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Aldo Ferrari, Il Caucaso. Popoli e conflitti di una frontiera europea

Aldo Ferrari, Il Caucaso. Popoli e conflitti di una frontiera europea (The Caucasus. Peoples and conflicts in a European borderland), Edizioni Lavoro, Rome 2008

Chechnya, Abkhazia, Ossetia, Dagestan but also Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan are names recurrently appearing on front pages and news broadcasts, especially after the outbreak of the recent Russian-Georgian conflict, names about a seemingly chaotic and far away region, the Caucasus, Europe's furthermost frontier on the border with Asia, the land of the Golden Fleece and Mount Ararat of the Bible.


The Caucasus is certainly chaotic, especially for those who are ignorant of its long, long history, dating back thousands of years, but it is far from being far away. Some of the most important oil and gas pipelines run through the region linking Central Asia to Turkey and the Mediterranean. The three independent republics (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) have applied for membership in the European Union and are already members of the Council of Europe. Russia and the United States are vying for control of the region, strategically placed for the future of the new Greater Middle East, whilst a bit further north, the Chechen question remains unresolved. And on its borders Turkey and Iran are weighing in to exert their own influence. In short, what until 1991 was a bit of paradise for ethno-linguistic scholars, a geopolitically insignificant area, now finds itself in a radically different situation.


In this book Aldo Ferrari, head of Caucasus-Central Asia Research Programme at Milan's Istituto di studi di politica internazionale (Institute of Studies in International Politics or ISPI), quickly and brilliantly traces the events that shaped the history of the region, from antiquity to modern times.


He begins by making a classic distinction between the North Caucasus (Ciscaucasus), which is closer to Russia and home to mountain peoples who gradually converted to Islam, and the South Caucasus (Transcaucasus), turned more towards the Middle East where the ancient kingdoms of Georgia and Armenia flourished. After embracing Christianity as early as the 4th century and following a long period of isolation surrounded by Muslim lands, these countries rejoined the European concert of nations as a result of the steady expansion of the Tsarist Empire.


Russia's fickle policies, sometimes favourable to local populations but more often inspired by its own centralising priorities, created a great deal of dissatisfaction among Christians, sparking various revolts among Muslims of the North Caucasus, including one in the 18th century led by a mysterious Sheikh Mansur (thought to be one Giovanni Battista Boetti, a Dominican monk from Piedmont in Italy) and another launched in the mid-19th century by the charismatic Imam Shamil.


After the short-lived period of independence in the early 1920s, the region saw hatred rise out of the ashes of the Second World War. Soviet dictator Stalin was particularly brutal with some groups like the Chechens, who were accused of collaborating with the Nazi invaders. For a while nationalist tensions smouldered under the relative peace that followed Stalin's deportations only to boil over at the end of the 1980s.


In both the South Caucasus (which became independent) and the North Caucasus (which remained under Moscow's control) rivalries turned into open warfare: Armenia against Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh (whose status under international law is closer to that of Kosovo), the de facto secession of South Ossetia from Georgia and above all the Chechen case. Thus today Armenia is pro-Russian, Georgia and to a lesser extent Azerbaijan entertain closer ties with the United States.


The author concludes by saying that the "accession of the three Transcaucasian republics to the European Union's Neighbourhood Policy, which has no hegemonic aims, could actually be important" (p. 114). Such a hope, expressed before the latest conflict, is confirmed by the events occurred in the last few months.