Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus

The new issue of the Times Literary Supplement has a fascinating, troubling review by Donald Rayfield of a new book on the history of the Caucasus. I think I nominate it, and the book, for most timely of the year. The Ghost of Freedom, by Charles King (OUP 2008).

[Western] romanticizing underlies attitudes to the new states of the southern Caucasus, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, where a hard-headed desire to have a route for oil and gas that cannot be cut off by Putin and Medvedev is glossed as an aspiration to encourage European Union-standard human rights and democracy. The discussion of Georgia’s emergence from “failed state” status under a tired Edvard Shevardnadze, mired in corruption, like the account of Azerbaijan under its dynasty of ex-KGB Alievs, and of an Armenia run by violent nationalists and thinly disguised Soviet-style Communists, is more than competent. One would wish only for a little more cynicism: Mikeil Saakashvili may have the suave exterior of a Columbia University lawyer, but there are a lot of questions not posed, let alone answered here. The initial connivance of the Russians at the Rose Revolution, which got rid of the Ajarian warlord Aslan Abashidze as well as of Shevardnadze, two figures particularly hated by Putin, is unmentioned, and the mysterious sequence of murders and unexplained deaths of Saakashvili’s rivals and opponents needs to be discussed as proof of the continuity of a specifically Caucasian way of politics.

In a book dealing with “the ghost of freedom” one would expect a more thorough exploration of the Caucasus’s little Kosovos, where ethnic groups such as the Abkhaz and South Ossetians try to break away from a newly independent Georgia only to find themselves international pariahs, whose only refuge is a return to the Russian embrace. Here Putin’s salami tactics for reincorporating lost Soviet territory meet with no adequate or even intelligent response by the principal victims, for instance the Georgians, or from the European Union and United States who have already tied themselves into knots over the former Yugoslavia, and can only wring their hands as they see Russia, with the help of its heavily armed “peacekeepers”, turning Abkhazia back into its own private recreation zone. King ends with a vague hope that Europe’s “inexorable march” towards liberal values can proceed in the Caucasus, but not much of the evidence supports him. For over a thousand years the Georgians and Armenians have appealed to Europe for support as fellow Christians, as Europeans by culture, if not by geography, and after being strung along by Crusaders, by Louis XIV, by various Popes, by Presidents Wilson, Roosevelt and both Bushes, can still not believe that the answer they get will always be a perfunctory apology that deeper interests of state force the West to take sides with its major trading partners, not its cultural and spiritual brothers. Ghost of freedom, indeed. Given the present crisis, as Russia backs Ossetia’s separatists with bombs and shells, our politicians’ vacillations and our diplomats’ complacency may not be remedied in time, even if a group of experts were hurriedly assembled to follow up Charles King’s reconnaissance and produce and analyse in full the history of the Caucasus.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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