One Caucasus

The Caucasus - love at first sight
The Caucasus – love at first sight

The Caucasus summoned me and I obeyed.

Now I am back where I started, at home in Wales, trying to make sense of it all. I fell in love with the Caucasus. I don’t want to over-analyse why I love it so, but I have John Wurdeman’s words ringing in my ears – thoughts need decantation, not only wine.

Stories need a beginning, a middle and an end, so here are my final thoughts to round off the tale – personal musings on a few threads that feel important to me after my four visits to the region.

I knew beauty and joy in the Caucasus – that is the front-page headline. While I can also experience joy at home, I came back to my own hearth feeling emotionally richer and more content. I don’t wish to lay upon the peoples of the South Caucasus the allegation that their region is perfect. It is not. But I found it profoundly beguiling and nourishing, a reminder to me of the importance I attach to wild nature and to the life of the spirit.

There is a sense of the sacred in the Caucasus; you feel it in the air and it is a complex and many-layered thing. A deep understanding of spirituality in the Caucasus would probably take a lifetime of study, but what is immediately striking is that this part of the world cleaves to religious belief – and this after seven decades in an atheist empire, the Soviet Union.

When my mind dwells on Caucasus spirituality, I personally tend to think of the Georgian region of Tusheti, where there are Christian churches but also many pagan shrines called “khati” adorned with animal horns. Both in Armenia and Georgia, the world’s oldest Christian nations, paganism lives on even today as an element in the spiritual mix.

Falling in love with the Caucasus is a fate that has befallen many visitors. I am not alone! This land of resilient people and awe-inspiring peaks higher than the Alps gets under the skin of many a traveller and never leaves them. It is the polar opposite of bland. Writers, of course, leave the fullest accounts of their passion. One of my main learnings has been the discovery of at least a small portion of the literature inspired by the Caucasus and savouring just how wonderful it is.

Many of the titans of Russian literature have gone to the Caucasus and been shaped by their travels – Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Leo Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky, Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak and Vasily Grossman come to mind. If you took the Caucasus out of Russian literature it would leave a gaping hole. I wonder whether any other mountain chain in the world has served as such a powerful muse.

Tolstoy’s case is particularly striking because Caucasus themes inspired him at every stage in his career, after he volunteered for the Russian army at the age of 23 to fight against the Chechens. Even his final novel, the magnificent “Hadji Murád”, is set in the North Caucasus. He wrote it half a century after he first went there in the early 1850s and he wrote it during a period when he spent much of his time denouncing fiction. “Hadji Murád”, an almost unbearably moving tale of the horrible waste of war, is one of the masterpieces of world literature.

Looking beyond Russian letters, English-language authors too have found their voice after setting foot in these lands. Take Englishman Douglas Freshfield, a member of the first team to climb Mount Kazbek back in 1868. He also wrote extensively, and very touchingly, about the Caucasus. In his two-volume work “The Exploration of the Caucasus”‘ Freshfield seeks to play down his literary skills and describes himself as a matter-of-fact mountaineer. But Freshfield was so much more than that – he was a writer.

On one of his journeys he travelled through some very remote parts of Abkhazia, entering by way of Svaneti, up to the northeast. In a chapter entitled “The SoIitude of Abkhasia” he describes the view on the upper reaches of the Kodor river.

“It was not so much any individual peak that fixed the eye as the glory of the whole landscape – the rolling leagues of forest, the broad hills bright in the early sunbeams, the flashes of light in the depths; here a cliff, there a sinuous reach of river, nowhere any sign of human habitation.”

Freshfield makes it clear that for him the Caucasus was a welcome change from the roar of late 19th century London; it was an experience of spiritual solace.

“Men may still, as in past ages, look to the mountains for their spiritual help. In the shining silence of the storehouses of the snow we may find a welcome interlude to the perpetual gloom of our northern cities and the din of a commercial civilisation.”

