Conflict In The Caucasus: Background, Problems, and Prospects for Mitigation, by Paul B. Henze

Paul Henze was a Resident Consultant at RAND's Washington office 1982-2002, working on projects relating to U.S. foreign policy, Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa, Turkey, Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.  A graduate of the Harvard Soviet Program in 1950, he had a 30-year career in government and government-related organizations.  He was a member of the original team that directed Radio Free Europe and served in Munich from 1952-58.  Subsequently he held positions in the Departments of Defense and State.  He served in the US Embassy in Addis Ababa 1969-72.  He served in the U.S. Embassy in Ankara 1974-77.  During 1977-80 he served with Zbigniew Brzezinski in the U.S. National Security Council.  Among other duties there he chaired the Nationalities Working Group, an interagency task force that focussed on the non-Russian regions of the USSR.  He was a Wilson fellow at the Smithsonian in 1981-82.  During recent years he has made frequent visits to the Caucasus and Central Asia.  In 1992 he headed an international observer team to Chechnya and at the end of the year was a member of a team that went to Abkhazia.  In 1997 he participated in the Shamil bicentenary celebrations in Dagestan.  He was a member of a US NATO Association mission to China, Central and South Asia in 1998.  He has made 8 extensive visits to Georgia since 1991 and is Vice President of the American-Georgian Business Development Council.

Conflict In The Caucasus: Background, Problems, and Prospects for Mitigation


Taken as a whole, the Caucasus has been favored by nature as much as any comparable region in the world.  A splendid 600-mile-long mountain chain divides the region in two from northwest to southeast.  High peaks with glaciers and permanent snow--Mt. Elbruz reaches 18,510 feet (5,643 m.)--feed rivers that water attractive valleys and plains both to the north and the south where an enormous variety of crops can be grown and livestock grazed.  The Caspian Sea on the east provides an easy water route to Central Asia and, via the Volga, to the Russian interior.  The Black Sea, with its dependable moist winds, creates a subtropical microclimate along the western Caucasian coast.  It also provides a sea link to Turkey, Ukraine, the Balkans, and through the Turkish Straits to the Mediterranean world.  On both sides of the mountains vast coniferous and deciduous forests survive, having suffered comparatively little degradation during the Soviet period.  The Caucasus has been noted for its mineral wealth since ancient times.  Azerbaijan's oil, which began to be developed in the late 19th century, fueled much of the Russian economy well into the Soviet period.  At the beginning of the 20th century the oilfields around Grozny in Chechnia were opened up and still provide a major share of the ex-Soviet Union's aviation fuel.  The region is capable of feeding and clothing itself from its own resources.  It has a well developed infrastructure but is not overpopulated.  Why is such an attractive part of the world, blessed by nature, the locus of so much strain and conflict?

Several factors are responsible and must be taken into account by those interested in helping Caucasians work out their problems and chart a clear course into the future. 


As throughout the ex-communist world, history has come alive again in the Caucasus in ways that are difficult for those who have not experienced communism to understand.  Since the region is among the oldest settled regions on earth and populated by peoples speaking languages related to no others in the world, it has a great deal of history which extends far back into ancient times.  During the Soviet period history was either suppressed or forced into a rigid, dogmatic framework which left most Caucasian peoples feeling cheated of their past, but deeply concerned about their identity and their roots.  With the collapse of communism, they are free to repossess their history and explore their roots.  It is exciting to watch this process.  But there is also a downside.  Each ethnic group has its own version of its origin and its past and these, more often than not, conflict with neighbors' versions.  There is, thus, a great deal of argumentation about history.  More often than not, current problems are debated in terms of ancient texts, archaeology, and even legends and myths.  Intriguing and entertaining as such argumentation may be, it tends to exacerbate and obfuscate conflicts rather than facilitate settlement of them.

The history of the Caucasus during the last two or three centuries is as much a colonial experience as the history of India, most of the Middle East, or Africa.  Historians steeped in Russian history and Sovietologists often forget this.  The Russian advance into the Caucasus began in the 17th century but did not proceed very rapidly until the end of the 18th century.  Then it accelerated with great speed and considerable drama.  By the end of the first quarter of the 19th century the Russian Empire's boundaries with Turkey and Iran had been firmly established where they remained, with only slight changes, until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the newly independent Transcaucasian republics inherited them.  The predominantly Muslim North Caucasus was not subdued until the 1860s.  Many of its peoples never reconciled themselves to Russian domination.  They revolted every time they had an opportunity.  Both they and most of the peoples of the Transcaucasus now see themselves as liberated from a colonial past.  They display many of the attitudes and behavior patterns characteristic of ex-colonial Asians and Africans. 


