechen
terrorists in the surrounding regions, has been common fare in world news in the past decade, but the lack of a Western military role in this conflict has led to a relatively weak understanding of what, exactly, is at stake for the Chechens and the other restive peoples of the region. Indeed, despite the cultural significance for many Westerners of the region surrounding Chechnya, few can even name it: the Caucasus.

The Caucasus region, bisected by the Caucasus Mountains that are sometimes taken as one of the dividing lines between Europe and Asia, is said to be where Noah’s Ark came to rest after the forty-day flood. Crossing from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea, with the Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf a few hundred kilometers to the south, the Caucasus has been ideally positioned to be a crossroads between Europe and Asia. This cosmopolitan location led the region to become home to an enormous variety of ethnic groups, both completely unique to the Caucasus and closely allied to those in the surrounding area.  The most important groups for the overall development of the region include the Georgians, the Armenians, the Turkic peoples (most particularly the Azeris), the Iranian peoples (including the Ossetians and Kurds, related to the majority Persians of Iran), and the local Circassian and Dagestani peoples, each comprising a large array of ethnicities. These maps, taken from the Wikimedia Commons, shows the modern diversity of ethnic groups in the Caucasus superimposed on the modern political boundaries. I have traced one to offer a simpler color-coding, using the larger-scale groupings and deemphasizing the national borders to show how fragmented the region’s peoples are. For perspective, no fewer than five different alphabets are represented among the Caucasus’s languages (Latin, Cyrillic, Arabic, Georgian/Kartvelian, and Armenian). Note the bizarre situation of an Iranian people (the Kurds) being the majority in the part of Turkey that is on the map and a Turkic people (the South Azeris) being the majority in the part of Iran that is on the map.
The latter image in particular should raise some important questions, especially for those familiar with the theme of ethnic nationalism that pervaded my last article about ethnographic history in western Asia. With the Caucasian/Circassian peoples dispersed between Turkic and Iranian-speaking regions, between different countries that speak unrelated languages, and always dominated by a foreign power, it should come as no surprise that the history of the region is one of constant warfare.
Most importantly, during the expansion of the Russian Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Tsar waged the brutal Russo-Caucasian Wars of 1763-1864, annexing the Caucasus with the aid of the Mongol-descended Kalmyk people just north of the region. As part of this war, a treaty between the Russian Empire and the Persian Empire divided the Azeri lands between the two. Thousands of ethnic Circassians were expelled from the Russian Empire and resettled in the Ottoman Empire, in whose descendant countries they are still a notable minority. After the Bolshevik Revolution, the region was reorganized into a number of autonomous republics within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic; the Georgian, Armenian, and Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republics; and a number of semi-autonomous republics contained within them. Much of this arrangement was the product of the Soviet Union’s “divide-and-rule” policy for the Caucasus, which assigned disparate ethnic groups into autonomous republics to keep them weak and divided. During some of Joseph Stalin’s more paranoid periods, various Turkic and Circassian peoples in the region were deported en masse to Siberia and Kazakhstan, where thousands died before being permitted to return decades later. These purges affected Adygea the hardest, to the point that the Adyghe are no longer a majority in their own republic, and it is not counted among the restive Caucasus republics elsewhere in this piece.
Like the Soviet republics in Central Asia and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus peoples struggled to maintain their cultural identity against the Soviet Union’s policy of Russification, and additionally to maintain their cultural unity while separated across various borders. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1992, the Georgian, Armenian, and Azerbaijani SSRs became the modern countries of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, but they took their internal autonomous divisions with them, and the six autonomous North Caucasus republics were far too divided to mount similar efforts. The Russian Federation managed to keep these polities and benefits mightily from their oil deposits and use as a pipeline site for getting Central Asian oil to distant markets. However, the same currents of nationalism pervade them as pervaded Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in the 1980s, leading to their violent resistance of Russian rule to this day. Autocratic, power-centralizing tendencies within the Russian leadership, which threaten to strip Russia’s many autonomous regions of some of their autonomy, have contributed to the secessionist sentiment even as they have made it more difficult to realize.
A number of additional factors complicate what would otherwise be a simple picture of ethnic nationalism fighting a conquering empire. The first is the presence of Turkey on the Caucasus’s southwest flank. Modern Turkey occupies a great deal of land that, historically, had a majority Armenian population and which is currently the Kurdish population center. The metamorphosis of the Ottoman Empire into the modern Republic of Turkey was predicated on the idea of Turkish nationalism, which sometimes morphs into a sentiment of pan-Turkism, seeking to combine all Turkic-speaking peoples into a single political union. In addition to fostering Turkish and Central Asian support for the Uighur separatists in western China, it has led to the cultivation of Turkic-unity sentiment in many parts of Asia with a Turkic population, including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, the autonomous region of Yakutia in eastern Russia, and the Balkar, Karachay, Kumyk, and Nogai-majority regions of the Caucasus. Especially in Dagestan, this movement foments division among the peoples of the Caucasus by promoting unity with their ethnic relatives elsewhere.