In our own times too, the Caucasus has proved to be a muse. U.S. journalist Wendell Steavenson lived in Tbilisi at a time of economic hardship and acute power shortages in the 1990s. She fell head over heels for the place and proceeded to write “Stories I Stole”, an electrifying love song to Georgia. It is a non-fiction work of great beauty and her attention to detail is Tolstoyan.

One friend of mine has told me that I have become a Georgian “infatué”. (I know, this word isn’t in the dictionary. But it should be.) I plead guilty and when I read Steavenson I feel I am in good company.

I have heard the view expressed, in my own country, that the Caucasus region belongs to “the periphery”, whatever that means exactly. A big part of my learning is that in my gut I know that the Caucasus is not peripheral. It has become important in the contents of my head and I am still on a journey to understand it more deeply.

The Caucasus region is evolving and changing and trying to find its place in a turbulent world. So, I would like to look briefly at forces that are pulling the three countries of the South Caucasus further apart and forces that are bringing them closer together.

That same Russia, whose poets have sung the praises of the Caucasus, has been a deadly player in the geopolitical game in these parts and still plays a central role, very much in the spirit of the classic adage “divide and conquer”. Travelling through the region, I found that I had to decant my thoughts on Russia. To change the usual metaphor a little, Russia always felt like the bear in the room.

Taking a deep historical perspective, it is clear that Russia has had within it a strong expansionary dynamic. British historian Orlando Figes, in “Natasha’s Dance A Cultural History of Russia”, writes: “From the capture of Kazan in 1552 to the revolution in 1917, the Russian Empire grew at the fantastic rate of over 100,000 square kilometres every year.” The hunt for lucrative furs first drew the Russians on.

Today, Russia cannot expand in the same way. But this long history of pushing out the boundaries of the empire for earthly gain surely means that it has no model for how to build a friendly, co-operative relationship with immediate neighbours. It has to build such a model from scratch. Several of the countries that have escaped Russia’s grasp, such as the Baltic states, Ukraine and Georgia, are not on friendly terms with the Kremlin.

I pick up too another sort of restlessness in Russia’s history, a yearning to be relevant on the world stage. At its best, this has been pitched in high-flown idealistic terms. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in a speech on Pushkin in 1877, said: “Yes, the vocation of the Russian man is indisputably an all-European and a world-wide vocation. Perhaps indeed to become a genuine complete Russian can only mean (in the last resort, let me emphasize) to become the brother of all men.” In the light of 20th century history, these words have a hollow ring. I think Dostoyevsky was sincere and I am left with a feeling that today’s nuclear-armed Russia, with its bristling fleets and fighter planes, is still searching for its vocation in the world and is not a happy bear. And this disgruntlement is not good for Russia. Nor is it good for its neighbours or for the world.

One priority for the countries of the South Caucasus is to shape and implement policies towards Russia. When the Soviet Union tottered towards its end there was ebullience, a sense of release. Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan had their troubles when the Soviet empire fell and trade links were disrupted, but they all shared a sense of turning a page of history and starting anew.

In the first instance, both Georgia and Armenia moved away from Russia.

The Polish foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski was in the Armenian capital Yerevan when the Soviet Union was in its death throes. In his book “Imperium” he writes: “Russian signs, posters, portraits — it is all gone. The city is undergoing a period of intense and scrupulous de-Russification. Many Russians are leaving; Russian schools are closing, as are Russian theatres. There are no Russian newspapers or books. They have also stopped teaching Russian in Armenian schools.”

It is fascinating to read this now because Armenia has since done a U-turn and become a close ally of Russia. In Yerevan there are now Russian newspapers, books and theatre. Even more to the point there are Russian soldiers, invited in by the government to provide defence and patrol the border with NATO member Turkey.

Georgia, on the other hand, actually fought (and lost) a war with Russia and pro-Russian separatists control a fifth of its territory, to the great chagrin of Georgians. In other words, the two countries have given diametrically opposed answers to the fundamental question “What sort of relationship shall we have with Russia?” It is true that Tbilisi, since the 2008 war, has sought to improve its ties with Moscow. But there is still a gulf between the Russia policies of the two countries. Today’s Georgia aspires to be part of the European Union and NATO.

