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I have known Tom de Waal for many years, going back to my own intense Caucasus engagement in 2003-06 and again in 2012. He is lambasted by Armenian activists for being too pro-Azeri, and by Azerbaijani activists for being too Armenian, and by all sides in Georgia for favouring their opponents. I think he is generally right. I had been looking forward to this book for ages and attended its Brussels launch in 2019; my memory is that we went for a very nice dinner afterwards.

To get the obvious point out of the way, unfortunately one of the core sections of the book now needs to be updated after the Nagorno-Karabakh war of late 2020. This occasioned one of the few points of disagreement between us, and I actually wrote to de Waal to say that I thought the “both-sides” narrative which was prevalent in the early weeks of the 2020 conflict was obscuring the important fact that Azerbaijan was winning.

But I don’t think he can be faulted for not seeing precisely into the future when writing the book. In any case, he, and I, and many others, had been warning of the likelihood of a bloody denouement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for many years (here’s me and Damien Helly in 2004, and me and Sabine Freizer in Russian in 2006). In 2004 the Prime Minister of Azerbaijan told me to my face that they were saving up their profits from fossil fuels in order to upgrade their armed forces to drive Armenia out of their territory by force, and if he was saying that to me, he was saying it to a lot of other people. This was not a difficult war to predict.

So, could the conflicts in the region have been averted or mitigated? I get the gloomy feeling from de Waal’s narrative that the forces of political gravity generally favoured violent conflict. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought hard-line nationalists to power in all three countries, and eliminated the political habits and institutions that might have channeled the energy of disagreement away from the precipice of war. I found his analysis of the 2008 South Ossetia conflict particularly interesting, as it happened after my first round of Caucasus engagement. His view (in crude summary) is that Saakashvili decided to pick a fight quite early on, and the Russians decided to give it to him.

It’s fair to say that international engagement with the conflict has often been less than vigorous. It seemed to me grimly appropriate that the OSCE mechanism to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, co-chaired by the USA, Russia and France, was named after a conference that never actually took place. But I know individual officials who have made great efforts, and in any case it’s easy to think of better-known conflicts where huge investment of time and energy in international mediation has failed to pay off.

Anyway, recent developments aside, de Waal’s book is a warmly engaging look at the three South Caucasus countries – Georgia (including South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Adjara), Armenia and Azerbaijan (including Nagorno-Karabakh) – in their historical context between Russia, Turkey and Iran, with the Russia relationship being the most important for all three cases. (Though other powers got involved too – Azerbaijan was briefly a British protectorate, with democratic elections, women’s suffrage and proportional representation in 1918-1920.) He concentrates on the political history, but also explores the rich literature of all of the region, and touches on the cuisine as well (I personally love Georgian cooking). He argues that the important regional context has been lost, with the independence of the three states inevitably making them look inwards rather than at their neighbours. It’s a good and informative read.
nwhyte | 3 andre anmeldelser | Dec 26, 2022 |
Review of: The Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas De Waal
by Stan Prager (6-8-21)

