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Global Security Watch: The Caucasus States

Global Security Watch: The Caucasus States by  Houman A. Sadri (Praeger; California, 2010). 270 pages. $49.95. ISBN: 0-31337-980-7

Twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, and nearly three since the war between Russia and Georgia brought the region onto the world’s TV screens, the Caucasus remains understudied and misunderstood. Too often it is written off as an incomprehensible tangle of pipelines and ancient ethnic feuds, a region of stereotypes.

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Alex Jackson is an independent writer on political and security issues in Eurasia. Until March 2011 he served as the Senior Editor of the Caucasian Review of International Affairs, an online journal dedicated to the Caspian region. He has written and spoken widely on regional issues, and currently conducts research and analysis for a number of consultancies and think-tanks. He can be contacted at ajackson320@gmail.com


Books which shed light on the realities of the region – complex but vital, the product of centuries of rich intersection between civilizations and cultures – are therefore essential to promoting a wider understanding of the region. Given the conflicts and tensions which permeate the Caucasus, works which clearly unravel its security dilemmas are especially welcome. In this regard Houman Sadri, Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Central Florida, has produced a valuable contribution.

Global Security Watch – The Caucasus States is part of a series by Praeger which seeks to provide clear and readable summaries of security issues facing key countries and regions. Professor Sadri’s contribution begins with a summary of the Caucasus’s history and the current situation, focusing on the role that regional and global actors play in shaping security issues for the three states, before moving on to assessments of each country’s specific concerns, and ending with an all-too-brief recap. The body of the work is followed by several appendices: biographies of key figures in all three states, national chronologies, and important documents including the constitutions of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

The summary sections promise a framing of the book around two contentious concepts: Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ (which assumes that cultural/religious identities will drive conflict in the modern era) and the amorphous idea of a ‘new Cold War’ (a new period of rivalry between the West and Russia after the relative thaw of the 1990s). The author uses a matrix to map the relationships (positive/negative/neutral) between different regional states and whether – in Huntington’s framework – this relationship is ‘expected’ or ‘unexpected’.

This is in principle an innovative way to assess the relationships between regional powers. However the system risks oversimplifying the complexities of Caucasus politics – for instance, ties between Armenia and Georgia are denoted ‘neutral’ on the basis that Georgia is engaged more closely with Azerbaijan more than Armenia. This is internally illogical, since Georgia is classified as having ‘positive’ ties with Iran despite a lack of close strategic relationships.

To an extent, criticising Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations in the Caucasus is shooting fish in a barrel. The region has always been one where cultures fused and the expected boundaries of culture, religion, language and ethnicity are porous. Consider the Ossetians – Orthodox Christians descended from Iranians, who were integrated into Georgia but with strong ties to Russia – or the streets in Iran named after Armenian martyrs in the war with Iraq. The story of the Caucasus is enough to invalidate the Clash of Civilizations theory on its face.

Huntington’s argument could also have been referenced more throughout the work itself: as it stands the only solid reason for its dismissal (at the very end of the book) is the fact that the aggregate ‘unexpected’ results of regional relationships outweigh the ‘expected’ results. Huntington could have been ignored or demolished more effectively.

The author occasionally risks an attitude which is in line with the very ‘Clash of Civilisations’ theory which he dismisses. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is repeatedly couched in religious terms – “Religious conflict between Armenians and the Azeri Turks had persisted since Islam was brought to the Caucasus” (p33), for instance. This is true up to a point but does not account for the intermarriages, friendships, and peaceful cohabitation that were the reality for most people, most of the time. The bouts of ethnic violence which began to scar the two peoples in the twentieth century were so shocking partly because they were so unexpected.

Professor Sadri is much closer to the mark when he mentions the mass influx of Armenians from Azerbaijan into modern Armenia’s borders. Demography was a far more powerful tool than religion in the hands of nationalists, and the Nagorno-Karabakh war was almost never seen in confessional terms outside of fringe groups on both sides: the atheism of the USSR had seen to that.