Looking out for decades, Armenia sees its future in alliance with Russia. In 2015, when I was in Yerevan, I submitted some questions by e-mail to Armenia’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Shavarsh Kocharyan, and he replied on November 18.

I asked whether the agreement over the stationing of Russian troops in Armenia had a time limit. He replied: “According to the agreement between Armenia and Russia signed in 1995 and according to the protocol on amending the agreement signed in 2010, the deployment of the Russian military base in Armenia has been extended till 2044.”

Armenia has agreed to pay part of the cost of the base and this close alliance with Russia is not universally popular. One Armenian woman told me how cross she was that a restaurant in the country’s second city Gyumri had a menu only in Russian – Gyumri hosts the Russian 102nd Military Base. But the alliance is a fact of life. Not only is there a military pact, but Armenia is heavily dependent on Russia for energy supplies such as natural gas and fuel for a nuclear power station.

Now Georgia’s leaders want to take their country into NATO. At the very least this would deepen the divide with its southern neighbour Armenia. Mirroring the situation in Armenia, this pro-NATO stance does not enjoy full support in Georgia. I know my guide in Svaneti, Lasha Tkeshelashvili, believed Georgia should have a policy of neutrality. I don’t see how taking Georgia into NATO could make the Caucasus or the world any more peaceful. It doesn’t feel like wisdom. In a worst case scenario it could even be a trigger for a cataclysmic conflict between NATO and Russia. Extending NATO into the human fault lines of the Caucasus could make even less sense than building nuclear plants in an earthquake-prone zone. Why tempt fate?

Conflict over Artsakh, or Karabakh, looms large
Conflict over Artsakh, or Karabakh, looms large

The pro-Russian alignment of Armenia is understandable when you look at the world from an Armenian point of view. A century after the Genocide, Armenians still see Turkey as the historical enemy and feel they need Russia as a friend. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict also comes into the equation in a big way.

Armenians are attached to holding onto this region, taken from Azerbaijan in war, and this attachment means they cannot afford to have Russia hostile to them. Even though it is allied to Armenia, Russia still sells arms to Azerbaijan. Russia is in a perfect position to stir up trouble, were the alliance with Armenia to falter.

I asked the deputy foreign minister about the Armenia government’s view of the Russian arms sales to Azerbaijan. He made Yerevan’s unhappiness perfectly clear.

“Russia is the ally of Armenia. Our cooperation with Russia includes all the areas, including the military field, we buy weapons from Russia. Indeed, we are not pleased with the fact that Russia also sells arms to Azerbaijan.”

One view among students of South Caucasus affairs is that it suits Russia for there to be no solution to the Karabakh conundrum.

“Russia uses the conflict to keep its influence in the region,” said a political analyst from a European Union country in Yerevan.

Over the years since the May 1994 ceasefire there have been attempts by the international community to settle this conflict, which still claims lives. But with bigger matters like the Syria war demanding attention diplomatic energy has drained away from Karabakh.

I heard a telling comment from someone who took part in a meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna in November 2014. It is the OSCE’s so-called Minsk Group which has sought to bring a peaceful settlement for Karabakh. This particular meeting looked at a range of international questions.

“When Karabakh came up, some people left the room and others started texting,” the participant told me in a conversation in Yerevan.

The conflict is one huge barrier to better political co-operation – soldiers facing one another on a front-line running from north to south at the heart of the South Caucasus make a mockery of any real attempt by governments to build regional unity.

"All Armenians dream of Ararat."
“All Armenians dream of Ararat.”

The Welsh call it “hiraeth”, while the Portuguese talk about “saudade”. It is nostalgia, a longing deep in the soul. It struck me on my travels that the people of this region are experiencing more than their fair share of “hiraeth”.

The older people among the ethnic Armenians who now have Karabakh all to themselves long to stroll by the Caspian Sea along the Baku Boulevard as they did in their youth. But war has deprived them of that pleasure. There are trenches, guns and bullets between them and the sea – a border as firmly closed as any border can be.