Some would argue that the precise moment that marked the beginning of the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union was February 20, 1988, when the regional soviet governing the Nagorno-Karabakh Oblast—an autonomous region of mostly ethnic Armenians within the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan—voted to redraw the maps and attach Nagorno-Karabakh to the Soviet Republic of Armenia. Thus began a long, bloody, and yet unresolved conflict in the Caucasus that has ravaged once proud cities and claimed many thousands of lives of combatants and civilians alike. The U.S.S.R. went out of business on December 25, 1991, about midway through what has been dubbed the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, which ended on May 12, 1994, an Armenian victory that established de facto—if internationally unrecognized—independence for the Republic of Artsakh (also known as the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic), but left much unsettled. Smoldering grievances that remained would come to spark future hostilities.
That day came last fall, when the long uneasy stalemate ended suddenly with an Azerbaijani offensive in the short-lived 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War that had ruinous consequences for the Armenian side. Few Americans have ever heard of Nagorno-Karabakh, but I was far better informed because when the war broke out I happened to be reading The Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas De Waal, a well-written, insightful, and—as it turns out—powerfully relevant book that in its careful analysis of this particular region raises troubling questions about human behavior in similar socio-political environments elsewhere.
What is the Caucasus? A region best described as a corridor between the Black Sea on one side and the Caspian Sea on the other, with boundaries at the south on Turkey and Iran, and at the north by Russia and the Greater Caucasus mountain range that has long been seen as the natural border between Eastern Europe and Western Asia. Above those mountains in southern Russia is what is commonly referred to as the North Caucasus, which includes Dagestan and Chechnya. Beneath them lies Transcaucasia, comprised of the three tiny nations of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, whose modern history began with the collapse of the Soviet Union and are the focus of De Waal’s fascinating study. The history of the Caucasus is the story of peoples dominated by the great powers beyond their borders, and despite independence this remains true to this day: Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 to support separatist enclaves in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in the first European war of the twenty-first century; Turkey provided military support to Azerbaijan in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War.
At this point, some readers of this review will pause, intimidated by exotic place names in an unfamiliar geography. Fortunately, De Waal makes that part easy with a series of outstanding maps that puts the past and the present into appropriate context. At the same time, the author eases our journey through an often-uncertain terrain by applying a talented pen to a dense, but highly readable narrative that assumes no prior knowledge of the Caucasus. At first glance, this work has the look and feel of a textbook of sorts, but because De Waal has such a fine-tuned sense of the lands and the peoples he chronicles, there are times when the reader feels as if a skilled travel writer was escorting them through history and then delivering them to the brink of tomorrow. Throughout, breakout boxes lend a captivating sense of intimacy to places and events that after all host human beings who like their counterparts in other troubled regions live, laugh, and sometimes tragically perish because of their proximity to armed conflict that typically has little to do with them personally.
De Waal proves himself a strong researcher, as well as an excellent observer highly gifted with an analytical acumen that not only carefully scrutinizes the complexity of a region bordered by potentially menacing great powers, and pregnant with territorial disputes, historic enmities, and religious division, but identifies the tolerance and common ground in shared cultures enjoyed by its ordinary inhabitants if left to their own devices. More than once, the author bemoans the division driven by elites on all sides of competing causes that have swept up the common folk who have lived peacefully side-by-side for generations, igniting passions that led to brutality and even massacre. This is a tragic tale we have seen replayed elsewhere, with escalation to genocide among former neighbors in what was once Yugoslavia, for instance, and also in Rwanda. For all the bloodletting, it has not risen to that level in the Caucasus, but unfortunately spots like Nagorno-Karabakh have all the ingredients for some future catastrophe if wiser heads do not prevail.
I picked up this book quite randomly last summer en route from a Vermont Airbnb in my first visit to a brick-and-mortar bookstore since the start of the pandemic. A rare positive from quarantine has been a good deal of time to read and reflect. I am grateful that The Caucasus: An Introduction was in the fat stack of books that I consumed in that period. Place names and details are certain to fade, but I will long remember the greater themes De Waal explored here. If you are curious about the world, I would definitely recommend this book to you.

Garp83 | 3 andre anmeldelser | Jun 8, 2021 |
The author intends this book to provide an introduction to the events surrounding and subsequent to the massacre of 1.8 million Armenians during World War I, known as the first genocide of the 20th century and which the author calls the “Great Catastrophe” in an English translation of the traditional Armenian name for these disasters, Medz Yeghern. The book traces the events surrounding the Great Catastrophe as it begins in 1915 and then the subsequent developments until 2015. As suggested by the subtitle, the author is concerned with the efforts of both the Armenians and the Turks to come to grips (or not) with these events. One of the subtexts of the book is that the failure to reach a resolution of these overarching issues has been an impediment to more modest but beneficial steps, such as opening the border between Turkey and independent Armenia in recent decades. In addition, the book traces the history of Soviet Armenia, the growth of the Armenian diaspora in the 20th century and its internal conflicts associated primarily with differing attitudes towards the Soviet Union, the renewed focus on Turkey and the Armenian genocide in the 1970s and the emergence of an independent Armenia in 1991 and its conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabagh.

