The Caucasus: A Short History

Updated: Aug 28, 2019

By: Calum Turnbull

The peaks of the Caucasus form a wall between the Black and Caspian Seas sheltering narrow passes and impenetrable redoubts to would-be invaders. From Roman times the mountains formed an island rising above the tumultuous tides of imperialism, only being subsumed twice; once by the Mongolian hordes, and again during the final period of Russian expansionism in the early 19th Century.

Nominally independent of the three empires it bordered (Russian, Safavid, and Ottoman) borders were never truly established in the region. Peoples, languages, and religions flowed along the river valleys and sea coasts, limited only by the fortress walls of the Caucuses themselves. The terrain and the lack of a hegemonic power gave rise to one of the world’s most linguistically and culturally diverse regions (Macfarlane, 2011, p.88).

Even today the diverse nationalities of the Caucasus means that few ever hear of them all. When John LeCarre began researching a novel that would take place among the Ingush of the north Caucasus he found “nobody in the Western world seemed to have heard of them: my American literary agent even asked me whether I had invented them” (Le Carre, 2016, p.159). As such, to give a description of all the nascent national movements of the region would be fraught with difficulty and the danger of overlooking one of the region’s many minorities.

However, a few nations do stand out as important actors when it comes to understanding the geopolitical makeup of the region. Among its recognised states there are the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. Then, there are the nominally independent and partially recognised quasi-states of South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh). Chechnya, the last of these important actors, is an exception and to explain it a distinction needs to be made between the north and south Caucasus.

The North and South Caucasus

Since the crushing of a final rebellion by the Northwest Caucasian Alliance in 1864, Tsarist control over the northern Caucuses has been firmly entrenched. Its peoples, principally Turkic speaking and muslim, were harshly repressed by the Russian military and Cossack forces following the revolt. An estimated half a million people fled the region as a result (Kotkin, 2016, p13). The result of this was “all the Ubykhs and most Circassians and Abkhazians chose to abandon their ancestral lands to resettle in the Ottoman Empire” (Hewitt, 2009, p.185) leading to an influx of settlers of Greater Russian, Cossack, or other Caucasian nationalities.

The southern Caucuses in contrast were not so easily conquered, repressed, and retained. When the region was finally conquered in the 1800s it was the shorelines along its eastern and western edges which were first subsumed. Then like a rising tide the Russians “proceeded vertically… around and up the mountains that consumed more than 150 years and uncounted lives” (Kotkin, 2015, p12).

However, in contrast to the Islamic north, much of the Southern Caucuses could be more easily integrated into the Tsarist state (Kotkin, 2015, p15). Forgetting for the moment the long-held view of the Russian Orthodox Church as a heretical schism from the true faith, the Christian princes of Georgia had invited Russian intervention for protection from persecution by the Ottomans during the 1810s. Their aristocracy left mostly intact they formed the new elite of Caucus society (Kotkin, 2015, p15). Resentment remains but improvements to education and infrastructure made by the Russian Empire provided ample opportunity for economic advancement.

This was sped up by the discovery of oil in Azerbaijan, where the port of Baku quickly developed into one of the most industrialised cities in Russia. The importance of Baku was immense and is one of the reasons why by the early 1900s Russia was producing half the global output of refined oil (Kotkin, 2016, p.115). When WWI began this meant that the Caucasus, for all their years as a geopolitical backwater, had suddenly become of vital strategic significance.

The country which bore the brunt of this newfound importance would be the third and final of the recognised Caucus republics; Armenia. On the Southernmost border of the Russian Empire that nation was stretched across Ottoman and Russian lands, though after the exit of Russia from WWI the entire country was left to the Ottomans (BBC, 2018).

Shortly afterwards, the Ottomans also ceded the region following their defeat, and the atrocities committed against the Armenians provided the conditions necessary for independence (Kotkin, 2016, p366). This would not last long as both Turkey and Russia would look to retake the land that was lost. Turkey, fearing the Christian Armenia’s ties with Russia, enacted policies of genocide and ethnic cleansing in order to diminish the chance of revolt. Despite the atrocities, the result was to solidify Armenian national sentiment and militarise the region.