The ethnic Azeris who used to live in Karabakh but had to flee long for their homes and those glorious forested hills. But war has deprived them too.

Ethnic Georgians forced out of Abkhazia during the bloodshed of the early 1990s long for their homes on the Black Sea shore. But war trumped their hopes.

In Yerevan, Armenians look out over Mount Ararat on the other side of the Turkish border and remember that before the Genocide that part of the world was inhabited by Armenians. One day, on a Yerevan omnibus, a man said to me within moments of striking up a conversation that “all Armenians dream of Ararat.”

Too much unrequited longing is not good, but just possibly it can become a fuel for the creation of a better South Caucasus.

I know of at least two initiatives that seek to transcend borders and I wish them well.

The first is the annual One Caucasus Festival, which started in 2014 and brings together musicians and other creative spirits in the Georgian region of Marneuli. The festival’s website explains why this region was chosen as venue.

“The Caucasus suffers from many conflicts. The region of Marneuli is a borderland of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and is known for being a place where many ethnic and religious groups have been living in peace for many years. It is quite unique in the Caucasus which continues to suffer from a range of conflicts and tensions. Our aim is, with the support of the local municipality, to create an inspirational & safe space to foster the meetings and collaboration of young people from the entire Caucasus region.”

The website says that funding for the festival is international, with some financial support coming from the governments of the United States and Poland, Warsaw City Hall and the French Institute of Georgia.

The other project that straddles borders is the planned Transcaucasian Trail from the Black Sea to the Caspian. Given the political complexities of the Caucasus, it is remarkable that brave souls have embarked on this venture. In years to come, this has the potential to be second to none among the great trails of the planet.

The website transcaucasiantrail.org lays out a vision of “a world-class, long-distance hiking trail that crosses the Greater Caucasus and Lesser Caucasus and connects diverse communities and ecosystems, providing lasting and wide-ranging benefits for people and the environment.”

Each of the two intersecting trail corridors will be about 1,500 km long and the website says that the work to create these trails will unfold over the next five years.

It lists as one of its aims “improved cross-border cooperation that contributes to the stability in the region.”

The trail’s website addresses the question “How will you build a trail in a region with breakaway territories and frozen conflicts?”

The answer: “It won’t be easy and it may take many years but we believe it is possible. People have crossed these mountains for centuries and we hope it will become easier to cross certain areas in the decades ahead. By starting to build a trail we would like to help spur more positive and ambitious approaches.”

The spirit of Douglas Freshfield is surely following all of this with keen interest.

I salute these initiatives with all my heart.

Gaumarjos! To your victory.

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Baku – a modern but muted capital

The Flame Towers in Baku
The Flame Towers in Baku
Baku Bay
Baku Bay

Baku, Azerbaijan’s elegant capital on the shores of the Caspian Sea, boasts glittering new buildings that pierce the sky. Looking at the futuristic Flame Towers, all sinuous curves and bright lights, you expect a city with buzz.

But somehow the buzz just isn’t there. Where are the buskers, the beggars, the clamorous moments of big city life? Baku, or Baki as the locals call it, is agreeable and modern, fresh from its successful hosting of the European Games in June. But something isn’t quite right – something is missing.

I think it is a little concept called freedom of speech. I pick up quickly that self-censorship is in the air. You just breathe it in, along with the aroma of your morning coffee.

This is a most friendly and courteous city, with a splendid tree-lined promenade by the Caspian to enchant the visitor. But it’s not a city where you stand on a soap box and denounce the government. Or if you do, you bear in mind that it could be seriously bad for your health.

Sorting out my reactions to Baku, which felt to me as if it were under sedation, I started to read recent news stories about Azerbaijan. They were both illuminating and depressing.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists rated Azerbaijan as the fifth most censored country in the world, after Eritrea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia. In other words, the committee sees Azerbaijan’s media as the most repressed anywhere in the former Soviet Union. That is quite an achievement; it beats some stiff competition.

Here is a chronology of some recent events concerning Azeri journalists and human rights activists.