The author is fair-minded and scrupulous in laying out the relevant developments and perspectives from 1915 to 2015. The result is an insightful and interesting and, this reader believes, an objective and reliable introduction to this 100-years of Armenian history.
drsabs | Oct 14, 2020 |
The more scholarly introduction to the area is aptly called “The Caucasus: an Introduction” (2019), written by Thomas de Waal. Unlike many introductions, this book is less than 300 pages thick, and covers the main issues about the area thematically – so by skipping a chapter, you can skip the energy issues, for example, or the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. The first few chapters cover the history until Persian and Ottoman domination, then the Russians and then the Soviets; after this, individual countries and their conflicts are being discussed. Mr de Waal is eminently well-placed to explain all this, which he does with – for me – just the right amount of detail, although occasionally he jumps backwards and forth a little too often. Nevertheless, this is the book to read before embarking on a trip to the Caucasus, or just to understand the many conflicts and their sometimes unexpected historical context, something often lost in the occasional newspaper articles on breakaway Abkazia or South Ossetia.½
theonearmedcrab | 3 andre anmeldelser | Dec 17, 2019 |
The dispute over Nagorno Karabakh is a complicated issue between Armenia and Azerbaijan. What de Waal has done here is present a neutral account of the war, without favouring either side, a rarity in conflicts like this. He presents clear facts for both sides, while stressing the humanitarian issues at stake, namely the hundreds of thousands of refugees on both sides who are victims of the decades long conflict. Its a great read, and is quite detailed in explaining the origins of the conflict, possibly the best English-language source on the subject.
kaiser_matias | 1 anden anmeldelse | Jul 7, 2014 |
Excellent overview of the current political situation in the Caucasus proper (Armenia, Azerbaidzan and - especially - Georgia). Although the author stresses that there is no new "Great Game" going on in that region, the jostling for geopolitical power between Russia, the West and Iran is impressive, compounded by the plentiful supplies of oil and gas that could stream to the West without Russian control. I'll be holding on to this book, because I'm sure I'll be looking things up as things in that region inevitably heat up again in the future.
fist | 3 andre anmeldelser | Jul 20, 2013 |

This is a really good book. Even if you don't have a professional interest in the Nagorno-Karabakh question (and let's face it, not a lot of people do), I think the studies of how a historical dispute over a very small patch of land destroyed two countries and helped to destroy the Soviet Union are of worldwide, human interest. The narrative of the conflict is interspersed with either interviews with today's survivors or historical reflections on how we got there.

The first few chapters are also particularly interesting because of the light they throw on Gorbachev, especially from research in the Politburo archives. In a week when we have all been debating the extent to which Ronald Reagan deserves any credit at all, I found this September 1988 exchange between the General Secretary and the hapless official in charge of preventing the conflict illustrative of the fantasy world in which the leadership of the other superpower lived:

[Gorbachev] rang and said:"... Tell them that if they don't stop this, we will expel them from the Party!" I said, "Mikhail Sergeyevich, they've already trampled on their party cards. The members of the committee are all the organisers of these demonstrations!... What Party methods are you talking about?"

Two years later, of course, the Soviet Union suddenly collapsed completely. This was one of the few warning signs. (Also the August 1990 coup attempt in Moscow had a direct effect on the outcome of the war.)

The interesting human story is what happens to people who used to live in a society that has been destroyed. The chapters about the massacre in Sumgait in early 1988, and about the children of Azerbaijan's 750,000 refugees, are particularly vivid.
nwhyte | 1 anden anmeldelse | Jan 6, 2007 |
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