Articles > Eastern Christians > 2009 > At the roots of the Caucasian turmoil

At the roots of the Caucasian turmoil

H.E. Msgr. Claudio Gugerotti

S.E. Mons. Claudio Gugerotti | 09 September 2009

Contribution by H.E. Msgr. Claudio Gugerotti, Apostolic Nuncio in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan
Let us get away for a moment from the international ruckus caused by the current conflict in Georgia, and broadly imagine its nature and cultural import by looking at it just as another local problem.
Where can we start? By saying that the world's interest in what is happening there is nothing new. All we have to do is remember the tragic events that touched Armenians and other Christian communities in the Ottoman Empire in the early part of the 20th century, which we can only understand in light of the atmosphere that led to the First World War.
Geopolitics being what they are, any seismic motion in the Caucasus, like in the Balkans', will have reverberations far beyond its borders. And it could not be otherwise as the region straddles Europe and Asia, a symbolic land bridge between East and West. And although the peoples of the Caucasus consciously and naturally look towards Europe, they have unwittingly been sucked in by Central Asia to which they do not feel they belong, time and again as a result of outside powers and externally-induced violence.
Imagining the 'Caucasus' as a single entity is also a no-brainer given the area's many internal differences and distinct peoples who far outnumber the territorial units to which they were attached.
If we take the region's folklore as our starting point we can see however that all its peoples are united by the same perception that the struggle for survival is an essential element of their history. Traditional costumes and customs are a case in point—traditionally men carried daggers on their belt or performed various "sabre dances" (the most famous was immortalised in a composition by Aram Khachaturiam).
In local cultures fighting is not just a matter of self-defence but stems instead from a perception in which facing down others is a natural outcome of the need to defend one's honour. This does not imply that it has to necessarily lead to armed inter-ethnic strife. Indeed fighting can also occur at an intra-ethnic level when aspersions are cast on someone's honour from within one's own group. In such a situation fighting becomes even more elegiac because it is does not have the cultural overtones that inter-ethnic clashes possess insofar as in the latter case national differences tend to be overemphasised and fights are given greater pathos. The idea that such a process of self-differentiation from others is scientifically objective is quite dubious since the confrontation tends by its very nature to reify differences, reducing them to stereotypes.
The academic world itself, at least since it began claiming objectivity, has been strongly influenced by this diversity so that what is to be demonstrated often comes before any rigorous inductive effort from the particular to the universal. This means that they are necessarily different from us in order to show that we are purposefully different from them.
Thus to Caucasian male chauvinism so-called "pacifism" (with all its colourful rituals) actually comes across as a kind of perversion. "If instead of defending ourselves, we had protested, we would no longer exist as a people," is a refrain that has the ring of truth among locals.
Given the importance of fighting, heroes are honoured and cowards are despised. Even the enemy deserves honour if he acts honourably. Martyrs are honoured only if they were crushed by the enemy's overwhelming power, not if they give up the fight or go for wishy-washy, sissy forgiveness. Under such circumstances what is at stake is a nation's survival, its continued existence, against all the odds like its small size or the capabilities big foreign powers have to slaughter its population. This has generated an ever-present fear of disappearing, of ceasing to exist as a nation, of seeing one's culture, language and above all, that all powerful basis of identity that is religion, come to an end.
Here religion refers to the legacy of one's forebears and to the inspirational power of a tradition (whose container takes in nova et vetera, the old and new). In this case religious leaders are the true fathers of the nation, much more than its political leaders. They are the final moral authority; the chiefs entitled to have the last word, often acting as substitutes for political leaders whose power is undermined by their inherent tendency to splinter into feudal subgroups, stifled by foreign powers.
Religion is also a world of rituals, a place of continuity in which people are naturally (naturaliter) at home, one that makes them proud, much more than the world of discontinuity, even when the latter represent a radical break, like that that saw ancient paganism give way to revealed religions. The survival of pre-Christian elements is so powerful that they permeate contemporary religions, saturating them with archaic interpretations that exist side by side with the latter's.
For cultures stubbornly protected by their mountains, this substratum cannot be easily replaced; it will even survive the powerful thrust of globalisation emerging from the coexistence of what to many a surprised Western mind are incompatible elements. For almost everyone, albeit in different ways, one's own way of being and thinking is always the right one.
It is thus easy to see how cultures like the aforementioned might have reacted to the recent war in Georgia, however limited and sketchy my description of it might have been. Once again everyone reacted the same way, with the same shock at their own people's possible extinction, hollering bloody genocide. This is something difficult to describe because it is first and foremost a paralysing feeling that makes people run for sheer survival from where the enemy is the most dangerous. This is so that it is not rare to hear people ask: "Do you think they are going to slaughter us all?"
Under the circumstances anyone who might be tempted to criticise a nation's leaders can only be silent, at least for as long as the sense of shock lasts. Instead people will feel a need to meet others in the streets, called together by anyone as long as they make them feel alive, one people still, one's own language filling the air, singing perhaps a popular tune, at least one without crude lewd lyrics.
Is there hatred for the enemy? That is hard to say. The enemy is called nasty names, partly because of well-crafted disinformation. Everyone is willing to sign up to fight him, drive him out. There is rage and belligerence. Often past injustices come back in a flood of memories. But it is hard to say whether that can be called hatred. Instead everyone tends to ask the same question: "What did we do to them? After all we have been able to live together peacefully!" Deep down, people wish for peace if it is at all possible, tightly hanging on that chance, for it would mean another chance at survival. It is no accident that a high Georgian Orthodox prelate told me stories about raids with neighbouring (Caucasian) peoples in which his father took part. Taken prisoner by Chechens, he was also magnanimously freed in keeping with the laws of chivalry.
Fatalism also plays a role. "Unfortunately, we have always been persecuted. It is part of our history," is another typical catchphrase. Parents may want a child in order to believe in the future or may prefer to abort him or her if circumstances become intolerable in order to spare the child their fate of flight or displacement.
One thing is missing almost entirely from all this, except for those few who have become accustomed to the outside world, namely a radical, grounded critique of the groups who rule these nations. In such societies the opposition tends to be clan-based, more interested in replacing the existing ruling class in order to exercise power in its stead rather than in advancing new ideas about society.
Two consequences follow from this situation. First, people are certain (often naïvely and almost always frustrated) that friendly nations will intervene to help them. Second, talking about facts and people becomes an endless verbal flood, which spinmeisters often exploit to mislead others, defend themselves or cover up their mistakes. This is so because the leader who fails at crucial moments can say goodbye to his honour unless he carries out some heroic act, tragic and often fatal, to redeem himself.
So far we have seen some of the reactions by the peoples of the Caucasus. How and whether all of it can be understood or used by outsiders' will depend on the cultural continuity of those involved. The West often seems to stand out certain that it speaks a universal language, one that is also automatically accessible to these nations because it is seemingly and "naturally rational", slogans and all. However, it does not seem either interested in or have the patience to check out if that is true. And this could be its downfall.
 

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