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Caucasian chalk circles

by Salome Asatiani

They are grouped together as the countries of the Caucasus. But since the demise of the Soviet Union Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been trying to form their own identities and political outlooks.

After the recent war between Russia and Georgia, it has become clear that Russia is back in what it sees as its "near abroad" – and is ready to resort to force in order to reassert its influence. On August 31, Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev, bluntly stated: "Russia, just like other countries in the world, has regions where it has its privileged interests". And it is beyond doubt that South Caucasus – a geopolitically important region that connects the Black and Caspian Seas, and encompasses Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – is one of those areas.

"I am not afraid": Man protesting outside the headquarters of the Independent TV channel Imedi in Tblisi, March 2008. Photo: AP/Shakh Aivazov

It could be seen as highly symbolic that the first war, which Russia has waged outside its borders since the demise of the Soviet Union, was in Georgia – the most Western-leaning amongst the three South Caucasus nations. The West, Moscow signaled, should stay away from its sphere of influence – its "privileged interests".

Beyond the mountains

These interests are products of Russia's imperial past – as is the region itself. The term "South Caucasus" is interchangeably used with the notion of "Transcaucasus" – which represents translation of the Russian word Zakavkazie, coined to denote the part of the empire that was located beyond the Caucasus mountain range, when seen from the north.
Prior to the Russian imperial conquest in the early 19th century, inhabitants of these territories did not share much of a regional identity. They identified in more local terms, or as parts of wider communities – as subjects of the Persian Empire, or the Ottoman Empire. But once the concept of the South Caucasus was created and imposed, some forms of genuine political and cultural unity between Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Georgians did emerge.

Friendly men with moustaches

In 1918, before Sovietization, a short-lived federation was established, comprising the three nations. Later there was the Transcaucasian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic, which existed within the Soviet Union between 1922-36. Numerous songs, novels and films – most, but not all, products of the Soviet culture - highlighted connections between the three. Examples include Kurban Said's novel "Ali And Nino”, first published in the 1930s and telling a tragic love story between an Azerbaijani man and a Georgian woman; Giorgi Danelia's 1977 film "Mimino”, about the friendship between a Georgian and an Armenian stranded in Moscow; or the work of Sergo Parajanov – the famous non-conformist of the Soviet era, Tbilisi-born ethnic Armenian director, who, in films like "Sayat-Nova” (1968) and "Ashug-Karibi” (1988) offered a unique and poetic confluence of the three Caucasian cultures.

On a more popular level, the Soviet culture offered countless jokes about "a Georgian, an Azerbaijani and an Armenian”, all based on the general stereotypes of "Caucasian-ness" as hospitable, eccentric, impulsive, dark-haired and – in the case of the men – thickly moustached. However, with the break-up of the Soviet Union – and with lessening of Russia's influence in the region – the three countries have proved more different than alike.

National myths

Nation-building efforts, and intensified nationalism led to an increased emphasis on traditional narratives of nationhood. For Armenian national memory, one of the key moments is the massacre of the Armenians during the final days of the Ottoman Empire, which Yerevan wants to have recognized as "genocide”. For Azerbaijan, one defining moment came in January of 1990 with the Soviet forces' violent repression of civilian unrest in Azerbaijan. It is commemorated with the Martyr's Lane memorial in Baku and has come to signify the birth of the independent Azerbaijan. (Notably, the crackdown was carried out under the pretext of stopping anti-Armenian attacks in Azerbaijan). Stories of subjugation and resistance are immensely important for Georgian national memory as well - and the recent brief war between Georgia and Russia is likely to become the latest poignant chapter of the narrative.

The factor of religion – and religious differences - acquired particular significance as well. Georgia and Armenia take pride in being amongst the earliest Christian civilizations in the world, as the arrival of Christianity to these lands dates back to the 4th century. But the two countries adhere to different branches of the religion – Armenia to its own Apostolic Church, and Georgia to Orthodox Church. Azerbaijan, by contrast, is primarily a Muslim country, with a Shiite majority.

For Georgia and Armenia, the existence of unique alphabets has been another structuring factor of identity formation. It is no accident that most of the places, which have become potent symbols of the two countries' national identities, are related to either religion or script. These include the town of Mtskheta – the capital of the early Georgian Kingdom of Iberia, where Christianity was first declared as the state religion; and Yerevan's Matenadaran, the Institute of the Ancient Manuscripts.

Regional connections

In the post-Soviet era, the three countries have generally fared poorly at close interstate cooperation. Oil and gas pipelines, built to transport energy from Azerbaijan to Turkey via Georgia, have been the most important facets of collaboration. But otherwise, relations in the neighbourhood have not always been neighbourly, particularly in light of the bloody war which Armenia and Azerbaijan fought in 1988-94 over Nagorno-Karabakh, the ethnic Armenian exclave based on Azerbaijani territory. The war has resulted in a tense standoff between the two countries – significantly complicating any talk of regional "unity".

Georgia and the West

Foreign-policy perspectives, developed by the three countries, have been markedly different. Georgia grew increasingly oriented towards the West, actively pursuing integration into the Euro-Atlantic structures - and even seeking to identify with other regional formations, for instance the Black Sea and South-Eastern European countries, or GUAM – a western-leaning regional grouping of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova. Armenia has been seen as more tied to Moscow. Azerbaijan, rich in oil and gas resources, has had the luxury of straddling the fence.

At present, it is difficult to say what will Russia's forceful resurgence entail for South Caucasus, as a region - whether, and to what extent, it will strengthen the regional unity. But one thing is clear: if Russia succeeds in pursuing its "privileged interests", individual countries of the region will be denied the right to pursue their own, and often very divergent, perspectives, interests and identities.

Salome Asatiani
Salome Asatiani was born in 1976 in Tbilisi. Currently, she lives in Prague, and works as a correspondent of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Georgian Service.
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Original in English

First published in Radio Liberty / Radio Free Europe

Creative Commons license by-nc-nd/2.0/de.

The text is licensed under Creative Commons license by-nc-nd/2.0/de.


Further articles on the subject » History, » Public Culture, » Religion, » EU enlargement, » Georgian Republic
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