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The Post-Soviet Wars: Rebellion, Ethnic Conflict, and Nationhood in the Caucasus Review


If there is a place in the world which seems like the Balkans of a century ago, a powder keg of small competing states and ethnic groups with seemingly immemorial ethnic conflicts, backed by different foreign powers, mountainous, and emerging amid the break up of empires - then it is the Caucasus region. In the 1990s, it transfixed the world with a succession of wars, most famously the Chechen Wars, fought following the breakup of the Soviet Union - the most violent part of the collapse of the USSR, an event which happened mostly peacefully elsewhere. These relatively small wars were nevertheless highly influential for the future of states in the region, and the defeat of Russia by tiny mountainous Chechnya transfixed the world. The wars raise important questions for interpreting why wars break out, and why they don't, how they are impacted by geography, political structures relating to their evolution, and how different power groups and interests press for conflict or avoid it. These are at the heart of The Post-Soviet Wars: Rebellion, Ethnic Conflict, and Nationhood in the Caucasus, by Christoph Zürcher, which above all else is intended to be an academic and scholarly study of the region and its wars during the decline, fall, and chaos of the Soviet Union's collapse.

The mighty mountains of the Caucasus are one of the key factors which the book attempts to explore, to see if there is a link between the mountainous terrain and the outbreak of violence in the region.

The mighty mountains of the Caucasus are one of the key factors which the book attempts to explore, to see if there is a link between the mountainous terrain and the outbreak of violence in the region.

Zurcher's principal contention is that the Soviet system was primed to create conflicts like those of the Caucasus, since it was based upon tensions of the supposedly federal structure of the USSR, as different groups strived for power and privilege granted by autonomous republics, themselves within Union Republics, resulting in ethnic tensions and when the system collapsed a tendency for further fragmentation at the new independent state level. The Caucasus region serves as a test bad in light of its history of ethnic tensions, the large numbers of mountains, and the marginal economic status of the region.

Chapter 2, "Setting the Stage", provides a short history of the Caucasus region and foreign influences on it, ranging from Islam to Russian invasions, and then to the emergence of nationalism in the 19th century and how to deal with the national question, which received very different answers in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan - Armenia as a loyal Russian auxiliary, Georgia as a social-democratic project, and Azerbaijan on the basis of Islam in opposition to surrounding groups - but by the First World War the "nation" was still a very hazy and weak term. Soviet power would dramatically reshape the region by redrawing borders and establishing autonomous republics, as well as occasional ethnic resettlement projects. This institutionalization of the nation and its borders in the Caucasus would have dramatic effects when the Soviet Union imploded in the late 1980s. New popular movements contested the authority of the communist party, and Soviet ethnofederalism which had paired ethnicity with union republics and autonomous republics (- who claimed the right to secede from their union republics just as union republics seceded from the USSR - proved to be kindling for a conflagration, while the dissolution of the Soviet state left no check on the outbreak of violence.

Following this, conflict theory is examined in relation to the Caucasus, discussing some of the factors that might lead to the outbreak of war, such as the statistical association between civil war and heavily mountainous regions, levels of economic development (which also offers an opportunity to discuss the shadow economy in the Caucasus, which would be vital for sustaining wars when they did break out), state strength, and ethnicity and diversity. It continues on in discussing "entrepreneurs of violence" who take advantage of state destabilization and potential conflict conditions to ignite war, using symbols such as the state, ethnicity, or historical grievances to launch conflict.

The main part of the book begins with Chapter 4, as it begins a nation-by-nation analysis of why wars broke out and how the structural factors of the involved countries and political structure impacted their unfolding. This starts with Chechnya, which sets the model for the rest - an analysis of certain elements of history, the political structure (Chechnya being unique in being an autonomous republic but one where the Russian minority held almost all power, unlike other autonomous republics where the national minority received real benefits and elite membership from their status), factors leading to war, and how state institutions developed, evolved, or failed to develop throughout the 1990s Chechnya was marked by the relative powerlessness of the Chechen state, and the attempted Islamization of society to counter its clannish and disorganized nature. Georgia showed the separatist issues of federalism in the USSR, and the internal disorder of the Georgian government. Armenia and Upper Karabakh belongs uniquely to a category of wars started before the dissolution of the USSR, showing a political evolution more similar to that of the Baltic countries, as the old Communist political leadership became linked to the new political parties in a united front, over fear of Azerbaijani menace to the Armenian population of Karabakh, while Azerbaijan itself was too focused on internal problems and lacked the mobilization potential to fully apply itself to Karabakh:

