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George Hewitt’s Review of: Coppieters, Bruno (ed.). Contested borders in the Caucasus

George Hewitt’s Review of: Coppieters, Bruno (ed.). Contested borders in the Caucasus. 205 pp. VUB Press, Brussels, 1996.

'CONFLICTING parties in the Transcaucasus invoke either the principle of the territorial integrity of states or the right to self-determination. It is in the interests of all the neighbouring countries to defend the primacy of the first principle over the second', and it is 'from the perspectives of state stability and interstate conflicts' that recent tragic events in the region are here 'analysed' -- thus the editor in his concluding remarks (pp. 200 & 193). And the articles collected in this volume from a variety of international commentators do indeed concentrate on the roles and interests of the major local states (Russia, Turkey, Iran) plus those well-known state-clubs, the UN and CSCE (now OSCE). Those already acquainted with the minutiae of the problems that exploded in the Caucasus with the collapse of the USSR will find here some fascinating insights and incontrovertible truths -- e.g. 'The issues of oil wealth in the Caspian Sea and the routing of pipelines [...] make the pacification of this region by international agreements more imperative, while [...] they increase destabilization by generating fierce international competition among those attempting to gain a foothold there' (Editor's Introduction, p. 9). But those seeking greater understanding of underlying causes should perhaps look elsewhere, and those who, like this reviewer, are more interested in peoples than states and how the multiplicity of ethnic groups resident in the Caucasus can find a mutually advantageous modus vivendi not only among themselves but with their larger neighbours will find this fundamental question unaddressed.

Paye and Remacle (p. 111) highlight the UN's defiance of its own Charter by admitting Armenia and Azerbaijan (2nd March 1992) despite their war over Nagorno-Karabagh, and Georgia (31st July 1992) despite ongoing civil disturbance, harbinging the collective international betrayal of civilised standards in the face of Shevardnadze's blood-letting in Abkhazia (invaded a mere fortnight after Georgia's UN membership) and Yeltsin's subsequent massacres in Chechenia -- all for the greater glory of Georgian and Russian territorial integrity.

The book deals mainly with Karabagh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, contributions evidently ante-dating the Chechen war, though translator A. Zverev's regional survey also incorporates Ossetian-Ingush animosity. Of the parties directly involved in these conflicts space is found for a spokesman from only one, namely (mirabile dictu!) Georgia. G. Nodia's paper is often disingenuous: to suggest that Gamsakhurdia was alone of the radicals to inflame the ethnic minorities (p. 77) conveniently ignores the extent to which ALL such leaders openly attacked 'guests on Georgian soil' throughout 1989; the claim (pp. 82-83) that Ossetian and Abkhazian leaders were motivated by statements from only 'some Georgian politicians' before the independence movement could act against them forgets that Abkhazians had regularly voiced their opposition in the 50s, 60s and 70s (as observed by Zverev) to their status within Georgia and conceals that greatest of stains on Georgia's body-politic -- that NO leading figure has ever spoken out against the anti-minority hysteria fanned from the late 80s.

Certain things are too easily taken for granted, such as this ridiculous assertion from D. Danilov: 'The Northern Caucasus is actually an inalienable part of Russian territory' (p. 137)! But it is Zverev's commendably ambitious chapter where most slips or questionable assertions seem to congregate: though often stated, 'Apsny' (Abkhaz for Abkhazia) cannot be etymologized as 'country of the soul'; christianity was established in Abkhazia by Justinian not 19th century Russia -- apostles Andrew and Simon the Canaanite had been active there earlier; the superficial assessment of the history of Abkhazo-Kartvelian relations needs rebuttal; Abkhazia's National Guard included non-Abkhazians; 'allegedly' is missing from claims about Lominadze and hostage-secretion on p. 48; the planting of over 100,000 mines by Abkhazian forces proves NOT 'the extent of Russian help' (a widespread misconception) but the ease with which Russian weaponry could/can be acquired for suitable payment; no-one has ever proved that mercenaries operated in the Abkhazian alliance; to this day Abkhazia has not declared independence, etc... Welcome, however, is the figure of 160,000 refugees from Abkhazia in Georgia,  much more realistic than the cruder exaggerations of Georgian propaganda.

Corrigenda: p.11 l.4: inter-ethnic; p.43 l.11: autochthonous; p.59 l.14: (?)oversaw the removal; p.69 l.15: for 'The letter was completely disproved afterwards' read 'An attempt was later made to refute the letter's main arguments'; p.107 l.9: blockade; p.140 l.23: extend the mandate; p.154 l.10: rooted in that; p.181 l.13: exaggerated; p.184 l.20up: negotiator; p.189 l.17: excluding; p.195 l.3up: heterogeneous; p.196 l.10up: succeeded great.

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