Category Archives: Russia

South Caucasus Just Waiting for Europe?

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 4017-4050:

It seems an almost inbuilt problem of the South Caucasus that a positive development in one place causes alarm in another. Armenian-Turkish rapprochement angers Azerbaijan, which turns to Moscow. The “reset” American-Russian relationship is seen to damage Georgia. As soon as there was talk of the Armenian-Turkish border reopening, some Georgians were heard to worry aloud that the rerouting of trade would be bad for Georgia. Zero-sum thinking prevails.

The region suffers from a lack of inclusive thinking. Most of the big ideas and regional initiatives that have emerged in the last decade and a half have excluded either one of the South Caucasus countries themselves or a key outside power. Both Iran and Turkey have proposed “security pacts” for the Caucasus that have left out the United States and the European Union. The Commonwealth of Independent States is now without Georgia. GUAM excluded Armenia. For awhile, Moscow unsuccessfully promoted the idea of a “Caucasus Four” that included it and the three South Caucasus countries. Concentrating on a “Black Sea region” is to the detriment of Azerbaijan. Focusing on the Caspian leaves out Armenia. The metaphor of a “Silk Road,” pretty though it is, implies a return to a premodern world in which Russia did not exist. The idea of a “Great Game” unhelpfully casts Russia in a reprised role of a hostile nineteen-century power.

History has meant that there have never been any successful voluntary integration projects here. The plan for an independent Transcaucasian Federation in April 1918 collapsed after only a month. The only other unions have been colonial ones imposed from above, by the Persian, Ottoman, and Russian empires and by the Soviet Union. The Soviet project is hard to defend, but it did have the effect of bringing people together in a cohesive economic structure that many people still miss. In retrospect, the South Caucasian nationalists of the late 1980s lurched from one extreme to another when they took a bulldozer to the complex Soviet system. They exchanged suffocating integration for extreme disintegration, and you could say that they threw out the Caucasian baby with the Communist bathwater. Many of the economic and cultural links from those times are still there under the surface waiting to be reexploited.

The one neighbor that could be a facilitator for voluntary integration in the South Caucasus is the region that has itself accomplished such an integration, the EU. So far, unfortunately, the EU has been very slow to act in the region. One Georgian scholar says it is “too lazy and too late.” Most of its regional projects have been very modest. Transport Corridor Europe Caucasus Asia, a European program started in 1993 for the eight countries of Central Asia and the South Caucasus, has spent less than 200 million euros since then—far less than BP, Gazprom, or USAID has spent in the region, to name three other foreign actors. The Eastern Partnership project is another laudable idea but is hampered by several constraints; the six countries involved have no membership perspective for the EU, which does not provide a strong incentive for reform. Promises of trade privileges and visa facilitation are more promising but have been watered down by European governments.

There is a widespread perception in the South Caucasus that it is “waiting for Europe” to notice its problems and pay attention to them. In the EU itself, there is caution. Partly, the EU has enough other problems to solve without having to deal with the headaches of the Caucasus. Partly, there is a perception that the governments of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia need to show a stronger commitment to democracy and reform to deserve that stronger interest. So the current period may be one of less engagement and greater realism. If that is the case, it may not be all bad news. History has been unkind to the South Caucasus, but there is no shortage of experience or talent there. If the outsider powers step a bit further away, local people may remember that they also have the skills, fashioned by the centuries, to solve their own problems.

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Origins of the Soviet Ethnofederal System

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 1329-1340, 1408-1429:

There has [been] much scholarly debate about the impact of the Bolsheviks’ decision to devise an “ethnofederal system” for the Soviet Union, which created autonomous territories on ethnic principles. In the Caucasus, scholars have observed, this preserved national divisions, which eventually fractured the Soviet state and turned into armed conflicts. It could be argued, however, that the Caucasus set the blueprint for the Soviet Union, not the other way round. In other words, the fragile situation in the Caucasus in 1921, still broken by numerous inter-ethnic conflicts, may have caused the Bolsheviks to invent the ethnofederal system under duress.

