April 18th, 2007
Our journey from Tehran to Kars has been exhausting. An overnight train from Tehran to Tabriz, a taxi, a bus, another taxi and an execrable border crossing to Turkey followed by three more buses has left us in need of a few days on the beach to unwind. We are now, however, in the Caucasus, which has almost nothing in common with a beach. For a start, it’s snowing.
This region has played host to a wide series of conficts over the last two hundred years. One of many was explained to us on the bus, when our neigbour went through our guide book’s maps of Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey patiently enumerating all the towns (“Qamishie: Kurd… Diyarbakır: Kurd… Mosul: Kurd…”) which would form Kurdistan had he been in command of Sykes and Picot’s magic pencil.
Our guide to the ancient Armenian town of Ani proceeded to give us an exhaustive history of the last two hundred years of Caucasus history during the hour long drive. This also turned out to be the history of his family, who have spent the last two hundred years on the run from the various conflicts that have sent waves of people chaotically backwards and forwards across the region.
The Caucasus is an incredibly diverse region, with more than forty languages spoken by the various ethnic groups. Our guide was keen to blame most of the region’s problems on Russia. Certainly the first disaster to befall the Caucasus in modern times was the Russian empire’s expansionism, which saw it annexe Georgia in 1801. By the end of the 19th Century Russia had won a series of battles with Persia and the Ottoman empire (including the Siege of Kars) which saw them control the entire region. The region’s Christians were pretty happy about this – the Muslims less so.
When the Russian Empire was dissolved in 1917, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan seceded, but were rapidly beset by war with Turkey and civil war, following which they were absorbed into the Soviet Union. The region was invaded by the Nazis during world war II for their oil reserves, but the Soviet Union prevailed.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan became independent states – but Russia still interferes heavily in their politics, mainly in order to control their oil resources. Indeed until recently, the Russian flag was visible next to the Armenian flag in the army bases visible from Ani. The Russians are not keen on attempts by Turkey to normalise relations with Armenia, which may help explain why the border between Turkey and Armenia is still closed.
Ten regions of the North Caucasus are still part of the Russian federation – including the republics of Ingushetia and North Ossetia (in which the town of Beslan is to be found), which border Chechnya and are currently facing significant unrest.
The small part of the Caucasus we saw was beautiful, both bleak and haunting in the snow. However the region, trapped between Turkey, Iran and Russia, cursed by oil, seems likely to be troubled by conflict for some time to come.