The Caucasus: Cultural Divers ity and Political Instability

The Caucasus is located at various crossroads: those between Europe and Asia, north and south, east and west. The Black and Caspian Seas are separated by 500 km of high mountains. To the north is European Russia; to the south is Asia. The main Caucasus range is the highest in Russia. It provides a natural barrier to cold air masses from the north, as well as to travel between the Russian northern Caucasus and the independent trans-Caucasian republics to the south—Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Both sides of the mountain range are considered here, making this the first chapter in Part V to discuss some non-Russian republics of the former Soviet Union (FSU). The reason for this is geographic: The Caucasus is both a physical and a cultural region that is best discussed as a whole. Doing so will make it much easier to understand the multiple conflicts taking place there.

The Russian Caucasus is included in the South federal district, which occupies 600,000 km2 and contains 23 million people in 13 subjects of federation. The northernmost subjects are not in the mountains: Kalmykia, Volgograd, and Astrakhan Oblasts were formerly included in the Povolzhye economic region and mainly contain flat steppes. On the other hand, Krasnodarsky and Stavropolsky Krays and the eight autonomous republics are partially or wholly in the mountains. Again, the Caucasus main range provides a convenient natural boundary, with the mountains running at about 2,000–3,000 m continuously from northwest to southeast. Only one highway that is drivable year-round connects Russia with Georgia, via Ossetiya. Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan together account for 186,000 km2 (a territory 25% smaller than the United Kingdom), and have a combined population of only 15.7 million.

With respect to population, the South district of Russia is the second most densely populated territory after the Central district, with an-average density of 40/km2. It is also the least urbanized region, with only 58% of its population living in cities. It leads the country in fertility (only –0.1% natural decrease, as compared to –0.6% for the country as a whole in 2005), and it is also the poorest region among the seven federal districts, with only half of Russia's average gross regional product (GRP) per capita. If we were to seek an analogous region in the United States based on economic and social characteristics, this would be also in the South (Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana). Most of the demographic and economic peculiarities of the Russian Caucasus have to do with the ethnic republics, not with the predominantly Russian oblasts and krays.

The urbanization rate for the three independent trans-Caucasian republics is even lower (53%), and because of the high fertility in Azerbaijan, their overall natural growth rate is positive at 0.4%. The population is actually decreasing slightly in Armenia, while Georgia's population level is stable. The republics of the Caucasus, particularly Georgia and Dagestan, lead the FSU in average life expectancy. Some attribute this to clean mountain air, plenty of exercise, and a balanced natural diet (Karny, 2000).

Physical Geography

The physical environment of the Caucasus is remarkable. This is the warmest part of the FSU, with some subtropical vegetation present, especially along the Black Sea coast. The mountains, on the other hand, have snow-capped peaks and a number of substantial glaciers, especially near Mt. Elbrus, Dombai, and Kazbegi. The highest point, Mt. Elbrus, is the tallest peak in Europe at 5,642 m. Mt. Aragats in Armenia is slightly over 4,000 m. The Volga flows into the Caspian Sea in the northeast of the region, resulting in a massive delta rich in plant and animal life; the delta is actually located below sea level, at –28 m. The Volga is connected by a canal to the Don, which empties into the Sea of Azov and allows shipping to the Black and Mediterranean Seas beyond. The main rivers of the Caucasus (the Kuban, Terek, Rioni, and Kura) are short but powerful, and are heavily tapped for hydropower. Lake Sevan is an important body of water in central Armenia and is the largest lake in the region, if one does not include the Caspian Sea. Large reservoirs are located in Kalmykia Republic and Volgograd Oblast.

The Caucasus is relatively poor in minerals, but is rich in agricultural and bioclimatic resources. Azerbaijan and parts of the Russian Caspian Sea coast are rich in petroleum and have some natural gas. Georgia has significant deposits of manganese ore. Armenia has substantial reserves of construction stone. Despite the rich petroleum reserves of Baku, the region overall is energy deficient and has to import electricity and fossil fuels from other parts of the world, especially from the Volga region in Russia and from Turkmenistan. The Donbass coal basin is partially located in Rostov Oblast, on the border with Ukraine. Armenia has a nuclear power station inherited from the Soviet period, while all countries also have numerous hydropower installations.