It was also a Caucasian, Stalin, who presided over this complex construction once it had been created. His approach was both ruthless and pragmatic. The primary aim appears to have been to build a system that would survive the shock of both internal and external threats. National interests were balanced out and could eventually be eliminated. Small nationalities would be modernized, with Russia the engine pulling them into the future. Lenin, who disapproved of Russian nationalism, might have been content to see Georgia detached from Russia, so long as it remained Bolshevik. Stalin believed that Russia, the center, and the Caucasus, the borderlands, needed one another. In 1920, he wrote, “Central Russia, the hearth of world revolution, cannot hold out long without the assistance of the border regions, which abound in raw materials, fuel, and foodstuffs.

The late 1920s were the heyday of what Terry Martin calls the “affirmative action empire,” with the implementation of the new ideology of korenizatsia (literally “rooting,” or “nativization”) sponsoring programs to modernize and assist the non-Russian Soviet nationalities. The Azeri, Abkhaz, Ossetian, and Lezgin written languages were all given a new progressive Roman alphabet. Huge numbers of people received an education for the first time in their native languages. The Communists declared that in the first ten years of Soviet rule in Georgia, half a million people had been taught to read and write. In 1940, Armenia claimed that the entire adult population was literate for the first time.

For years, scholars of the Soviet Union concentrated on its centralizing policies, and some called it the “prison-house of nations.” Only recently have scholars and commentators begun to analyze how, beginning with the korenizatsia program, the Soviet authorities actually defined and strengthened national identities. As the American Suny put it in 1993, “rather than a melting pot, the Soviet Union became an incubator of new nations.” The tsarist empire had categorized its people by religion, mother tongue, social class, and regional location. The Bolsheviks held that “nationality” was a useful transitional phase between the backward culture of small ethnic groups and an advanced state of socialism. But the national identities persisted, and the transnational socialist future never came. As Martin writes, “in order to implement affirmative action programs, monitor their success, delineate national territories, assign children to programs, the Soviet state constantly asked its citizens for their nationality.” So to be “Ossetian” or “Azerbaijani” acquired real meaning for the first time, and this category became a formal badge of identity when it was written into the first Soviet internal passports in 1932.

There was a hierarchy of nations. Two of the three main nationalities of the Transcaucasus, the Armenians and Georgians, were classified as “advanced” Western nationalities, alongside Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, and Germans, while Azerbaijanis fell into the category of nations in formation, requiring developmental aid. In practice this meant that, as in tsarist Russia, Armenians and Georgians could advance quickly up the Soviet career ladder. Two Karabakh Armenians from village backgrounds were cases in point. One, Levon Mirzoyan, served as head of the Communist Party first in Azerbaijan and then in Kazakhstan, the other; Suren Sadunts, served as first Party secretary in Tajikistan in 1935–36. Both were shot in Stalin’s purges. It would have been impossible for a Kazakh or an Azerbaijani to be given an equivalent post in Armenia or Georgia.

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Rise and Fall of Baku as Oil Capital

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 2945-2989:

