‘The South Caucasus: Transition from Subjugation to Independence’ (Book Review)

The timing could not have been more perfect: The South Caucasus: Transition from Subjugation to Independence by Ambassador Achal Kumar Malhotra, just published by the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) not only plugs an important gap in domain knowledge in India, but becomes instantly compelling coming as it does against the Armenia-Azerbaijan war which has caught the attention of Indians for the first time.

It is surprising that the region of the South Caucases �- so strategic in location, sitting on the cusp of Europe and Asia on important energy and freight transit routes, so mythical in beauty, so chequered in history, so diverse in its ethnic makeup, and so endowed in natural resources — figures so little on India’s strategic radar. As a corollary little literature is available on the region and its three states �- Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

The author has served as India’s ambassador to both Armenia and Georgia and this is arguably the only book on the South Caucases published in India. Of course, the author acknowledges that the book is only a bird’s eye view of this immensely diverse region. But it comprehensively traces its evolution over the past 150 years, which includes its multiple transitions from subjugation under the then medieval powers — the Persian, the Ottomans and Tsarist Russia — to finally independence for all the three states in 1991, rising from the debris of the former USSR.

Malhotra succinctly puts it: “…in the course of seventy years of Soviet rule, the South Caucasus region underwent difficult times…….. overshadowing their individual identities as Armenians, Azerbaijanis or Georgians. Freedom of speech and religion was severely curtailed.”

The book’s main focus of course remains the region’s modern history, and it explores and analyses the circumstances under which the three states charted such distinct domestic trajectory �- Georgia and Armenian are chaotic democracies while Azerbaijan continues to see dynastic rule of the Alieyev family. Their foreign policy orientation is similarly diverse: “Armenia and Azerbaijan opted in favour of joining the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as founding members, whereas Georgia opted out.”

Georgia is determinedly Eurocentric �- especially after its 2008 war with Russia — and longs to be included in EU and NATO; Armenia is resolutely pro-Russia but has cordial relations with the Western world, while Azerbaijan keeps equi-distance from both the West and Russia but as the resuscitation of the conflict with Armenia proves has decided to move into the Turkish orbit under the slogan ‘Two states, one nation’.

In tracing the region’s modern history, Malhotra has successfully introduced the reader to the many conflicts that emerged in the post-Soviet space, all having their genesis in the Soviet Union: in the arbitrarily drawn borders ignoring ethnic and other crucial linkages, resulting in enclaves clamouring for the right of self-determination as the USSR collapsed. Therefore, “Despite being geographically contiguous, the region remains one of the least integrated regions in the world, widely varied and individualistic republics.”

Of these the Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh is most known to us because of the recent flare-up that may just have ended with Armenia agreeing to an agreement which its Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan described as ‘painful’.

Written though it was before the current round of violence broke out between the two neighbouring states, Malhotra’s words seem prescient today: “So can we presume that the status quo suits all: those who are in conflict and also those who are involved in resolving…It cannot be ignored at the same time that Azerbaijan, backed by revenues from energy resources, is spending considerable funds on its military build-up; it could possibly be nurturing the idea of recovering occupied territories by use of force at some appropriate time……”

But there are other frozen and simmering conflicts in the region �- of South Ossetia and Abkhazia which broke away from Georgia and have been recognised as sovereign states by Russia alone.

The volume ends with two chapters on India’s footprint the region. It summarises the centuries old ties that bound India with the region, but the current state of India’s bilateral relations the Caucasian states reflects the changed circumstances and current geo-political realities.

“India has been guided by the degree of inclination shown by these countries in reaching out to India (and) ……how each one has responded to India’s concerns and interests such as on the Kashmir issue, India’s nuclear policy, and its aspirations to be elected as a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council. At times India has found itself constrained by the need to maintain a balance between two conflicting countries in the region, e.g. Armenia and Azerbaijan. Finally, India has also had to take into account its strategic partner Russia’s sensitivities in the region, particularly….. Russia’s strained relations with Georgia.”

Armenia is the country that India has the closest relations with, encapsulated by the 1995 Treaty on Friendship and Cooperation. But trade relations with Azerbaijan and Georgia overshadow that.

The book flags an important issue that Indian policy makers will need to seriously reflect on and formulate policy for a complex region where new players �- Turkey, Iran, China — are entering the fray with increasing implications for India’s own defence, security and connectivity.

This volume could not have come at a better time.

The South Caucasus: Transition from Subjugation to Independence

Author: Ambassador Achal Kumar Malhotra

Publisher: Indian Council of World Affairs

Year: 2020