The region has the mildest climate in the FSU. The growing season lasts over 6 months, about 1? months longer than in Central Russia. Sochi has an annual temperature of +14°C and remains frost-free all year. It receives 1,570 mm of precipitation, mostly in winter, and has a Mediterranean-like climate. Batumi, farther south along the coast in Georgia, is even warmer. It was the only subtropical part of the Soviet Union. Armenia has a dry mountainous climate that varies with elevation. Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea has a mild climate, although quite a bit drier than on the Black Sea coast. In the mountains the tree line occurs at about 2,200–2,500 m, with subalpine and alpine meadows extending to the snowline at around 3,000 m.

The South district of Russia is about 10% forest covered and provides little wood for the country, but what it has are the most valuable hardwood varieties—beech and oak. Moreover, it has about 80 million ha of arable land; consequently, it accounts for about 20% of all agricultural production, including some subtropical crops that cannot be grown anyplace else in Russia. The flat lands north of the mountains are used for raising wheat, corn, and (in a few places) rice. Kalmykia Republic and Volgograd Oblast have large sheepand cattle-ranching areas. Astrakhan Oblast's specialty is producing watermelons in the Volga floodplain. The Kuban River watershed produces all types of agricultural products. Farms in the region are among the largest and wealthiest in Russia. A strong Cossack culture ensures social stability and a good work ethic.

Overall, the South region of Russia accounts for two-thirds of the sunflowers, one-third of the grain, and one-quarter of the sugar beets and fruit harvested in the country.

The mountainous areas on the northern slopes of the Caucasus range provide opportunities for sheep ranching (over 60% of Russia's total), as well as for orchard crop production (apples, plums, cherries, and apricots) similar to that of the Yakima River basin in Washington State. The strip of the Black Sea coast between Anapa and Sochi and into Abkhazia is the only area in the FSU where tea and citrus fruit can be grown. This is also the main viticulture area of Russia. Georgian wines are legendary in quality and are produced from a few varieties of grapes with unique taste (e.g., the dark red saperavi). Armenia has limited arable land, but produces some highland grains, mutton, and brandy. Azerbaijan grows rice, tobacco, tea, and a variety of vegetables and fruit. It is the leading exporter of flowers to Russia among the FSU countries.

The South district of Russia has a few large protected areas, including the mountainous Caucasus and Teberda biosphere reserves, a unique yew–box tree grove in Khosta near Sochi, and two national parks surrounding Mt. Elbrus and Sochi. In the steppe-dominated north of the region, the very interesting Black Earth Zapovednik protects some of the driest ecosystems of Europe, including fragments of a real desert; it also includes Manych-Gudilo Lake, of international importance, with a host of bird species (pelicans, herons, geese, swans, and shorebirds).

The Astrakhan Zapovednik in the Volga Delta protects a pivotal wetland of the northern Caspian basin, with heron and ibis rookeries and sturgeon spawning grounds. The three independent trans-Caucasian republics had a few zapovedniks in Soviet times, but their state is uncertain now, with the ongoing conflicts in the region and a lack of state funding. Funding for Georgian preserves has improved under the new leadership of Mikheil Saakashvili. Poaching of animals and illegal logging of wood remain common in much of the Caucasus, both inside and outside Russia.

Cultural and Historical Features

The Caucasus is the first place in Asia where human remains are recorded, and the Fertile Crescent dated back to 1.8 million years ago. Anatomically modern humans lived in the region 250,000 years ago. In more recent times, the Caucasus was the easternmost fringe of the Roman Empire, and then was contested by the Persian, Ottoman, and Russian Empires. It remains a cauldron of ethnic conflicts today (see many references in Further Reading); those in Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetiya, Ossetiya, Abkhazia, and Nagorno-Karabakh can be mentioned. Most revolve around the issue of land control in the aftermath of the Soviet period, but many have also taken on religious or cultural overtones. This being said, the region presents remarkable opportunities for cultural studies and international cooperation.