When the war ended for Russia with the Bolshevik Revolution, the special status these nations held within the Empire and the world more generally resulted in quick declarations of independence. Seeking to mitigate the effects of socialist revolutions and secure the highly strategic region from German, Turkish, or Bolshevik influence, Britain and France quickly recognised the new states in 1920. In the hopes that following suit would encourage their own recognition by the Allied powers, and with more pressing matters to attend to; Soviet Russia recognised the three nations independence as well (Kotkin, 2016, p366).

The First Period of Independence: 1918-1921

Between the years of 1918 and 1921 an uneasy independence prevailed for the three states. However, the Soviets were always suspicious of their Southern neighbours and their political dispositions. For example; the Azerbaijan government had welcomed the British into their new country; initially as a means of preventing Germany from taking possession of the Baku oil fields (Kotkin, 2016, p 397). However, as the war drew to a close the British presence remained and even expanded to include a Governor General. Azerbaijan, looked towards Britain not only as a guarantor against Russian aggression, but as a powerful ally in retaining the disputed region of Nagarno-Karabakh (Artsakh) (Simonian, 2005, p159).

On the eve of the Russian invasion, 2/3rds of the Azerbaijani army was fighting against the Armenians; the result was a Soviet coup, whereby the Red Army and Bolshevik agitators instigated a popular uprising among the 50,000 Baku oil workers (Kotkin, 2016, p115 and p366). A day later the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan was declared. With one fell swoop, Soviet Russia had captured the most key city in the region and would use it as a springboard to subjugate the rest (Kotkin, 2016, p366).

Its forces preoccupied with fighting in Artsakh, and Turkish advances in the West, Armenia was quickly felled (Kotkin, 2016, p367). Finally, the Georgian Menshevik Government was ousted in a putsch by the Bolsheviks. Within days the Red Army had entered Tbilisi and a Georgian Soviet Republic was created. The Abkhazians in Eastern Georgia were in the process of negotiating their own autonomy in with Tbilisi at the time of the invasion (Hewitt, 200, p186). The result was an undetermined status within the Georgian borders, and which would create difficulties later.

Soviet Rule and its Dissolution: 1921-1991

As the Southern Caucuses reformed themselves into Soviet Socialist Republics, Soviet Russia was quickly devising a mechanism to absorb them into a larger state. The old Tsarist framework could no longer suit the aims of the revolution, and the four nominally independent nations (Abkhazia was recognised a separate republic from Georgia during this time) were to be welcomed as equals into a new federation; the USSR.

A South Caucasus native who grew up under the Turkish moniker ‘Koba’ (meaning indomitable) was a driving force behind this new development. Speaking in 1921 he said; “I remember the years from 19005-17, when only complete brotherly solidarity could be observed among the workers and toiling people of the South Caucasus nationalities, when the bonds of brotherhood bound Armenian, Georgian, Azerbaijani and Russian workers into a single socialist family”. He continued “Now, on my arrival to Tiflis, I am astounded by the absence of the former solidarity among the workers of the South Caucasus.

Nationalism has arisen among the workers and peasants, and there is a strong feeling of distrust their other natural comrades” (Kotkin, 2016, p400). Joseb Jughashvili, better known as Stalin, would seek to wash away the boundaries of nationalities, and in doing so, poured gasoline on the powder keg.

On accession to the Soviet leadership Stalin demoted the status of Abkhazia from an independent Soviet Socialist Republic, to an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic within Georgia in 1931 (Hewitt, 2009, p186). Subsequently targeted during the terror, Abkhazians saw the kind of colonisation of their lands as had happened to the Ubykhs and Circassians a century before.

While many of these policies were reversed on the death of Stalin, the status of Abkhazia within the Soviet Union was never entirely resolved. A petition in 1978 to have Abkhazia transferred into the Russian Federation instead of being tied to the Georgian Republic was declined, and many of its signatories were removed from positions of influence (Hewitt, 2009, p187). By 1989, the conflict would reach boiling point.

The Autonomous Oblast of Ossetia (South Ossetia) inside the Georgian Socialist Republic was not as significantly affected during this period. So long as the USSR persisted, the ability to travel and utilise the same right as the Autonomous Republic of Ossetia (North Ossetia) which lay on the Russian side of the border prevented any issue from arising. However, as the 1980s drew to a close Georgian nationalism saw a resurgence under the leadership of Zviad Gamsakhurdia (Macfarlane, 2011, p90).