The ethnic complexity of the Caucasus makes areas such as the Balkans or Afghanistan look simple in comparison.  Ethnic awareness and language are, with few exceptions, inextricably linked.  Depending on criteria used for classifying peoples and languages, as many as fifty ethnic groups, each with its own distinctive language or dialect, can be catalogued in the Caucasus.  The most numerous of the indigenous nationalities are the Azeris, the Armenians, the Georgians, and the Chechens.  The Azeris are Turks and speak a language close to the Turkish of Anatolia.  The Armenians are an ancient Indo-European people.  The Georgians and the Chechens are peoples unique to the Caucasus, often termed Paleocaucasians.  There are perhaps as many as two dozen other Paleocaucasian ethnic groups in the North Caucasus.  These include the Abkhaz and several Circassian subgroups, the Chechens' cousins the Ingush, and the Avars, Lezgins and several others in Dagestan, which is the most ethnically complex of all Caucasian territories.  Turks came into the Caucasus for the most part during the first millennium of our era and, in addition to the Azeris, include four North Caucasian ethnic groups: the Karachai, the Balkars, the Nogais, and the Kumyks.  There are smaller Turkic groups as well, such as the Meskhetian Turks of Georgia, who were deported (along with several North Caucasian peoples) at the end of World War II but were not allowed to return when the other deportees were restored to their native territories at the end of the 1950s.  The Ossetes who occupy the center of the North Caucasus speak an Iranian language.  The Kalmyks who occupy a large territory in the steppes northeast of the mountains are Mongols.  There are other, smaller, Iranian-related groups.  Sizable groups of Greeks have lived in the Caucasus since ancient times.  Finally, there are Kurds, Assyrians, several kinds of Jews, and last but not least, Slavs.  Compared to the others, the Slavs are newcomers. 

Russians first came to the Caucasus as Cossacks escaping from Tsarist rule in the 16th century.  They were fiercely independent and intermarried with native peoples.  Their relationship to the Russian state was for a long time tenuous, but during the 18th century they were increasingly drawn into Russian military ventures.  By the end of that century they had become an important, though sometimes unruly, element in Russian campaigns against the Kalmyks and the North Caucasian mountaineers.  The Cossacks were suppressed by the Bolsheviks.  Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cossacks have experienced a rebirth of tradition and identity.  Some men with no ancestral connection with Cossacks at all now claim to be Cossacks. 

Other Russians, along with Belorussians and Ukrainians, came to the Caucasus as settlers, officials, traders, entrepreneurs, and technicians from the late 18th century onward.  The in-migration of Russians accelerated sharply during the last decades of the Tsars and the first decades of the Soviet period, but from the beginning of the 1970s there has been a net outflow of Russians and other Slavs.  It has accelerated markedly since the collapse of the Soviet Union to the point where not more than half a million Russians now remain in the three independent Transcaucasian republics out of a total population of sixteen million.  In the North Caucasus, out of a total population approaching six million, perhaps 20% are Slavs.

Ethnic consciousness is strong throughout the Caucasus and a high degree of adherence to native languages, even where Russian is widely spoken as a second language, is common.  Without intending to do so, the Soviet system encouraged ethnic cohesiveness.  The collapse of the system has further encouraged it, in some instances to the point of chauvinism, for ethnic groups and their leaders, uncertain of their status and apprehensive about their future and their relations with neighbors, have fallen back on ethnic solidarity to counter feelings of insecurity.  


Religion is, as a rule, a component of ethnicity in the Caucasus, but it is almost always secondary.  While, for example, Christians and Muslims feel a high degree of affinity to other ethnic groups of the same faith, adherence to a common religion will not necessarily reduce feelings of hostility and tension if conflict is caused by territorial disputes or exacerbated by economic rivalry.  Historically, Russia exploited Georgian and Armenian adherence to Christianity to cast herself in the role of protector of all Christians, but resentment among Georgians of Moscow's manipulation of the Georgian Orthodox Church runs deep.  Among Armenians religion operates in a more complex fashion, but no longer automatically inclines Armenians toward Russia.  While Azeris are perhaps two-thirds Shi'a, religious tension in Azerbaijan has not become a serious problem.  North Caucasian Muslims are almost all Sunni.  In general Islamic feelings and habits in the North Caucasus are strongest in the east and become less intense toward the west.  This reflects history.  The eastern Caucasus was converted by Arabs who invaded in the first two centuries of Islam.  Some of the peoples who lived north of the mountains in the center and west adhered to Byzantine Christianity often mixed with more ancient beliefs until the 18th, and in some cases, the 19th centuries. 

