What made you want to study and write about this part of the world?
I’ve been going to the region for more than thirty years. When I was a student then a journalist in Moscow, I used to enjoy traveling south, where they still spoke Russian but I wasn’t in Russia. The people were friendly and the food was certainly better. There was lots to cover—it was a turbulent time with ongoing conflicts and state breakdown. Eventually, I became less of a Russia expert and more of a Caucasus expert, writing a book about the Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Later I realized there was a gap in the market to write a short, readable introduction to the Caucasus as a whole. My pitch was that the book should be bought by someone traveling to the region. When they got off the plane, that person would know the basics. The first edition came out in 2010, so this is the updated version. I actually met someone in the Istanbul airport reading it, so that imaginary reader came to life!
Where is the Caucasus? Is it considered Europe or Asia?
I call the Caucasus “the lands in between.” Geographically, the countries lie between Europe, Asia, Russia, and the Middle East. Culturally, they are on the border where Islam meets Christianity, and where democracy meets authoritarianism.
Is the South Caucasus in Europe? It’s a bit of an open question. The conventional practice is to call it Europe and it is quite a secularized Europeanized place, but that means that Turkey to the west is in Asia and Azerbaijan to the east is in Europe. It’s a confusing, interesting region, which is a borderland in more ways than just geography.
What is the region’s geography like and how has it influenced its development?
It is defined by two huge mountain ranges: the Greater and Lesser Caucasus. The book is about the southern side of the mountains, the Greater Caucasus, which is the highest mountain range in Europe.
There is an enormous variety of climates and landscapes—from desert to subtropical fertile on the Black Sea coast of Georgia to temperate wine country.
I call it three in three in three. There are three big neighbors which are all former imperial powers (Persia to the south, the Ottoman Empire, and Russia). There are three nation states: Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. And there are three (disputed) breakaway territories: Nagorny-Karabakh (between Armenia and Azerbaijan), and Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which split from Georgia de facto in 1992-3 and were recognized as independent by Russia in 2008.
What are some of the differences between the countries that make up the Caucasus?
It is incredibly diverse, ethnically and linguistically—the three main nations all have different alphabets and the languages belong to different groups. This is a product of both history and the region’s mountainous geography. Historically, it has been regarded as a land of conflict, but I like to stress that it is not fated to have conflict, that most people living there manage their differences pretty well most of the time. Obviously there is one big unresolved conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorny Karabakh. That dates back more than 30 years, pits the two nations against one another in almost perpetual hostility and holds back the forward development of the region.
There are two ancient Christian nations, Armenia and Georgia. Back in the early fourth century, the kingdoms of Armenia and Georgia were the first two nations to convert to Christianity and their people have been Christian ever since. Armenia and Georgia have an uneasy friendship—they mostly get along but can be competitive.
Azerbaijan is the largest of the three countries and also very wealthy, thanks to oil and gas. It has a fascinating history. Azerbaijanis are ethnically Turkic but also predominantly Shia Muslim and they were Russified by the Soviet Union. So they have a mixed Turkic-Iranian-Russian cultural leagacy.
Through the bigger historical sweep, all three have managed to trade, intermarry, and largely get along with each other.
What do they have in common?
It makes sense to think of these three small countries as one region. They have a shared common history—for some 200 years, they were part of the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union. They share cultural traditions—there are similarities in the way food is served and guests are treated. More importantly, they also have a shared regional economy, although more in potential than in reality. The region’s biggest international asset is its status as a transport hub.
What is the biggest mistake to make when thinking about the Caucasus?
One mistake people make, which became even clearer to me as I updated the book, is to think too much in terms of Russia and to call the South Caucasus Russia’s backyard. People who don’t know much about it try to see it through the prism of Russia or even Putin but that is an outdated model. These countries have been independent for 25 years. They are not just neighbors of Russia. China is there, the EU is there, Turkey is there.
For example, in the spring of 2018, there was a peaceful revolution in Armenia. Most of the coverage was focused on Russia. But Russia did nothing. The idea that this is Russia’s backyard—when Armenia doesn’t even share a border with Russia, just a close economic and security partnership—was shown to be outmoded. People need to hit refresh on that concept.
What is a more useful way to approach it?
Think of the Caucasus both in its own terms but also as a region with many neighbors—Iran, Asia, Turkey, and the EU.
What about the Caucasus might most surprise people?
This is a region with many curious details. I have some small capsules of those in the book. For example, Georgia is the oldest wine-making country in the world. There are fermented grape pips that prove they were making wine several thousand years before anyone else.
For Georgians, wine drinking is more than just a matter of taste. German anthropologist Florian Mühlfried argues that it’s also very political. It is one way the Georgians assert their difference from others—particularly the vodka-drinking Russians.
There is also a passionately believed myth that Winston Churchill liked to drink Armenian brandy, or “cognac”, after being given a bottle by Joseph Stalin. Unfortunately, this was actually an invention of a popular Soviet spy drama called Seventeen Moments of Spring.
There is also a jazz scene in Azerbaijan and Georgia, which dates back to the 1960s. Comparatively speaking, the region did better than Russia during Soviet times—Baku and Tbilisi had a cosmopolitan culture, a jazz culture.
Finally, there is a new development, which is ecotourism. It is a stunningly beautiful region and nowadays there are opportunities for hiking in the mountains, mountain trails and small guest houses where tourists can stay.
What is the future of the region likely to look like?
It is a cliché that the future is unpredictable, but at least it will keep me employed.
There is one major unresolved conflict over Karabakh and two somewhat smaller ones in Georgia. If Azerbaijan and Armenia go back to war, it could set the region back by a generation. As a whole, I feel that although the region is small, it has many assets. It is a place at an international crossroads, with a well-educated population and lots of potential. Personally, I feel optimistic, as I can see that this region has come a very long way in the last quarter of a century since I first started going there.
The second edition of Thomas de Waal’s book, The Caucasus: An Introduction, is published by Oxford University Press.