Indeed there are two main criticisms which can be levelled at the section on Nagorno-Karabakh, even aside from the Huntingtonian conceit that it was an “inevitable conflict”. Firstly, the Karabakh Armenians did not attempt to join Armenia as the USSR crumbled: in fact their request to Moscow was one of the first indications that the Soviet edifice was crumbling, and the mounting unrest in the South Caucasus was a key factor in the eventual breakup of the Union, rather than vice versa.

Secondly, the reality of the massive population displacements is often undersold. When discussing Azerbaijan, Professor Sadri writes that in late 1989, tens of thousands of Armenians and Azeris “abandoned their homes in disputed areas”. This was not for the most part a decision to leave, as the chapter on Armenia makes clearer – it was a brutal expulsion under pressure, with savage pogroms on both sides. For want of a better term, it was ethnic cleansing. And the areas which they left were often not disputed, they were deep within the respective Soviet Republics.

The Karabakh issue underlines the fact that the biggest challenge facing any author seeking to concisely encapsulate the Caucasus is its sheer complexity. It provides a convincing illustration that convenient academic categories – security, politics, culture – are inextricably linked and cannot be understood in isolation. The very best books on the region, such as Thomas De Waal’s The Caucasus: An Introduction (also from 2010) do not seek to distinguish between disciplines.

So although the book’s focus on security is inevitable, given the series it is part of, it does limit the picture which the author paints. The role of historical memory is given short shrift, with the fighting between Georgians and Ossetians in 1920 summarised simply as a “warning” of what Georgia’s ethnic mosaic would bring after the fall of the USSR.

In truth the historical memories of this brief round of ethnic bloodletting were a prominent factor in the narratives in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Historical ethnic conflicts in the Caucasus are not simply signposts to future ones, they are in essence shortcuts, which grow more worn and more accessible with each journey. New rivalries provoke parallels to older and bloodier conflicts, inflaming tensions on all sides and encouraging narratives of victimhood and historical suffering. The conflation of the massacres of 1915 and the Karabakh conflict with (Turkic) Azerbaijan by many Armenians is a case in point.

However, Professor Sadri sometimes gives the impression that in both Georgia and Karabakh ethnic heterogeneity made conflict inevitable. Not only does this carry unfortunate echoes of Robert Kaplan’s “ancient hatreds” analysis of the conflicts in the Balkans, it also veers close to the “Clash of Civilizations” thesis that the author has set out to disprove.

However this book is certainly not without its merits. Aside from the contentious issues above, Professor Sadri knows the topic well and the book’s broad sweep allows for an insightful general overview. The raw security dynamics of the Caucasus – the triangular relationships between Iran, Armenia and Russia, and Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey – are expounded clearly and succinctly.

There is also a wealth of charts and data on regional economies and defence spending. The quantity of information, for instance on export/import patterns, could seem overwhelming and unsorted but Professor Sadri works through it clearly and methodically, highlighting the links between trade patterns and geopolitical orientation. Much of the latter part of the book is taken up by appendices giving potted biographies of key political players as well as the constitutions of all three states. These are helpful, although the book’s focus on security and geopolitics means that they do not feature in the narrative as much as they could.

Nonetheless few volumes contain so much primary information on domestic politics, economics, and regional defence spending. This underlines the book’s greatest strength, as an easily accessible and concise overview of Caucasian security.

Somewhat detracting from this is the obvious need for a better editor. Some factual misrepresentations could have been more thoroughly checked or reworked, such as the statement that “the EU structure did not officially emerge until 1993”. Stylistic infelicities, like references to “the North Ossetia” or “the known Nabucco project” are also scattered throughout the text: the most concerning of all is a subtitle which reads “North Atlantic Trade Organization”. All of these could have been easily picked up by a better editor, which hopefully is something which will be addressed in subsequent editions.

  • February 7, 2021