Religion has been both misunderstood and misrepresented (sometimes willfully by Caucasians themselves) as the primary cause of current conflict.  The Abkhaz, for example, repeatedly characterized in the Western press as Muslims speaking a Turkic language, are for the most part not Muslims at all, and their language has no relationship to Turkish.  Most Muslim Abkhaz emigrated (or were expelled by the Russians) to the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, along with perhaps two million other Muslim Circassians, Chechens, Dagestanis, and others.  New North Caucasian leaders (e.g. Dudaev, the Chechen president) have exploited the concept of Islamic solidarity as a cover for intervention in Abkhazia that appears to have had other motivations.  Religion is not a factor in the Abkhaz situation.  Neither is religion, per se, a primary cause of Azeri-Armenian hostility, which has led to massacres by both sides and fuels the seemingly endless war over Nagorno-Karabakh.  The hostility is generated to a greater extent by ethnic and economic animosities and territorial disputes rooted in the history of the past two hundred years. 

Soviet Colonialism: 

Violent as Russian imperial conquest often was, Russian colonial administration was relatively benign compared to that of its successor, the Soviet Union.  It is true, of course, that some Bolsheviks did not originally conceive of the net effect of Leninist restoration of the Russian Empire as colonialism at all and were genuinely, if misguidedly, motivated by intellectual zeal to remold and improve all mankind.  Bolshevik idealists were quickly pushed into the background as the Red Army was employed by Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin to destroy the governments of the independent republics all three Transcaucasian nationalities set up in the wake of the 1917 revolution.  North Caucasians attempted to establish a federated Mountain Republic during the same period.  Moscow manipulated the situation to take it over, and for a time tried to make it work, but soon reverted to the traditional Russian divide et impera approach to the region.  By 1936, when the Transcaucasian Federated Republic was abolished and the various ethnically defined regions of the North Caucasus were given the administrative form that for the most part survived to the end of the Soviet Union, Moscow ruled the Caucasus region by region from the center.  Territorial boundaries were delineated and juggled to facilitate control from the center, not to encourage indigenous peoples to cooperate and mitigate their differences.  Rivalries and resentments among Caucasian peoples were always subtly--and at times quite blatantly--encouraged.   


Economically, Soviet colonialism was highly exploitive, for priorities applied to infrastructure expansion and agricultural and industrial development were always set in Moscow.  Policies common to the entire Soviet Union--agricultural collectivization, nationalization of commerce and crafts, forced industrialization with priority for heavy industry, and extraction of natural resources without regard for pollution or depletion--were applied with little attention to local circumstances and desires.  And as the momentum went out of the system, stagnation and degeneration set in.  Thus the Caucasus today, like the rest of the ex-Soviet Union, suffers with distorted economies that serve local needs inadequately, inefficient factories that consume three or four times as much energy as comparable installations in the West, appalling devastation of landscape in oil-producing regions, poor housing, inefficient transportation, and communications that are 50 years behind what is now taken for granted even in many parts of the former colonial Third World. 

Because the region is basically well endowed by nature, and because population pressure is not serious, danger of starvation and severe privation is less acute in the Caucasus than in many other parts of the ex-Soviet Union.  Everywhere, however, there has been a drastic decline in the standard and quality of life, for the highly centralized Soviet economic system deterred regional authorities from rational management of their economies.  Both heavy and light industry as well as services were expanded with little consideration given to meeting local needs or exploiting nearby export markets.  Where ethnic tensions have erupted into war, however, overly centralized, now fragile, systems of supply of energy, food, medicine, and other necessities have broken down.  Tensions which cause these breakdowns and conflicts which result from them are then automatically prolonged and exacerbated. 