Culturally, the Caucasus is the most diverse region in the FSU, if measured in number of languages per unit of area. Dagestan alone has five main languages (Avartsy, Dargintsy, Kumyks, Lezgin, and Lakhs) and two dozen secondary languages spoken in different parts, although the republic is only about the size of Costa Rica.

Besides the Russians, important groups in the northern Caucasus include the Circassians, Vainakhs, Ossetians, and Turkic-speaking Karachai and Balkars. Most of these groups (except Ossetians, who are Orthodox Christians) accepted Islam in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Georgians (Kartli, in their own language) have four subethnic groups and are indigenous inhabitants of the southern Caucasus with no immediate relatives. They are also Orthodox Christians and have a highly developed old culture (their golden period was in the 12th century under King David II, followed by Queen Tamar), with a unique alphabet, poetry, music, architecture, and dress style. The Armenians are Indo-European people of Asia Minor, with their own distinct language and alphabet, and a culture spanning two and a half millennia. Almost 2 million Armenians live in diaspora, from the Middle East to the United States. The Azerbaijanis are closely related to the Turks linguistically, but are Shiite Muslims by religion. More Azerbaijanis live in Iran than in Azerbaijan. The Naxcivean region of Azerbaijan is a separate exclave, with Armenia, Turkey, and Iran between it and the rest of the country.


Economically, the South district lags behind much of the rest of Russia. Although Volgograd and Rostov are large industrial centers, and Sochi is a Riviera with booming real estate, much of the region has below-average incomes. The poorest three republics in Russia are war-torn Chechnya (GRP unknown) and its neighbors Ingushetiya (about 15% of the national average) and Dagestan (about one-third of the national average). These are also the areas with the highest unemployment (24%), highest poverty rate, and highest fertility (2.15 children per woman, as compared to 1.40 for Russia as a whole). Even the richest subject, Krasnodarsky Kray, has only two-thirds of the national average GRP per capita. Among the three non-Russian states, Azerbaijan is the richest ($9,500 GRP per capita in 2008), and Georgia is the poorest ($4,700), with Armenia slightly above Georgia's level ($6,300). Most of the wealth in Azerbaijan comes from exports of petroleum, but it is spread across the population very unevenly. Armenia is heavily reliant on remittances from the large diaspora living abroad, especially in the United States, Lebanon, and France; in this sense, it is similar to El Salvador and other Central American economies. It also has the friendliest relations with Russia of the three countries.

Georgia is currently led by a strongly pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili, who seems eager to push for closer relations with NATO and is known to have received Western cash support for his package of reforms. Nevertheless, the main foreign sources of income for Georgia remain exports of fruit, wine, mineral water, and a limited amount of minerals. Russia's politically motivated embargo on Georgian wine exports since 2006 has hurt the Georgian economy somewhat. At the same time, the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline completed in 2006 now allows Georgia to receive substantial payments for transshipment of Caspian Sea oil to the West. In August 2008, a vicious military conflict between pro-Russian South Ossetiya and Georgia escalated into a real war when the Georgian government shelled the Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, in the middle of the night in a bid to retake the lost territory. The Russian-backed military response was unexpectedly strong, and Georgia lost after a few days of fighting what was the most significant conflict for Russia outside its proper territory in the entire post-Soviet period.

The situation in South Ossetiya and Abkhazia in the aftermath of the conflict remains uncertain, with both appealing to the international community to recognize them as independent countries. Both like to cite Kosovo as a precedent in Europe, but so far they have been recognized only by a handful of U.N. members, with Russia being the most prominent.

The two largest cities within the South region of Russia are Rostov-on-Don and Volgograd (the Stalingrad of World War II), with about 1 million people each. The former specializes in coal processing, production of synthetic fibers and plastics, agricultural machinery building, banking, and educational services. It is also a large port on the Don, connected to both the Azov Sea and the Volga via a canal, and is thus a major transportation hub. Rostov Oblast gave the world the writers Anton Chekhov (author of The Seagull, Three Sisters, other plays, and numerous short stories) and Mikhail Sholokhov (And Quiet Flows the Don). Volgograd is one of the longest cities in Russia, stretching for 100 km along the west bank of the Volga. It has a large tractor plant producing about one-quarter of all tractors in Russia.

