Border Clans vs. Alphabet Nation

Azerbaijan had always been a marchland, conquered by Alexander the Great and fought over by Turkey and Persia for centuries. As with Georgia, Russia entered the fray here relatively late, occupying the area briefly in the 1720s and 1730s and then returning in the nineteenth century. The local Azeris, who knew little political unity until the twentieth century, speak a Turkic language much like modem Turkish, but they are Shi’ite, like most Iranians. Most Azeris live not in Azerbaijan but to the south, in northwestern Iran. Until the early twentieth century, the Azeris were considered “Tartars” by their neighbors, and responded to questions about themselves by mentioning their family, their clan, and their religion–but rarely their national group. Georgia has a 2,500-year-old alphabet all its own. Azerbaijan, by contrast, changed its alphabet three times over the course of the twentieth century: from Arabic to Latin in the 1920s; from Latin to Cyrillic in the 1930s; and back to Latin in the 1990s.

The inability of the Azeris to congeal into a defined nation may be why the Armenians could destroy them in the war over Karabakh. The Armenians, with their own language and 1,500-year-old alphabet–and with the memory of brilliant ancient and medieval kingdoms and the Turkish genocide always before them–had a fine sense of who they were. The Armenians, everyone in the Caucasus knew, were never going to give up Karabakh in negotiations. No one gives up what has been captured in battle when the area is occupied overwhelmingly by one’s own ethnic group and the rest of the population has been violently expelled, with barely a murmur from the Great Powers or the global media.

SOURCE: Robert D. Kaplan, Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus (Vintage, 2000), p. 260

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