Shortage of Administrative and Political Skills: 

Some colonial areas (such as the former Belgian Congo--now Zaire--or Indonesia) were launched into independence with little preparation by the metropolitan power.  Most, however (such as India), went through a long period of tutelage in self-administration.  Transfer of power--independence--involved more elation than shock and even in areas where disorders followed (India and Pakistan, e.g.), experienced administrators and political leaders were able to maintain control and ensure resumption and continuation of administrative and economic activity.  Few European colonial empires experienced collapse; most were disbanded in an orderly way.  In contrast, there was almost no preparation for independence in the ex-Soviet Union.  Local party and government officials had been conditioned to obey and implement orders from the center and to think in terms of central priorities.  These habits became deeply ingrained.  Populations developed habits of thinking of their own needs as largely illicit--which they were, from Moscow's point of view.  Under Soviet socialism everything belonged to everybody, so public facilities in actuality belonged to nobody.  Common property could be misappropriated, stolen, or neglected.  Attitudes of responsibility, forms of local initiative, and forms of discipline and control inherent in most free-market societies (and even in many other authoritarian systems) were largely absent in the ex-Soviet Union.

It is not surprising that the Soviet system did not produce large numbers of men with the political skills necessary to lead open societies, set rational priorities, bargain with interest groups, and work to persuade competing constituencies to recognize the necessity to compromise for the common good.  Under the Soviet system, many of the most talented people took refuge in safe areas of specialty.  One is struck in all these Caucasian societies by the large number of specialists in linguistics, literature, folklore, archaeology, and history who are now active in politics.  After decades of suppressing their ethnic pride and natural feelings, they have moved into the forefront of political movements asserting ethnic rebirth and national self-determination.  Many of them, alas, are ill equipped to understand the principles of democracy, or even of simple leadership and administration in any form, and some have already inflicted great harm on their people and brought disaster on themselves.  Gamsakhurdia in Georgia was a tragic example.  Even the best of the newly emerged leaders show little appreciation for economic realities.  

As it collapsed, the Soviet system left people in all parts of society few alternatives except to maximize their demands in hope that they might at least in part prevail against political and economic degeneration and the machinations of their rivals and enemies.  Given the shortcomings and lack of understanding on the part of available leaders, it is surprising that the transition to independent existence in the Caucasus has not produced even more disorder than it has. 

Social Strains: 

Overpopulation is a relative concept.  In comparison to regions with similar geographic features and resources, the Caucasus is not overpopulated.  However, the Soviet system prevented people from developing their skills and servicing their own needs.  At the same time it provided relatively few opportunities for internal migration under attractive conditions.  Consequently, many parts of the Caucasus suffer from lack of employment opportunities.  For much of the Soviet period, people have been moving out of the mountains to the lowlands.  Several factors have been involved, including forced collectivization of almost all agricultural activity.  State agricultural enterprises employed large numbers of workers irrationally, industry even more so.  Because the state-managed distribution and supply system failed to meet the needs of the population, illegal private trade--and even manufacturing--networks developed.  These were usually dominated by regional or ethnic "mafias", a term used in the ex-Soviet Union to cover almost all interest-groups operating outside the framework of official controls.  These provided, and continue to provide, employment for otherwise jobless young men.  In the conditions that have prevailed since Soviet collapse, these groups have easily turned into criminal gangs and networks.   Even during the period of firm Soviet control there was a great surplus of labor, some of which was siphoned off to seasonal employment in Russia.  Chechens, e.g., have been employed as livestock herders throughout southern Russia.  Under straitened economic conditions in Russia, many of these opportunities have disappeared.

Throughout the Caucasus local authorities have been slow to develop comprehensive economic reform plans.  Leaders eager to organize followers find no shortage of young men ready to volunteer.  The deterioration of the former Red Army and the inability of Moscow to exercise effective control over military units in the periphery unleashed a flood of arms and military equipment available, sometimes at little or no cost, for freebooters eager to organize paramilitary formations.  Georgia, perhaps more than any other part of the region, has suffered from warlordism, but it is also a factor in the Nagorno-Karabakh situation and common in parts of the North Caucasus.  Regional authorities have often been forced to organize irregular security forces to protect their interests.  Some have been quite successful--e.g. Abashidze in Ajaria--but many regional governments are too weak to enforce discipline over the forces they sponsor.   

Crime, looting, and theft in many forms have become rampant in most of the region.  Individual citizens, accustomed to the basic order that prevailed under the centralized Soviet system, are ill equipped to take collective responsibility for protecting themselves.   

