Michael Totten

The Explosive Caucasus

Just as I’m ready to board a plane for Azerbaijan in the former Soviet Caucasus region, Russia invades South Ossetia in Georgia next door.
The Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy invited me to Baku for a week, and I figured I’d be heading to a region that hardly anyone would be paying attention to. That turned out to be wrong. I won’t be flying to the war, but I’m about to fly over it and will land right next to it.
The whole area is a big mess. Chechnya, of course, is the most notorious part of the Caucasus region, but all these countries are dysfunctionally wrapped up in each others’ business.
Azerbaijan has its own “South Ossetia.” The region known as Nagorno-Karabakh is a self-proclaimed independent republic carved out of the middle of Azerbaijan by the Armenian military and ethnically-cleansed of Azeris. No country on earth recognizes the sovereignty or legitimacy of “Nagorno-Karabakh”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nagorno-Karabakh except for Armenia.
Nagorno-Karabakh Map.JPG
The “Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nakhichevan is an Azeri-administered region that looks like it’s more or less inside Armenia. Armenians, naturally, claim it should be theirs, but Nakhchivan is at least internationally recognized as legitimate.
Azerbaijan-Nakhichevan.JPG
Meanwhile, most Azeris don’t even live in Azerbaijan. They live in Iran, where they make up 25 percent of Iran’s population. (Contrary to popular belief, Iran is only 51 percent Persian.) It sort of begs the question then: if you’re in the Azeri parts of Iran and therefore in the Middle East, shouldn’t the Azeri parts of Azerbaijan (which is to say, most of Azerbaijan) also be considered the Middle East?
Shirvanshakh Baku.jpg
Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan
Yet the top portion of Azerbaijan is technically inside Europe. And Azerbaijan is officially a Caucasus country rather than European or Middle Eastern, at least geographically speaking. It would be considered Middle Eastern if the Persians hadn’t lost it to the Russians 180 years ago, and it would still be “Russian” if it hadn’t broken away when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Azerbaijan belongs to that strange region where the sort-of West meets the sort-of East and is “another Balkan-style tinderbox with ethnic time bombs that tend to explode”:http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b0/Caucasus-ethnic_en.svg. Azerbaijan has lots of oil, too, so it matters to the rest of the world far more than its near absence in the media might suggest. It’s simultaneously being pulled toward Russia, the West, and the Islamic world. No one knows where it will end up, but Russia’s invasion of Georgia next door likely will be a big factor.
Stay tuned. I’ll be there in less than 48 hours.
UPDATE: If you want some solid background reading about the hell that broke loose in Georgia a few days ago, take a look at “this dispatch by Joshua Kucera from South Ossetia”:http://www.slate.com/id/2191588/entry/2191589/ that Slate published a few months ago. You’ll learn a lot more reading that than you will from wire agency reports that focus mostly on tank movements and body counts.
“See also Anne Applebaum”:http://www.slate.com/id/2197155/ in the same publication.
Post-script: The government of Azerbaijan is paying for this trip, so I don’t need money for travel expenses. But I’d still rather not work for free if I can help it. If a couple of dispatches from this strange part of the world are worth something to you, please consider a contribution and help make truly independent writing economically viable.
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