When the names and ethnic backgrounds of the two Boston Marathon bombing suspects were released on Friday, 19 April 2013, rumors immediately began flying over Chechnya, its people, and its role in the world. In order to provide some deeper perspective on the region after the fall of the Soviet Union, we present this brief extract from Thomas de Waal’s The Caucasus: An Introduction.
The Soviet legacy is stronger than it seems in the South Caucasus. Many things that people take for granted are a product of the Soviet Union. They include urban lifestyles, mass literacy, and strong secularism. All three countries still live with an authoritarian political culture in which most people expect that the boss or leader will take decisions on their behalf and that civic activism will have no effect. The media is stronger on polemic than fact-based argument. The economies are based on the patron-client networks that formed in Soviet times. Nostalgia for the more innocent times of the 1960s and 1970s still pervades films, books, and Internet debates. An engaging website of the former pupils who attended Class B in School No. 14 in Sukhumi in the early 1980s gathers the reminiscences of people now living in Abkhazia, Tbilisi, Moscow, Siberia, Israel, Ukraine, Israel, and Greece. The sepia photos of the children in red cravats suggest a multiethnic past in a closed world that has gone forever.
Different perceptions of the Soviet past also confuse the already complex relationship between the three newly independent countries and Russia. The end of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant the decoupling of Russia and the South Caucasus after an enforced union that had lasted two hundred years with one small interruption. The rupture was somewhat better managed than in 1918, but independence was again a traumatic experience. Two vital elements of statehood—economic planning and security—had been steered by Moscow, and it took the three republics at least a decade to reconstruct a functioning economy and law enforcement agencies.
In 1991, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia understandably based their legitimacy on the fact that they had been illegally annexed by the Bolsheviks and had the right to recover their independence. Georgia even readopted its 1921 Constitution. However, the Soviet Union had been not so much a Russian project as a multinational hybrid state with a strong Russian flavor. Besides, in 1991 Russia itself became a newly independent state, which raises the question what exactly the three new states in the South Caucasus were becoming independent from. On occasion, the new Russia would provide an answer, especially for Georgians, by behaving in a menacing, neoimperial fashion, but even Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a long way from being the heir to that of Stalin and Alexander I. The Russian Federation is still in the process of constructing a new post-Soviet identity for itself and deciding whether it is the direct heir of the Soviet Union, has been liberated from its captivity, or, in some undefined way, both.
Where Russia goes in its search for a new identity has a strong bearing on its relationship with its neighbors in the South Caucasus. No models from the past are useful: Russia has never had fully independent neighbors before. In 1992, the Russian government coined the phrase “near abroad” as a catchall term for the newly foreign status of the post-Soviet states. The phrase made sense to Russians, but to the other states it was faintly menacing, implying a less than full endorsement of their independence. Russians across the political spectrum have implied as much. In 1992, Andrei Kozyrev, Boris Yeltsin’s supposedly liberal foreign minister, visited Tbilisi; one of his Georgian hosts complained later that Kozyrev had stopped patronizingly outside the front door of the new foreign ministry and said, “So, you’ve already put a sign up.” This kind of attitude exudes an overbearing familiarity that grates on the Georgians. Consider also the fact that the three men who succeeded Kozyrev as Russian foreign minister all had connections with Tbilisi: Yevgeny Primakov grew up in the city, Igor Ivanov had a Georgian mother, and Sergei Lavrov’s father was a Tbilisi Armenian.
Current Russian policy is still overreliant on “hard power” in the South Caucasus. In the age of Putin and Medvedev, it employs as instruments its presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, its military alliance with Armenia, and its gas pipelines to all three countries. Moscow’s use of these tools and aggressive behavior in 2008 summon up some unwelcome ghosts from the past. But the paradoxical result, as in the Soviet era, is that Armenian and Azerbaijani (but no longer Georgian) leaders dutifully visit Moscow to pledge the importance of their alliance but simultaneously work to counterbalance the Russian influence and build up relationships with other international players, such as the European Union and NATO.
Russia has inherited abundant resources of “soft power” in the Caucasus that Europeans or Americans could only dream of, yet it conspicuously fails to use them. As many as two million Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Georgians are working in Russia and sending remittances home—but they are generally regarded as marginal migrant workers rather than a friendly resource. There is also the Russian language, which is still widely spoken and was the lingua franca of the region for at least a century but is in rapid decline, in large part because the Russian government is doing almost nothing to support it. University libraries in Baku, Tbilisi, and Yerevan are full of Russian-language books that a younger generation of students cannot read. In 2002, the director of the cash-strapped public library in Tbilisi said he had received donations of books from all the foreign embassies in the city—except the Russian embassy. As a result of actions like these, the good achievements of the Soviet era are gathering dust, while the Russian imperial legacy looms larger over the region.
Thomas de Waal is a Senior Associate on the Caucasus at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of The Caucasus: An Introduction, Black Garden, and co-author with Carlotta Gall of Chechnya.