The Russian Factor: 

In all three now independent Transcaucasian republics, responsible people maintain that the KGB and the communist party, on orders from Moscow, deliberately exacerbated conflicts within and between them during the final years of Soviet power.  While this perception may be exaggerated, there is evidence to support it in some cases and the result (whatever the cause) was to burden each of these countries with deteriorated situations difficult for inexperienced and often insecure leaders to deal with.  Armenia has never recovered from the massive damage inflicted by the 1988 earthquake.  Nevertheless too many Armenians were persuaded to gave priority to an attempt to absorb Nagorno-Karabakh and started a war against Azerbaijan which sent the Azeris reeling.  Like the Georgians, the Azeris had difficulty getting a government capable of defining their national interests and setting priorities for consolidating independence.  The democratically elected and comparatively liberal leadership which finally came to power in Azerbaijan in June 1992 had no alternative but to give highest priority to regaining territory lost to Armenia and counter a potential threat against Nakhichevan.  Georgia became independent with secessionist movements already asserting themselves in South Ossetia and Abkhazia with external encouragement and support in the form of arms and supplies.  The democratically elected president, Gamsakhurdia, played into the hands of the secessionists and their Russian supporters by harsh and dogmatic efforts to suppress them.  Azeris accused Moscow of tilting toward Armenia from the beginning of the troubles in Karabakh.  Georgians were probably always justified in accusing Moscow, at a very minimum, of failing to control Russian nationalists and conservatives supporting the Abkhaz.  There can now be no question that conservative and chauvinistic Russians, with or without Yeltsin's concurrence, aided the Abkhaz in their defeat of Georgian forces in the fall of 1993. 

Yeltsin's government has never articulated--let alone enforced--a clear and comprehensive policy toward the now-independent states of the Transcaucasus.  Meanwhile, in addition to the situations that have already resulted in serious conflict, other claims and tensions are simmering and could lead to outbreaks at any time.  One example is the issue of border controls between Azerbaijan and Dagestan, which is complicated by Lezgin territorial claims.  Equally urgent is a Russian policy toward the North Caucasus.  The collapse of the Soviet Union left the North Caucasus within the Russian Federation, though geographically and politically the Caucasus as a whole constitutes a rather clearly defined region.  The fact that the North Caucasus is internationally recognized as part of Russia makes it no easier for Russia to administer.  The structure of the Russian Federation is still being redefined.  To counter parliament Yeltsin sought alliances with the republics and regions.  The new constitution which came into effect provides for an upper house based on these.  How it will evolve remains to be seen.  The status of the eight formerly "autonomous" North Caucasian ethnic entities, now all called republics of the Russian Federation, is unavoidably linked to that of similar components of the Russian Federation, such as Tatarstan and other Volga-Ural republics as well as distant Buryatia and Yakutia (now called the Sakha Republic).

Chechnia declared its independence in August 1991 and defied  Yeltsin's attempt to coerce it militarily in November 1991.  At the same time Chechens gave reluctant de facto recognition to the separation of their long-standing partners, the Ingush, who, with Russian encouragement set up a separate republic.  In effect, Russia was resorting to traditional divide-and-rule tactics in this situation.  This led to a new confrontation within a year when the Ingush launched an offensive in the fall of 1992 to regain the long contested Prigorodny Rayon from North Ossetia.[1]  For two hundred years the Ossetes have traditionally been regarded by Russia as a most-favored Caucasian people.  Russia has incurred their enmity during the past two years by facilitating an Ingush challenge to them, thus provoking a confrontation between these two peoples whom Russia is trying to cultivate as friends.  Russian military intervention has solved nothing.  There has been substantial loss of life among both Ossetes and Ingush, as well as among Russian troops sent in to maintain a semblance of order.  As of the end of 1993, however, the situation remained essentially deadlocked.  Moscow cannot solve it without alienating one or both of the peoples involved. 

Simply to list and explain all the ethnic and territorial quarrels and strains that have surfaced in the North Caucasus since the collapse of Soviet power would require a book.  The situation has been additionally exacerbated by the emergence of a "Confederation of North Caucasian Peoples" (not states) which was formed in 1991 with Chechens and Kabardans among its most enthusiastic members, though Abkhaz separatists may have been prime movers in this initiative.  The group claimed membership of 15 "peoples", but the manner in which these peoples' representatives were chosen is unclear.  These include the Abkhaz, who are not in the North Caucasus at all.[2]  Their territory is internationally recognized as part of Georgia.  In the 1989 census Abkhaz constituted only 17% of its inhabitants.