The fear that Georgia might break away, and the two Ossetian regions might be separated, resulted in the oblast unilaterally proclaiming South Ossetia as an autonomous republic, and its intention to unify with North Ossetia (Kalsto and Blakkisrud, 2008, p487-488). When Tbilisi rejected this move as unconstitutional a low-intensity armed conflict erupted between the two sides and the Ossetians declared their independence in 1992 (Hewitt, 2009, p191).

In March 1991, the ailing USSR sought to have a referendum on its continued existence. Not every state within the union sought to participate with the likes of Georgia boycotting the vote. However, this did not stop Abkhazia and South Ossetia voting through a resounding yes in both instances to remain members of the USSR, even if this meant leaving Georgia behind (Kalsto and Blakkisrud, 2008, p485 and p487).

Regardless of the result, the USSR collapsed in December, and the two states were left within the sovereign borders of the Georgian state. As the West adopted a unified policy of only recognising declarations of independence by the newly unshackled Soviet Socialist Republics (as opposed to the former USSR’s autonomous regions) Abkhazia and Ossetia were left facing no recognition. This strategy “ ignored all potential problems resulting from Stalin’s… tinkering with borders and the hierarchy of administrative units therein, and it effectively set in stone those very Stalinist frontiers, however illegitimate they might be” (Hewitt, 2009, p188). Nonetheless, it was imposed.

In neighbouring Azerbaijan, a similar conflict was brewing. The disputed region of Artsakh which had seen so much fighting during the period of 1918-1921 had no resolution outside of the Soviet framework. Once federating with the Soviet Union, Artsakh was made into an autonomous oblast (like South Ossetia) of Azerbaijan in 1923 (Kalsto and Blakkisrud, 2008, p500). This gave the Armenian region limited self-determination as well as the ease of access to Armenia proper as they were both within the wider Soviet umbrella.

However, as the Soviet Union began to disintegrate Artsakh was left cutoff and in a country who’s resurgent nationalism looked likely to curb any autonomy the region had previously had. In 1988 the region’s local government held a successful vote to merge with Armenia. Clashes began shortly afterwards, and a result of ethnic clashes there saw a mass exodus of Azeris from Armenia and Armenians from Azerbaijan (Kalsto and Blakkisrud, 2008, p487).

Despite attempts by the USSR to mediate, their imminent collapse precluded talks. In December 1991 a referendum was held by the Armenian residents of Artsakh, and independence was declared shortly afterward leading to open warfare between the newly declared republic and the Azerbaijani government (Kalsto and Blakkisrud, 2008, p487).

Chechnya: 1990-2007

Following the October Revolution in 1917 the Caucasus fell into disarray as the power vacuum left open the possibility of self-made proclamations of independence. So too was it the case during the early 1990s, where the power vacuum of the collapsed USSR left the organisation of states in disarray and the possibility of unilaterally proclaiming independence open. Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Artsakh are the results of this phenomena.

However, the north Caucasus had not had a history of vying for independence since its pacification in the 1860s. Even during the tumultuous period following the October Revolution, the region remained organised as a constituent part of Russia, and never achieved the Soviet Socialist Republic status of the three south Caucus states and the demoted Abkhazia.

Yet the collapse of the Soviet Union did create the first opportunity since the Civil War for an independence movement to coalesce. As a response to the economic and political collapse of the state the First Congress of Chechen People in 1990. Communist apparatchiks and newly resurgent nationalist politicians were quick to create ‘The Declaration of Sovereignty of the Chechen People’ (Isaenko and Petschauer, 2000, p5). Unilaterally the Chechen Congress had elevated themselves top the status of sovereign republic, not unlike those of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Russia itself.

As the USSR would persist for another year, this elevation was meant as a compromise to the Chechen nationalists while retaining some semblance of the Soviet system (Isaenko and Petschauer, 2000, p5).

However, with the fall of the Soviet government in Moscow in 1991, the Chechen Congress was overtaken by radical nationalists; most significantly Dzokhar Dudaev. As the Chechen Revolution in the wake of the USSR’s dissolution progressed, Dudaev would continue to centralise his power and seek international recognition for his new sovereign state (Isaenko and Petschauer, 2000, p8 and p12).

