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The South Caucasus: Nationalism, Conflict, and Minorities

By Anna Matveeva 2002 Minority Rights Group 2002 ISBN 1-85383-952-3

Aiming to “[shed] light on a region which is under-reported and little understood,” Anna Matveeva offers a coherent and insightful look at the current political status of the South Caucasus and what its effect on “small-numbered” peoples has been since the 1991 independence of the former Soviet republics. Specifically, in The South Caucasus: Nationalism, Conflict, and Minorities, she describes in detail the conditions for majority and minority populations, with the laudable goal of encouraging them to work together to overcome their differences. That challenge is overwhelming. Yet Matveeva—currently a program manager at the arms and security program of the international non-governmental organization (NGO) Safeworld—has extensive research and policy experience, including that as head of International Alert’s Eurasia program. If it is her mission to bring the troubles of the Caucasus and its minority peoples to a wider audience, she has succeeded.


Matveeva expertly details the problems affecting minority rights on the southern side of the Caucasus mountain range. Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, independent for just over a decade, are still less visited and less understood than many other former Soviet republics. But researchers interested in minority issues owe it to themselves to become familiar with the region, and not merely as a flashpoint for violent ethnic conflicts. Because the populations of each state are small—Armenia’s population is 3.3 million, Georgia’s is roughly 5 million, and Azerbaijan’s is about 8 million—even the majority peoples may feel somewhat threatened by marginalization in relation to neighboring Russia, Iran, and Turkey, all of which have influence and economic interests in the Caucasus. The contained cultural differences among peoples of the Caucasus reward scrutiny.


Violent and simmering conflicts, all too common to the region, have probably prevented much field research by Westerners. Despite several separate forced population movements and widespread but little-observed suffering, these conflicts have been mostly ignored by the international community. Several horribly destructive small wars—Matveeva aptly labels them “frozen conflicts”—not only persist but threaten at any moment to explode into larger wars. Three of these have been particularly destructive in terms of deaths and displacement. The breakaway republic of Abkhazia is still in limbo between Georgia, Russia, and some form of autonomy. Nagorno-Karabakh, where hundreds of thousands lost their lives in the 1990’s hot war, remains in stalemate, its status unclear and its future a massive issue in the corrupt electoral politics of both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Georgia’s South Ossetia made headlines in 2002 when U.S. troops were sent to hunt for Al Qaeda in a mountainous region that is practically lawless. A fourth well-reported conflict, the still-smoldering Russian/Chechen war, occurs in the North Caucasus and thus is not explored in Matveeva’s report. Chechnya factors into any question involving Caucasus peoples, but is only the most visible of several tragic Caucasus conflicts with no end in sight.


Conflict has long defined the Caucasus for outside observers, too many of whom appear ready to accept the idea that traditionally strong, recently “reinforced and entrenched” ethnic affiliations across the region cannot be overcome or must entirely describe these complex states. The primary common attribute across the region today is severe and endemic poverty. While the broader South Caucasus societies have suffered economic hardship and displacement nearly in silence, Matveeva writes, “minorities in particular have lost out, with the poverty they experience compounded by isolation and often fear.” In Armenia, where 98 percent of the population identifies with Armenian ethnicity, “the minority question is essentially ignored.” Georgia ignores its minorities another way, since it does not control all of its territory. The chronically corrupt authoritarian oil state of Azerbaijan, whose international usefulness was underscored after September 11, 2001, when it agreed to unprecedented cooperation with the U.S. military, allows little dissent or even input from any nonconforming party, NGO, or ethnic group. Thus, its minority Lezgin people, numbering over a quarter million, have seen their demands for political representation find no legal outlets. Dialogue by the wider society may sometimes attribute problems to Russian influence, but Matveeva clearly displays the complexity of this fragmented region, where many other factors play a role.


It would be convenient for Russia if all parties declared truces and assisted the newly capitalist nation’s burgeoning trade practices, especially its dramatically increased natural resource exploitation. But Matveeva demonstrates how any simplistic regionwide strategy would be doomed to failure: “Regional integration and overlapping sovereignties are sometimes presented as a way out of the maze of interethnic troubles. Inside the Caucasus these notions do not find much resonance. Both leaderships and ordinary people among the majorities have invested so heavily in state-building projects that the idea of giving them up seems like sacrilege. Moreover, these societies have become more inward-looking, too preoccupied with their own troubles to take any interest in the plight of their neighbors.”


South Caucaus minorities are deeply threatened, and in fact are far more isolated than they were 10 to 15 years ago. In Georgia, for example, Russification in Soviet times imposed language and culture on what might be seen as a minority itself—the majority Georgians. But some minorities within Georgia—such as Ossetians, Kists, Ajarians, and Meskhetians—today not only lack proficiency in Georgian language but have little access to Russian language resources, which no longer receive state support. Geographically isolated villages peopled by minorities unable to understand Georgian television and radio and who barely receive Russian radio broadcasts can be cut off from the world and information about it, not to mention local Georgian-language education and judicial systems. “This contributes,” Matveeva writes, “to the sense that the minorities’ inclusion with the boundaries of the Georgian state is an accident of history.”


A short section of the report that covers oil and aid introduces but fails to detail a massive topic that will continue to play an enormous role in the fate of the larger societies. The fiercely independent Caucasus countries, whose fortunes are so intertwined with one other, demand international efforts to foster peace and harmony. Yet international efforts have few successes to show for their time and resources. Matveeva’s recommendations—such as working on a culture of tolerance, finding measures to address “severely deteriorating” Armenian-Georgian relations—are well thought-out and compelling, if vague and perhaps lacking pragmatism. But what solutions present themselves in a region so fragmented, vulnerable, and impoverished?


Anthropologists and students interested in the Caucasus will find in Matveeva’s work a clear, well-organized presentation of what groups of minorities face in this underreported region. The report serves as a detailed primer on the underlying issues, chafing points, and possible means for improving minority conditions. Wisely, Matveeva notes that “outside commentators and policy-makers tend to over-emphasize the similarities between the three Caucasian states.” This publication details the differences and serves as an excellent, thorough introduction to South Caucasus minority issues that deserve broader international attention.


John P. Deever is the publication programs officer for the Initiative for Social Action and Renewal in Eurasia.

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