By sending volunteers to Abkhazia to fight, the Confederation greatly complicated its situation.  There were other incongruities as well.  The governments of most of the North Caucasian republics were not enthusiastic about the Confederation and saw its stress on peoples as an effort to by-pass them, which to a great extent it was.  Deposed Georgian President Gamsakhurdia was given refuge in Chechnia when he fled Tbilisi in January 1992.  He was a strong opponent of Abkhaz separatism.  It was not the first time he found himself in a self-contradictory position.  Though the Chechens have demanded (and in some ways successfully asserted) their independence from Russia, in supporting the Abkhaz they found themselves aligned with conservative nationalists in Russia who aimed to break Abkhazia off from Georgia and incorporate it into the Russian Federation.[3]  Abkhaz leaders have been supported by some of the least savory elements in the Russian political spectrum: military conservatives, neo-imperialists, and ex-communists centered around Prokhanov, Alksnis, and the newspaper Den', who advocate the restoration of the Soviet Union.  Vladimir Zhirinovsky has espoused the cause of all of these people.  Early in 1993 the Abkhaz leaders "recognized" the breakaway "Dniester Republic" in Moldova, which has likewise enjoyed support of Russian ultra-conservatives and has been openly supported by the Russian 14th Army.  Meanwhile strains were developing in several other regions of the Caucasus.  Many of them came to a head in 1993. 

Principal Developments during 1993:

The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh escalated in 1993.  During the first part of the year, The Armenians gained steadily to the point where they occupied or directly threatened 25% of Azerbaijan's territory.  Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to other parts of Azerbaijan and some crossed to Iran.  The strain and costs of the war contributed to political deterioration in Azerbaijan.  President Elchibey fell victim to a military revolt which began in Ganja in early June and soon led to the return to power of Haydar Aliev, the long-time communist leader who had been deposed by Gorbachev and who had been biding his time, enjoying Turkish economic support, in Nakhichevan.  The extent to which Aliev's return was supported by Russia remains unclear, but it was evidently not unpleasing either to Russia or to Iran, for Elchibey had alarmed Iran by calling for eventual reunification of southern Azerbaijan with the north and had consistently taken anti-Russian positions.  Aliev's return was not welcomed by Turkey.  While Aliev brought Azerbaijan back into the Commonwealth of Independent States and appeared to be tilting toward Russia in respect to oil concessions, he was unable to get Russia to pressure the Armenians to abandon their war for Nagorno-Karabakh.  Nevertheless toward the end of 1993 the Azerbaijani armed forces began to gain strength and recapture territory.  Aliev also took steps to reestablish warm relations with Turkey, while restoring relatively positive relations with Iran.  Tension along  Azerbaijan's northern border, with Dagestan, did not increase, though Dagestan itself was jolted by a number of interethnic clashes.

Armenia's economic condition worsened steadily during 1993 and the country is now in worse economic condition than any other part of the ex-Soviet Union.  The Ter-Petrosian government's claim that war against Azerbaijan is being conducted at the initiative of the Armenian leadership in Karabakh over which Erevan cannot be taken at its face value.  There has always been evidence that Ter-Petrosian himself would prefer to see the conflict reduced in intensity and settled so that Armenians can give priority to economic recovery.  He has had to walk a very difficult political tightrope and the task became no easier during the past year.  Extremist Armenian exiles continue to exercise disproportionate influence in Armenian domestic politics, with the result that the country in many respects seems to have fallen into mass psychosis.  A poll taken in the fall of 1993 indicated that 70% of the population saw conditions as so hopeless that they would like to emigrate.  It now appears possible that Azerbaijani military advances, coupled with efforts by various outside groups to mediate, may create a situation where serious negotiations for settlement of the war can begin.  All international efforts  failed in 1993.

