The Caucasus – Beautiful, Complex, and Neglected – Why We Need to Pay More Attention:

The Caucasus is a region often forgotten, in both history and current foreign policy debates. Located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, it is neither distinctly European nor Asiatic in either culture or politics. With Russia to the north, Turkey to the west, and Iran to the south, one can imagine the political, cultural, and religious clashes that have occurred in the region over the centuries. The Persians, Ottomans, Russian Empire, and Soviet Union all fought and ruled over parts of the Caucasus at one point or another. It rests between the Black and Caspian Seas, and is home to the majestic Caucasus Mountains, including Europe’s highest mountain, Mount Elbrus. It is a mysterious place; a land as culturally and ethnically diverse as it is geographically.

Throughout the 20th century, the region was both geographically and politically isolated as part of the Soviet Union, and foreigners rarely traveled there. In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse the region has struggled to regain its strength, and has been subject to many regional conflicts; the Nagorno-Karabakh War, the Ossetian-Ingush Conflict, the War in Abkhazia, the First Chechen War, the Second Chechen War, and more recently the 2008 Russia-Georgia War. Moreover, in the southern Caucasus organised crime groups took advantage of the power vacuum and instability following the Soviet collapse. While the southern Caucasus is far more stable today than it was during the chaotic 1990’s, some of these organisations have endured and now operate internationally. Thus, it would be hard to argue that the Caucasus is a stable region, and given its relative isolation throughout the 20th century it is a territory that many of us have little experience with.

Today, the Caucasus generally refers to a northern area under Russian jurisdiction, and a southern area consisting of three sovereign and independent states; Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. It is located in a vital territory, yet many of us in the West are often guilty of ignoring it. This is somewhat understandable as the majority of the area only became accessible to the outside world around 20 years ago, but it would be a mistake to continue this trend of ignorance and neglect. When it was revealed that the Boston Marathon Bomber was of Chechen origin, many Americans immediately confused Chechnya with Czechoslovakia, which doesn’t exist any more. While this probably exposes a need for improved lessons in history and geography in American schools it is also a testament to the lack of attention given to the Caucasus region in general and its tumultuous history.

In August 2008, the Caucasus briefly captured the world’s attention as a result of a short conflict between Russia and Georgia over the now Russian occupied regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, also known as the Five-Day War. More recently, there has been concern over the region in relation to the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi. In December 2013, there were two suicide bombings within one day in the Russian city of Volgograd, killing 34 people. Volgograd is a city that many will likely have to travel through on their way from Moscow to Sochi, hence the heightened concerns over security in relation to the Olympics. Vilayat Dagestan, a subgroup of the Caucasus Emirate, which is based in the North Caucasus, has claimed responsibility for the attacks. The Caucasus Emirate has ties with Al Qaeda and has been designated a terrorist organisation by the Russian and United State governments. Thus, we have seen violence of varying character and degree in the area, even within the past decade.

The dispute over Abkhazia and South Ossetia is nothing new, but even recently in January 2014, the Georgian government has complained that Russia has moved its border 11 km further into Abkhazia. Abkhazia lies about 10 km from Sochi, where the 2014 Winter Olympics will be held in February. The Russian government has recently accused the Georgian government of supporting efforts by Northern Caucasian groups to disrupt the Olympics. The Georgian government objected to these accusations and pledged its full support and assistance in providing security at the Winter Olympics. This is obviously still a very relevant and contentious issue. In essence the Caucasus is a dynamic region with a complicated history that continues to have a palpable impact on the area and its peoples, but it would be dangerous to make generalisations about the region.

Hence, while the 2008 Russia-Georgia War was quite brief it has had a reverberating impact on Georgia and the surrounding region. Russian-Georgian relations remain tense, and the people of Georgia have certainly not forgotten the events of those dark days. The emotional nature of the war has continued to impact the common Georgian, and its physical effects are still visible in places that came under aerial attack by the Russian Air Force during the conflict, such as Gori, Stalin’s birthplace.

The causes of the Russia-Georgia War are complex and frequently debated. Many interpretations are riddled with bias and historical misunderstanding. From a Georgian perspective Abkhazia and South Ossetia belong within its territory. However, they perhaps imprudently invaded these, now Russian-occupied territories under the false impression that their allies would come to their aid. It would seem, however, that the United States, although active in Georgia would prefer to avoid an all-out war with Russia for very practical reasons. From a Russian perspective, they fought the war to protect the rights and liberties of Abkhazians and South Ossetians. From a more objective viewpoint, however, it would seem that Russia did not appreciate the encroachment on its borders and desired to send a message to its neighbours that it was still the most decidedly powerful entity in the region.

It should be noted that both Abkhazia and South Ossetia are ethnically and linguistically distinct from Russia and Georgia, and both desire independence not union with Georgia. Many in the international community have supported Georgia’s claims over the territories, but this is likely out of a desire to provoke Russia and reflects an ignorance of the history of the region. Today, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are occupied by Russian forces and closely monitored by the United Nations. However, it is worth noting that Russia recognises Abkhazia’s independence. If one were to venture too close to the borders on either the Russian or Georgian sides, they would likely be met by soldiers with their weapons at the ready. This is perhaps why Russia moved its security zone further into Abkhazia prior to the Olympics given its proximity to Sochi.

It is also notable that the US military has had a presence in Georgia for over a decade. In 2002 America began sending soldiers to Georgia to train the military under what is known as the Georgia Train and Equip Program, which was followed by the Georgia Sustainment and Stability Operations Program, a military training programs between the US and Georgia. Some of Georgia’s military has also been deployed to Afghanistan, and Georgia is now the largest non-NATO contributor to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. Throughout its history the Caucasus has been staging ground for wider disputes, and its peoples have been caught in the mix. It would seem that the United States views Georgia as a valuable ally given its geo-strategic location. By training the Georgian military, the United States has gained a friend in the midst of a tumultuous region between two of its greatest rivals, Russia and Iran. Georgia is very enthusiastic about this relationship and even named the road leading to the Tbilisi airport after President George W. Bush, given he was the first US President to visit the tiny but lively Eurasian nation.

While many Americans might have limited knowledge of Georgia and the region that surrounds it, their tax dollars are being spent there and the US is actively growing its military presence in that region. From a broader perspective, the Caucasus is a region is likely to witness violence as extremism continues to gain a foothold there particularly in areas such as Dagestan, which directly borders Georgia and Chechnya. Despite the unremittingly rocky diplomatic relations between the US and Russia, organisations like the Caucasus Emirate view them both as enemies. With the Winter Olympics in full swing it would be a perfect time for one to become more familiar with the Caucasus and its unique beauty and history.