When Moscow attempted to reassert its control over the breakaway region at the end of 1994 they came across a myriad of local militias (formed during the lawless period of the Soviet breakup) and a skilled force of fighters loyal (Isaenko and Petschauer, 2000, p13) (Rigi, 2004, p145). The disastrous conflict for Russia would see its forces withdrawn from the breakaway region, and a ceasefire was established in 1996. Between 1996 and 1999 Cechnya existed as an independent unrecognised state like those of Abkhazian, South Ossetian and Astrakh.

Yet where Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Artsakh were embedded in international conflicts (Russia and Georgia in the former two, Armenia in Azerbaijan in the latter) Chechnya was left with no foreign patron. The policy by Western powers to not recognise Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics would remove any international legal protections from the Chechnyan state. The point of view of Russia, and the point of view of the world; Chechnya was a domestic issue of the Russian Federation.

When Russia had successfully emerged from the Soviet collapse by 1999, and Vladimir Putin had risen to the Russian premiership and looked to take the presidency, Chechen independence was no longer going to be tolerated. When Chechen militias made an incursion across the border into Dagestan, Russia responded with overwhelming force. Putin went on to use the war and “presented himself as a man who could wield the iron fist and reimpose order” (Rigi, 2004, p147).

Crushing Chechen nationalism and political Islam in the region, Putin sought to reorientate Chechen politics. Taking advantage of the defection of the Chechen Kadyrov clan to Russia in 2000 (they had previously been prominent separatists) Putin elevated them to positions of leadership in Chechnya. The endpoint of this process was the promotion of Ramzan Kadyrov to the presidency who became “a kind of vassal who remains slavishly loyal to the Russian leader” (Nemtsova, 2016).

Through granting additional autonomy, pumping millions of rubles into the region, and giving Kadyrov free reign to punish any critics to the new order; Putin pacified the region (Nemtsova, 2016). The war and aftermath would establish two trends for the future of the Caucasus; Russian hegemony over the region would be re-established, and Putin would use armed conflicts to achieve his domestic political aims.

Geopolitical Realignment and Russian Resurgence: 1999-2008

While Astrakh remained too removed from Russia’s borders to be too closely integrated to Putin’s domestic strategies, it did provide a means for reasserting Russian dominance. Brokering a peace deal between Astrakh and Armenia with Azerbaijan in 1994, the sending of Russian peacekeepers, and the sale of arms to the three states involved has frozen the conflict to Russia’s advantage (Kalsto and Blakkisrud, 2008, p486) (Schumacher, 2016, p4). The threat of unleashing the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh ensures that neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan can move too independently in their foreign policy (Schumacher, 2016, p4).

In contrast the situation presented by the republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, align much more closely with Russian ambitions. With both states holding disputed elections for union with Russia during the early months of Georgian independence left their status disputed. Refusing to accept the legitimacy of Georgia, both regions struggled to maintain their standard of living and receive the products and services they needed.

Frustrated at the lack of progress with Tbilisi, Abkhazia formally declared independence in 1999 (Hewitt, 2009, p191). This along with South Ossetia’s self-declared independence created an issue where their porous borders were seeing Islamic fighters from the Middle East travel north to continue fighting in the Chechen conflict. To resolve these issues Russia began granting passports to the two quasi-states in 2001 (Hewitt, 2009, p191).

Now Russian passport holders, the status of the people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was on the verge of full citizenship. Russia would even begin to develop each nation’s infrastructure, integrating it as far as providing access to Russian cellular networks for Ossetian and Abkhazian residents (Konrad and Stiftung, 2007). Finally, the two republics acceded to the establishment of Russian bases on their soil; and Georgia noticeably disturbed by this development began negotiations with NATO (Hewitt, 2009, p193).

This prelude would bring us to the final and greatest development in the Caucuses during the 21st Century. In 2008 following a brief skirmish along the South Ossetian border, Russia launched a full scale invasion into the country. The quick and decisive war by Russia against its weaker neighbour dawned a new age of Russian foreign intervention, and entrenched Russian interests as dominant across the region.

While conquest of the Caucuses by Moscow may never again be established, it is the case that Russian interests are the driving force behind any significant geopolitical developments in the region. In a land where borders and divisions never existed outside of the Caucus cliffs, the tides of imperialism and geopolitics has seen a new era dawn; the establishment and domination of new countries to a multi-dimensional hierarchy; quasi-states, independent nations, and Russia.


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