Georgia suffered the most serious political and economic deterioration in 1993, though Shevardnadze managed to hold on to power and at the very end of the year, with the death of the deposed former president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, experienced a potential positive turn.  Abkhaz separatists with substantial Russian support succeeded before the end of the year in ejecting all Georgian forces from the Abkhaz republic while 200,000 Georgians fled, adding greatly to Georgia's internal economic burdens.  The extent to which Yeltsin condoned Russian support for the Abkhaz remains unclear.  There was duplicity on all sides in the Abkhaz situation.  Whatever Yeltsin's own attitude, his ability to deter Russian military nationalists would have been constrained by his own political difficulties in Moscow.  Shevardnadze's efforts to maintain a Georgian foothold Sukhumi were repeatedly undermined by freewheeling Georgian warlords and dissidents supporting Gamsakhurdia.  Russian forces were largely responsible at the end of the year for defeating Gamsakhurdia's desperate, but almost successful, campaign to take control of Mingrelia and use it as a base for toppling Shevardnadze.  Shevardnadze's reluctant accommodation with Moscow (which began in mid-summer) culminated in Georgia's accession to the CIS and expression of willingness to join the ruble zone.  Georgia's own currency fell victim to hyperinflation.  Only one area of Georgia remained comparatively stable during 1993 and enjoyed moderate economic stability: Ajaria, where Abashidze remains a key figure to watch for the influence he may have on the future development of Georgian politics.

Chechnia has succeeded in maintaining a politically and economically shaky semi-independence, and Russia has avoided intervention in Chechen affairs as well as attempts to pressure Dudaev to recognize Moscow's authority.  Internally the Chechen scene, parallel to the situation in all the North Caucasian republics, presented a picture of unstable and at times festering political tensions punctuated occasionally by clashes and assassinations.  Russians have continued to leave the North Caucasus, though at a slower rate than from the Transcaucasus.  There is little evidence of strong sentiment among the Russian public for a vigorous reassertion of strong Russian control in any part of the Caucasus, but among Russian conservatives, nationalists, former communists, as well as some elements of the military, a strong sentimental attachment to the region persists.  This is counterbalanced by a strong disinclination among many military leaders to become involved in what to them appear to be an almost endless chain of no-win conflicts, any one of which, with major Russian involvement, could become a nightmare like Afghanistan in the 1980s. 

Rhetoric about Russia's responsibilities in the "Near Abroad", Russia's obligation to defend Russians living among hostile non-Russian populations, and Russia's entitlement to preserve and defend Russians' historic interests in all the territories which formed part of the former Soviet Union has increased since the elections of December 1993.  Yeltsin's political position, even after approval of the new constitution which gives him far more power than he had previously, has--at least temporarily--been weakened.  He has slowed economic reform and made substantial verbal concessions to nationalism.  All this has frightened and dismayed most Caucasians and alarmed international observers. 

Fears for the future need to be tempered, however, by realistic examination of Russia's capacity to assert itself either militarily or economically in the region.  Both in numbers and in quality Russia's military forces in the Caucasus (as in most other regions) have deteriorated seriously from their condition of only a few years ago.  There is little prospect that they will regain much of their old strength soon.  Only a small proportion of young Russians called up to serve in the military report for duty.  Few regions of the Russian Federation remit all the taxes Moscow claims from them.  Some are now sending no revenue at all to Moscow.  The Russian government will have increasing difficulty finding the money to maintain its military forces even in their present depleted condition.  Arms and equipment are deteriorating.  Of course, the local armed forces that exist throughout the Caucasus are not of high quality either.  The best military force in the Caucasus is probably that of the Armenians, who have benefitted from Russian equipment that has fallen into their hands as well as support from abroad.  Nevertheless, the Caucasus bristles with weaponry in the hands of almost anyone who wants a gun.  The Russian forces which remain in the region have been majors suppliers of arms, ammunition, fuel, vehicles, and even tanks and artillery--as they have sold or let their equipment fall into the hands of warlords and freebooters.

We hear frequent discussion of Russian military forces as peace-keepers.  Not all Russians are enthusiastic about this concept, but some apparently see it as a conveniently disguised way of reasserting Russian imperial control.  Shevardnadze was driven to request Russian peace-keeping forces in Abkhazia as a last resort.  Some Russians have been deployed as informal peace-keepers in the Armenian-Azerbaijani struggle, but, like those in Abkhazia, they have not been effective.  Since few other countries are prepared to assign significant numbers of peace-keeping troops to the Caucasus, there may be no alternative to deployment of Russians in this role.  It is a problematic issue which is likely to be debated with increasing intensity in the months ahead.  The debate should be realistic.  If Russians are deployed as peace-keepers under UN or some other form of serious international supervision, and in partnership with enough troops from other countries to make the operation genuinely international (and to keep watch on the Russians!) there is no reason to believe that they could not be effective.  On the other hand, if they support one Caucasian faction against another--following their traditional tactics of divide-and-rule--they will not serve a useful purpose.