It also has a number of steel and petrochemical enterprises, an aluminum smelter, a ball-bearing factory, and many others. Both Rostov and Volgograd Oblasts are important agricultural areas. Rostov Oblast, for example, is the second biggest producer of hogs in the country and produces a lot of vegetable oil.

The city of Krasnodar (population 646,000) is a major industrial center of the region as well. Its main specialties are petroleum processing, agricultural machinery building, and light industry (clothing, shoes, etc.). Krasnodarsky Kray is one of the top five agricultural producers in the nation. Of particular note are rice, tea, wine, and tobacco production. There are over 100 sanatoria and 75 large tourist camps along the Black Sea coast from Novorossiysk to Adler. Sochi is the future home of the 2014 Winter Olympics and is one of the most expensive places to own a home in Russia. North of Sochi, the city of Tuapse has a major oil refinery and is the terminal for the future underwater pipeline into Turkey. Farther north, an underwater gas pipeline was completed into Turkey from Novorossiysk in 2004. Novorossiysk is Russia's biggest seaport and is especially important for shipping petroleum across the Black Sea.

The small republics on the northern slope of the Caucasus have relatively underdeveloped cities and industries. Many specialize in mining and ranching. There are some small factories making cement, plywood, electric equipment, furniture, clothing, and food, mainly for local consumption. Karachaevo-Cherkessiya and Kabardino-Balkariya have developed downhill ski resorts and backpacker routes. The mineral spa areas of Pyatigorsk and Kislovodsk are a big draw for people from Central Russia and are well described in Mikhail Lermontov's poems from the 19th century. Over 80 resorts existed here in the late Soviet period, but fewer are open now.

The economic strengths of Georgia are few. Good climate and beautiful scenery do not make a country particularly rich or enable it to count on many tourists unless it is also politically stable, which Georgia at the moment is not. However, Georgia does have small-scale mining of manganese and other ores in the mountains, some hydropower production, and limited light manufacturing and food industries. The capital, Tbilisi (population 1,090,000), is a big, ancient, and beautiful city undergoing much-needed renovation and restoration. The poet Lermontov painted a small picture of Tbilisi in 1837 that transmits the city's charm really well. Tbilisi now is a much larger city, of course; it even has its own subway. It is the main political, cultural, educational, and economic center of Georgia. Other cities include Gori, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin; Batumi and Poti, ports on the Black Sea; and Rustavi, Kutaisi, and Zugdidi.

Georgia's future prospects depend on developing the Caspian oil transshipment and perhaps refining; forming closer ties with the European Union (EU) and NATO; and especially improving its currently strained relations with Russia, still the biggest trade partner and most influential political player in the Caucasus region. Casting an uneasy shadow on the situation are the two regional conflicts in Abkhazia (capital, Soukhumi) and South Ossetiya (capital, Tskhinvali).

Armenia is the only landlocked country of the trans-Caucasus and is the smallest in area. Although it is slightly wealthier than Georgia in 2008, partially due to a strong flow of remittances from abroad, it is geographically much less advantaged. Two other nations—its historical archenemy, Turkey, perpetrator of the hotly debated Armenian genocide in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; and its more recent antagonist, Azerbaijan—prevent shipping of any supplies in or out of Armenia from the west and the east, respectively. Political negotiations with Turkey in 2009 seem to have eased the situation somewhat. Limited trade exists with Georgia and Iran (soon to be connected by a railroad), but its biggest trade partner is Russia. Armenia is an arid high-mountain country, with virtually all of its land above 1,000 m elevation. It has well-developed industry and formerly had a very well-educated workforce, including world-famous doctors and engineers; its musicians and chess players were also renowned. Many of these people, unfortunately, were forced to leave the country in the turbulent 1990s or earlier, and are unlikely to come back soon.

Energy independence is a big goal for Armenia. It recently restarted its Soviet-era nuclear power plant to provide much-needed electricity. Armenia has limited production of gold and gems, as well as plenty of construction materials, but virtually no fossil fuels. It has endured a prolonged conflict with Azerbaijan over the control of the Nagorno-Karabakh exclave, east of Armenia proper. That Armenian-populated region was placed by Stalin inside Azerbaijan as an autonomous region, but was long sought by the Armenians.

