The Caucasus: cows and power

December 2008 – January 2009

I will always remember that cow. It stared at me, not a few feet away, contemplatively chewing. You can read anything and everything into a cow’s face, and what I read there was a simple question. ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ the cow asked. Then it wandered away.

It was a good question. But to start with, where was ‘here’? It was the null-city of Agdam. A hundred thousand people lived there once. Then came war, and the sacking. Now it is akin to a movie set. Grass shoots up from the cracked streets. Blocks and blocks of houses stand empty, roofs and doors ripped away to expose the original brick-work. Herds of cows and scrap merchants wander the streets. Our imagination dignifies us by populating our post-apocalyptic cities with the great beasts. In truth, Agdam tells us that the cows will succeed us.

Travellers are not allowed to visit it. To get there, you must first go to Nagorno-Karabakh, a Republic that no other country recognizes. The region was Armenian, until Stalin with a pen-stroke gave it to Azerbaijan. Then came the end of the Soviet Union, the region declared itself independent, and a war ensued between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenia won, but no peace has been signed, so Azerbaijan still claims the region, threatening to cut ties with anyone who says otherwise. Azerbaijan has oil, and Armenia is not quite as prickly, so no-one has granted it recognition and the region exists in a bizarre legal limbo.

Agdam stands on the front-line of the cease-fire, which is why it has never been rebuilt, and why it is technically forbidden to outsiders. Nevertheless a Special Forces officer I met on the way offered me a guided tour, and the first taxi driver I approached immediately agreed to take me. Once there, we pulled up to the mosque in the centre of town and I climbed its minaret. From the top I had a clear view to all the edges of the city, up to the large, not shattered, but hollow tower blocks in the distance, past street upon street of what were once houses and are now gravestones. This unknown city was killed in an unknown war, in a patch of land so insignificant no-one is bothered much about who it belongs to. As such, it is the larger cousin of the victims of anonymous crime, of all the unknown violence in the back streets and the quiet corners of the world.


Agdam is not the whole of war, though. As war is human, so our reactions to it will reflect our diversity. A family member dying will vary enormously in its affect on different people at different times. To some the damage is long-lasting, an initial wound that throbs for a long time. To others, it is sharper, but shorter, and begins to fade rapidly as the event is absorbed in memory. Societies, being collections of people, similarly respond to war in the variations of loss and recovery.

Consider Georgia, at war with Russia four months ago but where you would struggle to tell it if you had not read it. The only sign I saw was a refugee camp along the highway, with rows upon rows of prefabricated houses seemingly painted in whatever colour the contractors had that day (including a horrific pink). It is an ironic gesture in these times, to build an American suburb to house refugees.

Even the town of Gori shows almost no traces of the war, though its occupation by the Russians was the most serious escalation of the conflict. The town is just an hour’s drive from Georgia’s capital. Indeed, I distinctly recall a commentator saying, “the Russians will not dare to take Gori”. The next day Russian tanks were lined up at the bus stop.

The Russians left, when they felt like it. Gori though is a clue to much about that conflict. For a huge statue dominates the main square, a statue of the town’s favourite son, one Joseph Stalin, nee Djugashvili. He is a hero there. At Christmas time they put up a Santa next to his statue. The main avenue bears his name. He has a museum too, and it is there that much becomes clear. For side by side is the tiny room of his birth, and the private train carriage he took to Yalta, victor in the greatest of wars, and on which with his pen he could redraw the borders of Europe. The empire is gone but the borders remain. Local boy made good and all that.

Now look at this in reverse. Russia’s greatest twentieth century ruler, a man who extended her empire across all of Eastern Europe, was born in a little hovel in a small town in Georgia. The entire world considers him Russian. Then from that very town, from that very spot, the West told Russia six months ago, ‘you must withdraw’. It was theirs for nearly two centuries! Now it is turned, and Azerbaijan is mostly turned, and the Ukraine is turned, and Armenia and Central Asia are as often as not neutral. Try a simple exercise. Take a map of Russia in 1917 or so, and mark down the countries within those borders that have become Western allies. Now mark down the neutral countries.

The result should shock you. In particular, look at the Black Sea. It has been Russia’s goal since Catherine the Great. Now most of its shore belongs to countries the US has transformed into allies. The West has deployed enormous political and economic capital in Georgia and the Ukraine. To say, as much of the commentariat does, that “Russia views the area as its backyard” is false. It is its backyard.

Can you imagine then how hollow Western strictures about ‘international law’ and ‘avoiding power politics’ must sound to Russia? A man invades what you believe is your house, he is carrying a very large gun, and he says ‘well let’s not resort to violence here’. From within Russia they must feel under siege. Even the Crimea is turned! Tolstoy’s first novel was Sebastopol and now that port denies harbour to Russian ships. Our media calls it a ‘potential trouble spot’. Put yourself in their shoes and it is a humiliating crime.

What then is the US’ purpose? ‘Energy’ is too easy – and easily-rebutted – an answer. In truth, I don’t know the sources of American action in the Caucasus and ex-USSR. Is it guided from the top? Or implemented on the fly, by mid-level officials? Or a mix of both? No-one I met in the Caucasus knew, from Georgian foreign-policy advisers to NATO interns. They knew that the US foreign-service personnel they met were generally not very bright. They knew that the Georgian President, Saakashvilli, exerted a near-miraculous charm over Americans. That’s all.

None of this of course is meant to excuse the Russians. Assigning blame for a war is a childish exercise, and even if you were to do it, the Georgians themselves admit they started it. The Georgians themselves would certainly prefer American to Russian overlords, and being their size in their neighbourhood, ‘no overlord’ is not a realistic option. We should, though, stop the pretensions to such innocence. It is not only unconvincing, I think at the highest levels they may believe it too much, and end up making such colossal blunders as pushing for Georgia and the Ukraine to join NATO simultaneously.

So let’s stop the naïveté. We have won the Cold War and used its end to invade Russia. To good ends, yes, but sooner or later Russia was going to respond. Power does not play nice or listen much to reason. It seeks its own expansion, always, and finds the excuses it needs along the way. To ask it to do anything else is to exist in a dream-world. To complain of Russia using energy as a weapon is naïve and unfair. Russia has no other weapons except war. I’ll take a bit of cold over a bit of war.

These are the lessons of the Caucasus. It is a place where the play of power is laid bare – three small, mountainous countries strung between oil in Baku and the Black Sea in Georgia, surrounded by empires. The confrontations that result take every form, from the shouting matches of August 2008 to the tremendous destruction of Agdam. It is a place to observe power at work and to see how those caught in its changes may survive (and to remember those who do not). To see what the future may hold, and, perhaps, how to respond.

That, in a way, is my answer to the cow, not a very satisfactory one, but it’s what I have.


One Response to “The Caucasus: cows and power”

  1. Caucasus report-back added « Power and Security in Asia Says:

    […] report-back added By lukesjordan I have now uploaded my report back on a recent trip to the Caucasus, including Georgia, Armenia and […]

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