Oil was first exploited commercially in the mid-nineteenth century. The industry took off in 1871 when the Russian government allowed in private enterprise and the first wells were drilled. Two of the Swedish Nobel brothers, Robert and Ludwig, invested in the new industry and by the end of the decade had the biggest refinery in Baku and were shipping barrels of oil across the Caspian Sea to the Russian port of Astrakhan in the world’s first oil tanker, the Zoroaster. By the 1880s, oil fields such as Balakhany had sprouted hundreds of brick wells extracting the oil from the ground, and Baku’s new northern industrial suburb was nicknamed the Black Town because of the clouds of dark oil smoke hanging over it from two hundred refineries. In one generation, Baku turned from a forgotten desert citadel into a modern metropolis. The population skyrocketed from 14,000 in 1863 to 206,000 forty years later. “Baku is greater than any other oil city in the world. If oil is king, Baku is its throne,” wrote the British author J. D. Henry in 1905. You could become a millionaire literally overnight if an “oil gusher” appeared on your land. One man who got lucky was Haji Zeynalabdin Tagiev, the illiterate son of a shoemaker, who turned into one of Baku’s most famous businessmen and benefactors after a gusher appeared on his land. Tagiev was unusual in being a native Azeri. Most of the businessmen were European, Russian, or Armenian. Tensions between Armenian bourgeoisie and Azeri workers were an underlying cause of the brutal “Tatar-Armenian” war in Baku in 1905 in which hundreds were killed and thousands of oil wells destroyed.

Henry asked rhetorically, “Why is Baku rich? The answer is simple—because it produces a commodity which has a market wider than the civilised world, for it is carried on camels into the innermost parts of the Asian Continent, and on yaks into the wild regions of the Himalayas.” But camels and yaks were insufficient to export a major new world community to the wider world. Baku faced the same problem as it would a century later—how to export the oil from the land-locked Caspian basin to consumers. In the 1870s, the geography of the Caucasus was such a barrier that Tiflis imported more American kerosene by ship than it did Baku oil. The Caspian Sea was stormy and dangerous for several months of the year, limiting how much could be sent to Russia. So in 1883 the new oilmen, with financing from the Rothschild family, built the first cross-Caucasian railway from Baku to Batum on the Black Sea. In 1906, Baku oil made another leap forward when the world’s longest “kerosene pipeline” was completed, running for 519 miles along the same route to Batum.

In the years 1914–21, oil wealth was a major factor in the international scramble for the Caucasus. In 1918, German commander Erich von Ludendorff saw Azerbaijani oil and its route via Georgia as a key reason to move into the South Caucasus. In the end, the British took control of Baku, and in 1919 British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour identified its oil as Britain’s major priority in the region. He said, “I should say we are not going to spend all our money and men in civilizing a few people who do not want to be civilized. We will protect Batum, Baku, the railway between them and the pipe-line.” When the British had gone, the oil-starved Bolsheviks made Baku their first target in the Transcaucasus. Having captured the city in April 1920, Trotsky declared that the new oil resources would win the Reds the Civil War and would be “our hope for restoring the economy, for ensuring that old men and women and children do not die of cold in Moscow.”

Only in the late 1920s did Baku oil production climb back to its prewar levels, but in 1941 Baku was vital to Stalin’s war effort against Germany and produced around three-quarters of the Soviet Union’s oil. When Hitler’s Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the Germans again identified Baku oil as a vital asset. In August 1942, the Germans occupied the western side of the North Caucasus and planned a push south to Azerbaijan. Saying “Unless we get the Baku oil, the war is lost,” Hitler diverted divisions away from the battle for Stalingrad toward the Caucasus. That summer, Hitler’s staff famously had a cake made for him that had the shape of the Caspian Sea in the middle. Film footage shows a delighted Hitler taking a slice of the cake, which had the letters B-A-K-U written on it in white icing and chocolate made to look like oil spooned over it.

The debacle at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942–43 meant that Germany never invaded the South Caucasus, but even the threat of attack was a death-sentence for the Baku oil industry. Stalin, who knew the Baku oil fields from his revolutionary days of 1905, had the oil wells shut down so they would not fall into German hands. Almost the entire Azerbaijani oil industry and its experts were transferred to the oil wells of the Volga and the Urals. After the war, Russia’s oil fields received the major investment, and Azerbaijan suffered. The on-land fields had dried up, and in order to reach the trickier offshore fields, a small town named Oily Rocks was built thirty miles out in the sea—reached across a causeway built on sunken ships. Cramped and polluted, Oily Rocks eked out what could still be drilled of Azerbaijan’s oil within the capacity of Soviet technology. But increasingly, the existing expertise was not up to the challenge. By the time the Soviet Union ended, Azerbaijan was producing only 3 percent of the Soviet oil output.