The smaller but more motivated Armenian army, along with paramilitary groups, drove the Azerbaijanis out in 1994, and a cease-fire was declared. Many of the Azerbaijani refugees from that war ended up living in Baku. Most of the industries in Armenia now are scaled-down versions of those from Soviet times, when it used to produce some high-quality washing machines, electrical equipment, clothing, and tools. Pig iron and nonferrous metals are currently Armenia's most valuable exports. Yerevan, with over 1 million people, is the biggest cultural and economic center of the country. Other important cities include Sevan near the famous lake of the same name, Vanadzor, and Gyumri in the country's north.

Azerbaijan is the wealthiest of the three independent Caucasian republics, but much of its wealth belongs to a small minority of businesspeople with close ties to the autocratic president, Ilham Aliyev. Azerbaijan's economy is tied to oil and gas development; the oldest continuously producing oil fields in the world are located on the Apsheron Peninsula. The country is thought to have between 9 and 14 billion barrels of oil left in reserves, comparable to the reserves of Algeria or Norway. Virtually all of the oil is produced offshore, but the Caspian Sea is shallow and warm, and with the construction of the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline the oil can now quickly reach customers in Europe (Balat, 2006).

Some of Azerbaijan's oil (out of a total of 1.1 million barrels per day) still flows to Novorossiysk in Russia, where it is put on tankers to be shipped across the Black Sea. The Apsheron Peninsula is badly polluted with petroleum and heavy metals. In 2006 Sumgait, north of Baku, was listed as one of the 10 most polluted places on earth by the U.S.-based Blacksmith Institute.

The second most important source of income is
agriculture; the climate of Azerbaijan along the coast is warm enough to grow cotton, rice, tobacco, and a variety of vegetables and fruit. Freshcut flowers are supplied to Moscow markets from early spring onward. The biggest industrial hub is the capital, Baku. Baku is a large metropolitan area with a population of 2 million. It has a mixture of old and new architecture and is located on the south side of the Apsheron Peninsula in a scenic bay. Most of the country's wealth and power is concentrated here. Ganja is the second biggest city in the far western part of the country, with a rich historical past. The famed 13th-century poet Nizami is buried in a mausoleum here.

Challenges and Opportunities in the Caucasus

The future of the Caucasus is very important for the rest of the FSU and for the entire world. First of all, the Caspian Sea basin represents one of the last relatively large remaining sources of petroleum in the world, and at present the main way to take that oil out is via either Russia or Georgia.

Second, the Caucasus has the mildest climate in the entire FSU. It used to receive up to 10 million tourists from the rest of the U.S.S.R. per year in the 1980s, but has only half as many now. Tea and citrus plantations, vineyards, and a variety of natural areas, sanatoria, spas, camps, and of course beaches are amply represented here. The Caucasus is also a well-watered place, which is important in the warming and drying world of today. Third, the Caucasus is an amazing melting pot of cultures and traditions. It is a haven for anthropologists, archeologists, linguists, and other researchers (Catford, 1977). Fourth, the Caucasus is one of only 25 global “biodiversity hotspots,” according to Conservation International (2010). Its entire flora, for example, is over 6,000 species of vascular plants—about the same as California's. Many rare animals make their homes in the mountains.

There are still large tracts of wilderness available for maintaining ecological balance, for primitive recreation, and for education. Finally and significantly, the Caucasus is located on the Asian fringe of Europe. Whether Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan align themselves most closely with the EU, Russia, or the Middle East has major implications for the political balance of power in the region and for the prospects of peace on the planet (Goltz, 2006; Huttenbach, 1996; King, 2008).


  1. Explore any personal connections with the Caucasus and its cultures in your family, among friends, and/or in the community where you live. Which cultures, languages, or traditions do you have access to?
  2. Propose a new investment strategy for a wealthy Western investor in the Caucasus. What countries or industries would be good choices? Which ones would be poor choices? Present your findings in class.
  3. Do an online search of nature-oriented tour offerings in the greater Caucasus. Which areas are heavily marketed and why?