Economically the Caucasus is potentially a rich region.  Under peaceful conditions, naturally talented Caucasians of many nationalities should be among the most successful in the former Soviet Union in profiting from trade, industry and agriculture and rehabilitating parts of their economy that were neglected under the Soviets: oil and mining, for example.  The region has good access to both the Black Sea and the Caspian and is thus well situated for transit trade to Central Asia and the interior of Russia.  Since the collapse of the Soviet Union every Caucasian country has experienced severe economic decline because of neglect, delay in reform, destruction caused by warfare and sabotage.  Under peaceful conditions, these countries would attract investors and could develop mutually beneficial economic relations with the outer world.  Russia has very little to offer them economically for the foreseeable future.  Its own economy is in poor condition and its currency threatened with hyperinflation.  The departure of most of the reformers from Yeltsin's government that occurred in the first weeks of 1994 will in all likelihood exacerbate Russia's economic problems. 

International Responsibilities and Opportunities:

Even a world preoccupied with crises in many other areas cannot ignore the Caucasus.  Nor can the world leave the Caucasus to be reabsorbed into a resurgent imperial Russia.  The rhetoric of nationalist politicians must be judged against a sober assessment of Russia's own condition.  Russia itself will continue to be threatened with economic decline and political disintegration for many years to come.  It is in no position to take major responsibility for the Caucasus and has done an inadequate job of dealing with tensions and conflict even in those parts of the region--the republics of the North Caucasus--which still form part of the Russian Federation.  If a radical nationalist such as Zhirinovsky should come to power, however, Russia will be plunged into internal turmoil and confrontations both in the "Near" and "Far Abroad" which will make current difficulties look mild in comparison.  Europe and the United States cannot permit this to happen.

The Caucasus is part of Europe.  Europe organizations and institutions must continue to concern themselves with efforts to mitigate conflict and promote democracy and economic reform.  Turkey as a European country, has a special responsibility for assisting its partners in Europe to make the attention they give the Caucasus productive.  Turkey itself has a capacity and a vested interest in providing various kinds of assistance to the countries of the Caucasus.  Turkey should not play petty politics in the Caucasus, but it cannot abdicate its responsibilities to Russia or wait for Europeans to take the initiative.  Coordinated constructive engagement of Turkey, Europe, and the international community as a whole--in cooperation with constructive democratic forces in Russia--is the best way of containing and neutralizing the neo-imperialist aims backward elements in Russia may have in the Caucasus.

The United States is regarded with a high degree of respect by all Caucasians--and with exaggerated expectations of the influence it might have in the region.  There are, nevertheless, good opportunities for the United States to be effective in promotion of democracy, mitigation of conflict, in providing humanitarian relief, and in encouraging respect for human rights and reduction of ethnic tensions.  The Clinton Administration up until recently has focussed almost exclusively on Russia and neglected the other Soviet successor states.  This is a short-sighted policy.  The rhetoric of Russian nationalists and the setbacks reformers in Russia have recently experienced has forced a healthy re-evaluation of American policy which is now in progress.  Turkey should speak openly and often to American leaders about Russia--it has had more than 500 years of experience with the colossus to the north--and Turkey should take the lead in drawing boht the United States and the Europeans into Caucasian initiatives.


[1] The Prigorodny Rayon had formed part of the Chechen-Ingush Republic which was dissolved when all of its inhabitants were deported to Central Asia in early 1944.  Its territory was divided up among its neighbors.  When the Chechen-Ingush Republic was reestablished in 1957, the Prigorodny Rayon was left in North Ossetia, while territory inhabited by descendants of Cossacks which had not previously formed part of the Chechen-Ingush republic was added to it--a striking example of continuation of traditional Russian divide-and-rule techniques.

[2] Perhaps to accommodate the Abkhaz, as well as the Ossetes who live in South Ossetia as well as other nationalities who spill across the main chain of the mountains, and perhaps dissident Georgian factions as well, the Confederation renamed itself in 1993, "Confederation of Caucasian Peoples".
[3] One explanation of Chechen President Dudaev's original involvement with the Abkhaz separatists is that he dreamed of creating a large North Caucasian state and needed an outlet to the sea.  In reality he would have service his interests better by cooperating with Georgia itself, an proposition reportedly explored by Ajarian strongman Abashidze and Gamsakhurdia himself in a meeting with Dudaev in Kazbegi, in the Daryal Pass, in the spring of 1991.