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Origins of Georgia in Russia

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 638-643, 826-852:

The different parts of Georgia only came together in the nineteenth century with Russian rule, the coming of the railways, and a generation of patriotic intellectuals keen to foster a new national consciousness. The churches of the Golden Age, the rediscovery of ancient manuscripts, and the poetry of Shota Rustaveli were important cultural treasures in this process of national reinvention and discovery. The dilemma has been that anyone seeking to forge, or reforge, a “Georgian national identity” does so at the risk of suppressing the country’s great natural diversity. President Mikheil Saakashvili has faced this challenge as he has sought to build a modern Georgian state out of the country weakened by centrifugal tendencies he inherited in 2004.

Tiflis (officially called by its Georgian name Tbilisi only in the twentieth century) had long been the largest city in the region. When King David IV reconquered the town from the Arabs in 1122, he invited Armenian traders and artisans to settle there, and they became its largest community. For centuries the Armenians ran the city, as Georgians tended to be either rural nobility or peasantry. After the Russian takeover in 1801, Tiflis became the seat of imperial rule. In the 1840s, Prince Vorontsov finally cleared away the last ruins of the 1795 Iranian assault and transformed the main part of the city into a European-style capital. He laid out a new central boulevard that became the main artery of the city.

The first theatre and public library were built; newspapers were opened. The viceroy invited an Italian opera company to come and perform Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti and was pleased to hear them instead of the “semi-barbarous sounds of Persian music” that had filled the town a few years earlier.

In 1899, Tiflis had 172,000 inhabitants. Armenians were just over a third of the population; Georgians and Russians each formed a quarter. The remainder included Ossetians, Azerbaijani “Tatars,” Persians, Greeks, Poles, Germans, and Jews. Caucasian towns were not melting pots, and each community had separate places of worship, different holidays, and special trades. The Armenians dominated business, trade, and municipal government, running the hotels, restaurants, cafes and taverns, wineshops and caravanserais. Wardrop said the Armenians were called “Shylocks” and like the Jews were disliked by other ethnic groups for their alleged sharp practices: “A local proverb says ‘A Greek will cheat three Jews, but an Armenian will cheat three Greeks.’” This kind of racial stereotyping caused tensions between Armenians and Georgians but generally did not spill over into street violence.

The same was not true in the other major city of the Caucasus, Baku. Here, social and political tensions eventually caused mass bloodshed. Situated on a peninsular overlooking the Caspian Sea, Baku was a small ancient desert fortress, home to a powerful dynasty, the Shirvanshahs, in the Middle Ages. The commercial exploitation of its oil wells in the 1870s changed it virtually overnight into the world’s foremost oil city. In 1883, the British writer Charles Marvin noted, “what was ten years ago a sleepy Persian town is to-day a thriving city. There is more building activity visible at Baku than in any other place in the Russian Empire.” Old houses were being pulled down while the “wretched booths of the Persians were being replaced by spacious Russian shops.” As in Tiflis, Armenians had a leading role in both business and municipal government, while tens of thousands of Muslim peasants, many from Iran, immigrated to earn a wage in the oil fields.

The third main urban center of the region, the Black Sea city of Batum (called by its Georgian name Batumi after 1936), became the Caucasus’s window on the world after the Russian takeover in 1878. Within a generation, it had a string of foreign consulates and a British yacht club and cricket pitch. Again, this all depended on Baku oil, sent to Batum first by railway and then through the world’s first oil pipeline. It was refined in a factory built by the Rothschilds—to which the young Stalin set fire in 1903. Like Baku, although smaller (its population in 1897 was twenty-eight thousand), it was a place of commerce and intrigue.

