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Russia and Caucasus Observatory

Caucasus Essentials pt.1 – An attempt of definition through geography

by Giovanni Zorra*

This contribution about the Caucasus is the first of a series. This region is interesting by itself and meaningful for its position in international relations, but often remains in our peripheral view.

The attempt of this introduction is to provide some data, inputs, suggestions and finally to compose a sort of handbook, with all the essential information, necessary for a comprehensive framing.

Caucasus, an attempt of definition

Nowadays, talking about Caucasus, we are generally used to point the three Caucasian Republics, i.e. Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, even if they compose only a minor part. Before going further, we must understand what we mean when we use the word “Caucasus”, and the answer is not an obvious one.

Once noticed that Western and Eastern borders are clearly defined respectively by the Black and Caspian Seas, we should remember how Caucasus never had clear geographical borders. This is because throughout centuries kingdoms and empires evolved expanding and reducing the sphere of influence of Caucasian peoples, which reached Mesopotamia and Persia, and even to lap central steps and Anatolia.

Nowadays, talking about this region, it is common understanding to keep aside Northern Caucasus, considering those territories part of the Russian Federation, belonging to a different history and political destiny.

Similarly, looking south we could also consider the Azerbaijani region of Iran and that part of Turkey bordering Georgia and Armenia as parts of Caucasus, however, as in the first case, this would create more understanding problems rather than contributing to the cause of a better framing of the issue.

Personally, I would prefer to keep a stricter use of the word Caucasus, as geographical toponym to identify Greater and Lesser Caucasus, the two mountain ranges at the heart of the region, promoting instead the use of term Caucasia to define that changing region, made more by people and Peoples, rather than by borders, rivers or mountains.

Unfortunately, the word Caucasia was not destined for success, mostly because it was intensively used by Soviet and Russian administration through the toponym “Ciscaucasia” and “Transcaucasia”, promoting a Russian-centric vision of the region.

Southern Caucasus’ governments actively fought on international arenas in the 90s to obtain a denomination shift from “Transcaucasia” to “Southern Caucasus”, even if this definition could be tricky, including parts of Turkey and Iran.

For what concerns us, we will use the term “Caucasus” and “Southern Caucasus” as synonymous for reasons of brevity, always specifying if there are taken into consideration Russian, Turkish or Iranian parts.

A bridge and a fortress: when geography matters

This difficulty in framing the Caucasus is only the tip of an iceberg which reveals how little we know about it. This is true for several reasons.

The Caucasus plays a secondary role in history books. It is genuinely not easy to find information about it in mainstream publications. The main reason is that there is not so much to say about this region as political entity in the last couple of centuries. It kept since the Middle Age a subaltern position under the control of other actors, but, at the same time, it played an unexpected significant role in several affairs and maintains a high degree of autonomy in cultural, linguistic and religious terms.

This only apparent contradictory dynamic can be explained by the specific geographical condition of the Caucasus.

We do not need to be particularly creative, looking at the map, to understand why the Caucasus could be considered as a bridge. A strip of land lying between two continents, connecting them, closed by two seas on the sides. An isthmus, but big enough to contains dozens of peoples, languages, religions, regional and state entities. A continent on small scale, on the juncture of Europe and Asia.

It happened to the Caucasus to be several times on the cleavage. Between continents, as we said; between religions, considering that here we can find the last projection of Christian majorities before Middle East and Central Asia; between nomad populations on north and settled civilizations on south; between Slavic, Semitic, Turkish and Farsi peoples. A peculiar situation of influence and hybridization which left its footprint.

Coming back on the map, one more time geography helps our analysis: with its two mountains ranges, the Caucasus turns in a natural fortress.

A fortress is, by definition, easy to defend and difficult to conquer. A fortress is something you control to defend your borders. In any case it is something you prefer to control, rather than to know that someone else is controlling it. These considerations tell us a lot about Caucasus history.

You cannot defend a fortress if its inhabitants row against you. Considering that, the conqueror of the moment always put the carrot before the stick, preferring softer methods to keep the population on their side, granting a certain level of autonomy in fields like culture, religion, language, tax paying, selection of political class. This understandably helped Caucasian peoples in the retaining of traditions and, besides those, of an idea of Nation. This was not always true, of course (see the Armenian genocide), but we can recognize this tendency up to the recent past in the USSR.

At the same time, whoever would have wanted to conquer the region would have needed to have internal allies, venturing to find themselves in endless campaigns, fighting for each mountain and valley. This took external powers to boost proxy actors, funding minorities, infiltrating spies, creating connections with organized movements fighting against central power. This was true at the time of the Great Game between Great Britain and the Tsarist Empire, and it is still true today when we consider all those Russian proxies in the region.

Considering its geographical conformation, the Caucasus was and still is a buffer zone, a crucial square on the Indo-European chessboard, almost never relevant by itself, but for its strategic position compared to other actors’ moves. This created a paradox: the Caucasus was at the same time one of the less influent region in history books, but one of the most disputed.

Suggested readings:

Forsy James, “The Caucasus: A History”, Cambridge University Press, 2015

Ferrari Aldo, “Breve storia del Caucaso”, Carocci, 2017 (Italian)

*Since he was a teenager Giovanni has always been interested in politics. Over time he has developed a peculiar interest in public institutions and their functioning, which has resulted in the decision to graduate in European Affairs. Nowadays, Giovanni is working as researcher for the University of Bologna in the field of public administration. His main themes of interest consist of Eastern Partnership (specifically Caucasus), geopolitics of energy, cybersecurity, EU politics.

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