Russian Spetsnaz in Dagestan during the attempted Chechen invasion in 1999

Russian Spetsnaz in Dagestan during the attempted Chechen invasion in 1999

Chapter 7, "Wars that Did not Happen" explores the cases of Dagestan and Ajaria, showing that conflict could indeed be avoided in the Caucasus region. Dagestan was a seemingly perfect candidate for war with a very heterogeneous and ethnically mixed population with lots of mountains and very poor economic indices: the threat of conflict spilling over from surrounding war-torn regions only added to these problems. And yet thanks to elite continuity, ethnic power-sharing, non-ethnic civic identity attached to the concept of being Dagestani, and economic support from Russia, Dagestan was able to avoid war. Another zone where war could have happened but didn't was Ajaria in Georgia, with a Muslim Georgian community constituting their own autonomous republic in Georgia, which was avoided thanks to informal agreements between political elites about its status which allowed local elites to profit from continued autonomy within Georgia, and the less ethnically politicized status of Ajaria - since its status was based on religion rather than ethnicity, which resulted in reduced tensions.

The conclusion of the book sums up by looking back at what rules of conflict were validated and what lessons learned, reiterating the multiple explanations for civil war ranging from perception scripts which assign negative stereotypes to other groups and promote tensions, grievance scripts which focus on oppression, and opportunity script which sees war as a potential for some people to gain power, influence, and wealth from conflict. It uses these to write a summary of political developments in the Caucasus and the two key features of the outbreak of war: the weakness of the state, in both its dying Soviet form, and in the new emergent independent governments, that enabled violence to rise unchecked. War came to the Caucasus with little connection to the mountains, and despite moderately reasonable levels of development, but due to institutional breakdown. Avoiding war required institutional continuity, inclusiveness, and elite unity, which could overcome the low cost of violence, ready availability of the black market for funding, and the problems of Soviet territorial organization.

The Post-Soviet Wars is a great book for analyzing the structural, scholarly-centric, factors of the outbreak and continuation of the wars in the Caucasus - and the perhaps even more important question of why some wars did not happen, such as the possibility of conflict in Dagestan never materializing. Of course, this is not a very charismatic, flowery, literary portrayal of the wars: the book is rather dry. There is very little look at the actual military aspect of the battlefields, if one was interested in the tactical and operational aspects of the conflicts. But the political side of things is very well done and it clearly and cogently presents the war's institutional factors: it is a political science book clearly, but a useful one.

An excellent feature of the book is its comparative analysis of why war began, by focusing on a region where in contrast to the rest of the Caucasus, it did not - Dagestan. Dagestan's combination of institutional continuance, relative economic prosperity, Moscow's control, and ethnic power sharing prevented it from spiraling into chaos, and it makes a great compare and contrast point. This is extended with various Georgian minorities, that unlike Ossetia and Abkhazia, did not enter into secessionist war against the central government, with different nationalist interpretations and myth making that led to a relatively peaceful resolution of their issues vis-à-vis the rest of Georgia.

This focus on purely institutional, directly war-related factors makes for a definite lack of context and detail surrounding the book's topics. Consider the Georgian President Gamsakhurdia's speech on Georgian nationalism and the historical destiny of Georgia, the context of which was not shown, with the focus instead being on presenting him as an intellectual president-poet increasingly out of touch with reality in the country. There is little agency left the individuals, and the beginning of the book mentions fascinating stories and events in the Caucasus but then rips away their romance, attraction, and doesn't expand on them.This is a shame since the author, Zürcher, does seem to have a good turn of phrase and shows occasional glimmers of writing a more holistic and elegant work, such as in the beginning of his chapter on Georgia and his description of the beauty of the country, a privileged touristic and vacation spot of the USSR. That he oh so rarely puts this into broader effect removes some of the potential beauty of his book.

It has become something of a trope I think in scholarly studies on nationalism to focus on nations and identity not being "real", but rather constructed and used. Dating back to at least Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson, Zurcher's book is this on full display, since he focuses on the idea of the nation being used as a symbol and how even clan identity in Chechnya could be more in the way of emotional and symbolic rallying rather than a direct organizational mechanism. This is a valid point, but it can get stressed too much - after all, certainly the nation might not be tangible, but it certainly is very real. It can make for an arbitrary distinction.

This is probably not the best book for an introduction to the topic, and it skimps on many factors of the war. Combat operations are next to nil of course, as mentioned above - but even in the general societal trends and cultural effects the results are limited. The focus is overwhelmingly on the origins of the war and political developments throughout their course. Thankfully the book does this very well, and there is no doubt that it gives an excellent degree of information on this aspect of the conflicts - it just happens to be a very narrow one. It doesn't make for a good basic introduction to the region nor for a real general history of the wars, but it is still a book that one is guaranteed to learn a lot from for the structural composition of violence, both for the Caucasus where it offers an excellent political history of the region, and for the broader world level where it sheds additional light on why wars break out and what factors lead to violence.