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Origins of Azerbaijan

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 470-488, 888-914:

The name “Azerbaijan” has been traced back to Atropatenes, a Persian lord in the time of Alexander the Great or, more poetically, to azer, the Persian word for fire, on the grounds that it describes the Zoroastrian fire-temples of the region. Until modern times, the word “Azerbaijan” was more often applied to the northern Turkic-populated part of Iran than to the modern-day state of Azerbaijan. Before the twentieth century, outsiders tended to call Azerbaijanis either “Shirvanis” (from around Baku and Shemakha), “Caucasian Tatars,” “Turks,” or just “Muslims.” Their own self-identification was flexible. In the nineteenth century, Brenda Shaffer writes, “Azerbaijanis could consider themselves as both Turks or Iranians, or Russian subjects, with little conflict. Some were active in political movements in all three of the regions, concurrently or at different times of their careers.”

A sense of historical continuity is further fractured by the fact that the Azeri language has been written in three alphabets since the third decade of the twentieth century: the script was changed from Arabic to Roman in the 1920s, to Cyrillic in the 1930s, and back to Roman in the 1990s. That makes it very hard for even an educated Azerbaijani to read his or her recent history. Armenians have forged a cultural identity that has been maintained through an alphabet and literature that is unchanged in different lands all over the world. Azerbaijani identity is the polar opposite of that—the land has remained the same, but the culture within it has been buffeted by constant change.

Azerbaijan’s strongest neighbor and ally is undoubtedly Turkey, but Azerbaijani-Turkish relations have gone through many difficult patches. Many Russian Azerbaijanis maintained a strongly Shiite and anti-Ottoman identity through much of the nineteenth century. Five Shiite Azerbaijani cavalry regiments fought with the Russian army against the Sunni Turks in the war of 1828–29 and were decorated by the tsar in gratitude. Alexander Pushkin saw the Azerbaijani Shiite “Karabakh regiment” in action fighting outside Kars in 1829 and dedicated a poem to a brave Karabakhi horseman. Later, in the Crimean War, the great-nephew of one of the last khans of Karabakh distinguished himself defending the Russian fortress of Sevastopol against the British, French, and Turks.

In political terms, the Azerbaijanis were the late developers of the three main nationalities in the region. In the 1880s, a European scholar wrote that Transcaucasian Turks “very rarely revolt against the rapaciousness of Russian civil and military officers, and they peacefully submit to all kinds of vexations, as long as their family and religious life is not touched upon.” Levels of education were low. According to the all-Russia 1897 census, only 4.7 percent of the “Tatar” population could read or write. Despite this, under the influence of Pan-Turkic thinkers, Azerbaijani intellectuals mobilized themselves with amazing speed. According to the historian of Azerbaijan Tadeusz Swietochowski, “In 1905 Azerbaijan was still merely a geographical name for a stretch of land inhabited by a people whose group identity consisted of being Muslims. The period between this date and the fall of the independent Republic in 1920 witnessed the rise of, for the Muslims, a novel type of community, the nation.” The new Azerbaijani national identity was a synthesis: Turkic but separate from Turkey, Shiite Islamic but rejecting the clerical establishment. The trick of combining these different aspirations within one movement led leading Azerbaijani editor and intellectual Ali bay Huseynzade to coin the slogan “Turkify, Islamize, Modernize.” The main Azerbaijani nationalist party, Musavat, was founded in 1911 and by 1918 had pulled off the feat of founding the first democratic Islamic republic in the world. The three colors of the republic’s flag—blue, red, and green—reflected Huseynzade’s slogan, symbolizing the Turks, modernity, and Islam, respectively.

In the early part of the new century, the new Armenian and Azerbaijani national movements inevitably collided. For centuries, Armenians and Azerbaijanis had coexisted as neighbors in a patchwork quilt of towns and villages across the Transcaucasus. They spoke each other’s languages, traded freely, and had a shared culture with strong Persian influences. Yet mixed marriage was rare, and differences of religion, social status, and now national ideology caused divisions. These tensions were contained by Russian colonial rule, but when that rule weakened in 1905 and 1917 (and again in 1988) the geography of mixed ethnic cohabitation turned peaceful communities into places of violence.