A second complication is what has become known as the “post-Soviet frozen conflict” problem. Thanks to the divide-and-rule policy, all three independent Caucasus republics have long-standing internal conflicts involving breakaway regions of other ethnicities, just as Moldova has to deal with the breakaway region of Transnistria. Similar divisions have marred the history of the six Russian Caucasus republics, which were at one time a single unit within the Russian Federation.
  • In the North Caucasus, the republics of Karachay-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria were intentionally demarcated to contain a Turkic group (the Karachays or Balkars) and a Circassian group (the Cherkess or Kabardins). In Dagestan, close to 40 different languages in the Circassian superfamily and two Turkic groups make the region a complete patchwork, with little cohesive Dagestani identity. Until 1991, Ingushetia and Chechnya were combined as a Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic; both are now the most ethnically homogenous of the six. In this way, the Russian language and culture served as a necessary bridge for the function of the Caucasus republics. Recently, Kabardino-Balkaria voted to split into separate Kabardin and Balkar republics, but the vote has not been implemented. These divisions prevented the groundswell of separatist sentiment that led to the secession of the various SSRs.
  • In Georgia, the regions of Abkhazia (a Circassian-majority area) and South Ossetia (a Iranian-majority area) have declared independence and have Russia’s backing, leading to wars between the two and Georgia in recent memory that have left the two regions de facto independent. Given Russia’s role in keeping disparate peoples together for nearly a century, its interest in separating them now is probably about keeping the former Soviet republics weak and subject to Russian hegemony. It may also be a prelude to a future annexation of South Ossetia, in the interest of reuniting it with its northern, culturally similar counterpart.
  • Azerbaijan and Armenia also have a long-standing military feud over the Armenian-majority region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which was a semi-autonomous region of Azerbaijan during the Soviet period and which unilaterally declared independence as Armenia and Azerbaijan gained their own independence in 1992. Following this declaration, war between Nagorno-Karabakh, its Armenian backers, and Azerbaijan ensued, and ended in a 1994 cease-fire with a large fraction of Azerbaijan in ethnic Armenian hands. The conflict has been in stalemate since, and negotiations by both countries to join the European Union have been made contingent on resolving it. With Armenia still feeling the sting of a massive depopulation following the Armenian Genocide and Soviet rule, its remnant territory wedged between two Turkic nations that speak nearly identical languages, and both countries wedged between Iran’s and Russia’s spheres of influence, that resolution seems unlikely.
The third complication is the intrusion of fanatical, fundamentalist Islam into the Caucasus. Most of the Caucasus has been Muslim-majority for at least 1000 years, Georgia and Armenia being the exceptions, but aggressive Islam of the Saudi Wahhabi/Salafist tradition is a recent arrival. Since the most common religion among modern Russians is Russian Orthodox Christianity, and all religious expression was violently suppressed under the Soviet Union, Islam became a subversive force used to unite and galvanize opposition to Russian rule, much as Catholicism helped to motivate similar movements in central Europe. As is often observed, oppressing people radicalizes them, and so fanatical Islam has found a foothold in the Caucasus, most strongly in Chechnya, where separatist sentiment is strongest. Many of the leaders of the Chechen independence forces have morphed into ideological allies of al-Qaeda, seeking to establish a Caucasus Imamate theocracy over the entire region. Given Russia’s large Muslim population and the Caucasus’s role as a buffer zone between Russia and Iran, Russia has taken an extremely hard line against the Chechen rebels, believing that, even if secular nationalists were to become ascendant, the entire region could fall to radical Islam promulgated via Saudi Arabia or Iran. Under this pressure, the Chechen rebels have spread their operations to the republics surrounding Chechnya and adopted terrorist tactics. This tragedy is most notably encapsulated in the Beslan school hostage crisis, in which a Chechen militant group held 1000 people hostage in a school in North Ossetia in 2004, killing 380 of them before the Russian military apprehended them. Much as the Palestinian separatists in the West Bank and Gaza have delegitimized their movement by targeting Israeli civilians, the Chechen rebels have tarnished their own quest for Caucasus self-determination.
Thus, the Caucasus has been the site of continuous violence for some of the same reasons that sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab world fill our news stations: resistance to foreign occupiers, regional hegemons, and borders that do not reflect the natural divisions of the region’s people. Thanks to Russia’s and Turkey’s policies and the region’s exceptional diversity, however, the Caucasus faces a far more complicated situation than either of these other places. In time, and given the unlikely combination of reduced attention from Russia, Iran, and Turkey, the various groups and nations of the Caucasus might manage to rearrange their borders to reflect their ethnolinguistic realities. More optimistically, they may unite into a multiethnic state akin to India, Iran, Pakistan, or the former Yugoslavia, and have a better chance of resisting outside interference.  Until then, the situation there will continue to resemble the violence of Yugoslavia’s breakup, and the competing influences of the region’s powerful neighbors will continue to dominate the Caucasian peoples’ political reality. With the possibility of accession to the European Union dangling before Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan; Russia regaining much of its former prominence on the world stage; and Iran looking increasingly erratic and dangerous; the crossroads of the Silk Road is sure to remain the source of volatile news for years to come.
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