The revolutionary year of 1905 saw the outbreak of what was called the “Armeno-Tatar War.” The bloodshed spread the entire length of the South Caucasus, from Baku in the east to Nakhichevan in the west. Up to ten thousand people were killed, and whole urban districts and villages were gutted. The British author James Henry called Baku “the greatest blood-spot in the mysterious, rebellious and blood-stained Caucasus” after it saw two bloody pogroms in one year. The conflict horrified and puzzled both locals and outsiders. One Azerbaijani intellectual in Ganja, Ahmad bay Aghaoghli, “sternly lectured crowds in a Ganja mosque that ‘even wild animals do not devour their own kind’ reminding them that Muslims and Armenians had for centuries lived in peace before the coming of the Russians.” The Russian socialist author Maxim Gorky expressed shock at what happened, lamenting “how hard it is to believe that these simple noble people now stupidly and senselessly are killing one another, giving in to provocation by evil and dark forces.”

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South Caucasus Minorities Within Minorities

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 258-286:

The three main capital cities of the region have their own distinct histories. A century ago, neither Tbilisi (Tiflis), Baku, nor Yerevan had a majority population of Georgians, Azerbaijanis, or Armenians, respectively. Tbilisi can lay claim to being the capital of the Caucasus, but its Georgian character has been much more intermittent. For five hundred years it was an Arab town, while the older city of Mtskheta was the old Georgian capital. Then, in the medieval period, the city was taken over by the Armenian merchant class. They were the biggest community in the nineteenth century and finally left en masse only in the 1960s. Famous Tbilisi Armenians have included the world chess champion Tigran Petrosian and the filmmaker Sergei Parajanov. Baku became a cosmopolitan city with many different ethnic groups from the late nineteenth century. Russian became its lingua franca. Garry Kasparov, the Jewish Armenian world chess champion, who was born in Baku but is unable to return there because of his Armenian roots, describes his nationality as “Bakuvian” (Bakinets in Russian). Baku only turned into a strongly Azerbaijani city with the end of the Soviet Union, the Nagorny Karabakh war, and the mass emigration of other national groups.

By contrast, up until the First World War, Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, had a Persian flavor and a Muslim majority population. Its major landmark was a blue-tiled mosque, and there was no big church. Von Haxthausen wrote, “In Tiflis, Europe and Asia may be said to meet, and the town has a divided aspect; but Erivan is a purely Asiatic city: everything is Oriental, except a few newly-built Russian houses, and occasionally Russian uniforms in the streets.” More Armenians lived in Tiflis, Baku, Shusha, and Van. Yerevan became an Armenian city only after the mass flight of Armenians from the Ottoman Empire and of Azerbaijanis from eastern Armenia in 1915–18.

Arguably, strong national identities only began to emerge in the three countries of the South Caucasus in the Soviet era. A consolidation of national identity created a demographic pull such that Armenians moved to Armenia and Azerbaijanis to Azerbaijan, and Tbilisi became a strongly Georgian city for perhaps the first time in its history. The biggest losers were the smaller minority peoples of the Transcaucasus, who feared assimilation, even though their rights were nominally protected by Soviet law.

Half a dozen smaller nationalities form sizeable communities in the South Caucasus. Kurds are spread throughout the region. So-called Yezidi Kurds are Armenia’s biggest minority, and there are large numbers of Muslim Kurds in Azerbaijan. The Abkhaz and the Ossetians (discussed in chapter 5) are both few in numbers. There are fewer than one hundred thousand Abkhaz in Abkhazia and even fewer Ossetians in South Ossetia—many more Ossetians live in Russian North Ossetia. Azerbaijan’s main two minority ethnic groups are the Lezgins in the north and the Talysh in the south. The two hundred thousand Lezgins (according to official figures) live in the north of Azerbaijan across the border from around four hundred thousand of their ethnic kin who live in the Russian republic of Dagestan. They are Sunnis, and they speak a language apparently indigenous to the Caucasus. The Talysh live in southern Azerbaijan near the Iranian border and speak a language related to Farsi. Officially, they number eighty thousand, but the Talysh themselves give much higher figures. Neither of these ethnic groups plays a political role in the country, although there are occasionally glimmers of discontent about their cultural rights.

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Persian Culture in the South Caucasus

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 418-459:

Persian culture can be traced in the South Caucasus from the sixth century BC, and Persians colonized large parts of the region for roughly a thousand years, far longer than the Russians did. The cultural residue of this is surprisingly faint but is there if one looks for it. The Armenian language is so full of Persian loan-words that it was long thought to be an Iranian, not an Indo-European language. The historian Nina Garsoïan argues that the Armenian sociopolitical system, with its tradition of hereditary aristocrats and semidivine monarchy, derived from an Iranian tradition. Medieval Georgia’s “Golden Age” was also heavily Persianized. Shota Rustaveli, author of the famous twelfth-century epic The Knight in the Panther Skin called his poem “a Persian work now done into Georgian.” Georgian princes served the Safavid dynasty for three centuries.

The Persian-Iranian influence is strongest in Azerbaijan. The river Araxes only became a noticeable border in the nineteenth century. Prior to that, the lands to the north and south were generally part of the same kingdoms. The Azerbaijani city of Ganzak (Ganja) was the location of one of the four great fires of the Zoroastrian religion. The twelfth-century poet Nizami of Ganja is revered as a great Azerbaijani cultural icon, even though he wrote in the Persian language. In the sixteenth century, the Safavid Empire could lay claim to being a sort of proto-Azerbaijani state. The founder of the empire, Shah Ismail I (ruled 1501–24), came from Ardebil in what is present-day northern Iran, not far from Azerbaijan. Of mixed ethnic descent, he spoke both Persian and Azeri (or at least a form of Turkish that evolved into what is now Azeri) and wrote poems in Azeri under the name Khatai. In Safavid times, an estimated twelve hundred Azeri words, mainly dealing with administrative and military issues, entered the Persian language.

Iranian political dominance of the Caucasus began to fade with the end of the Safavids in 1722. A succession of military defeats on all fronts led to a slow retreat from the Caucasus that culminated in full capitulation to the Russians in 1828. This marked what some Azerbaijanis call “the parting of the ways” between northern and southern Azerbaijan. The Caucasus lived on in the assumptions of some Iranian statesmen, even as it turned into a Russian zone of influence. At the Versailles peace conference at the end of the First World War, the Iranian delegation caused consternation when it handed the conference a memorandum laying claim to all of present-day Armenia and Azerbaijan and parts of Dagestan. The document explained, “these provinces must be returned to Persia, for they had already formed part of Persia.”

Currently, Iran is closer to Armenia than to either Azerbaijan or Georgia. One of Armenia’s two open borders is with Iran, and an Iranian-Armenian gas pipeline, opened in 2007 gave the Armenians a new source of natural gas. For Azerbaijan and Iran, the big sleeping issue is Iran’s large population of ethnic Azerbaijanis in the north of the country, who may number as many as twenty-five million—or three times the number of Azerbaijanis in the Republic of Azerbaijan. So far, there has been no mass movement there for closer political ties to the north. Fred Halliday writes that after 1979, “in an upheaval in which many dogs barked, Azerbaijani nationalism is the one dog that did not, at least during the first 15 years after the Islamic revolution.” Iran would undoubtedly like to play a bigger part in the South Caucasus, but the biggest deterrent to it doing so is Western pressure. If there is a thaw between Iran and the West over the nuclear issue, then Tehran can be expected to claim a role in the region again.

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