June 2015 – Opposition journalist Emin Huseynov, director of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, flees the country after taking refuge for months in the Swiss embassy. He flies out on the plane of the Swiss foreign minister.

9 August 2015 – Huseynov’s successor as head of the institute, journalist Rasim Aliyev, dies of injuries in a Baku hospital after being severely beaten by a group of people the previous day. Officials link the death to criticism of a football player but human rights watchdogs say it could have been prompted by photos he posted online of police brutality and social deprivation.

13 August 2015 – Leading human rights activists Leyla and Arif Yunus are jailed on charges which include fraud and tax evasion. Leyla, director of the Institute of Peace and Democracy, is jailed for eight-and-a-half years, her husband Arif, a well-known historian, for seven years. Both have severe health problems.

1 Sept 2015 – Prominent journalist Khadija Ismayilova is jailed for seven-and-a-half years on charges which include tax evasion and illegal business activities. Ismayilova, who worked for the U.S.-government financed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, is known for her work exposing corruption in the Azeri elite and reporting on the business dealings of President Ilham Aliev. During her trial, Ismayilova describes the government of President Aliev as a “repression machine”.

President Aliev inherited his post from his father, Heidar Aliev, who dominated the politics of his country for decades and once headed the KGB in Azerbaijan. The president has set out his views on the core values of good journalism in a book entitled “I challenge the journalists to patriotism”.

The president himself is very patriotic. You can tell because up and down the land are big portraits of him posing next to the national flag. Sometimes these portraits have a fetching stone surround. This makes them look rather like shrines, which perhaps in a way they are.

It is the good fortune of the president and the misfortune of Azerbaijan’s bloodied human rights movement that the country is rich in oil and gas.. This was one of the places where the modern oil industry was born, in the 19th century, and it still has large reserves. Azerbaijan does business with Western oil companies and has been polishing a Western image, but it has jailed so many of its pro-Western intellectuals that this posturing looks hollow.

Writing in Foreign Affairs magazine a year ago, Caucasus expert Thomas de Waal said that Azerbaijan had embarked on the biggest human rights crackdown in wider Europe. He said an estimated 98 political prisoners were in jail.

Fuelled by its oil wealth, Azerbaijan has also gone on an arms-buying spree. In a war with Armenia in the early 1990s, Azerbaijan lost 20,000 dead and nearly 14 percent of its internationally recognised territory. This was the region of Nagorno-Karabakh and some other adjacent areas. Baku’s proclaimed aim is to win this territory back and it has been buying attack aircraft, artillery systems, surface-to-air missiles and drones from Israel, Pakistan and Russia.

I did not bring up the subject of politics with Azeris I met in Baku and they inquired about matters which interested them. What did I think of Azeri women? What are British women like? What do they drink? How big is my pension?

All the Azeris I met unfailingly showed me kindness. But the buttoned-up quality of the place would have tested me had I stayed for long. It is striking how quickly the outsider conforms to the habit of self-censorship. When foreign travellers in Baku discuss Armenia, their voices drop to a whisper. It’s that kind of subject; it’s that kind of place.

The night train to Baku

Waiting at the Azerbaijan border
Waiting at the Azerbaijan border

If your idea of a train journey is to travel in style, with a dining car and no border formalities, never take the night train from Tbilisi to Baku.

Who knows whether the EU’s Schengen borderless zone will survive, but right now travellers in Europe are spoilt. Going by train in April from Poland to Slovakia I didn’t know when I had left one and entered the other. Travelling from Tbilisi to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, is a different story.

Let me give a short account. I bought my ticket at Tbilisi Central a day ahead and chose second class for 60 lari ($26). Three classes of travel were on offer and with my ticket I would get a place in a four-berth sleeper.

Train journeys always say something about a country’s priorities. Tbilisi Central is not in great shape. The platforms look as if they were hit years ago by slight earth tremors and never repaired.

The train, with carriages painted green and cream, left smack on time at 4.30 p.m. The timetable listed 50 stops (yes, 50) between Tbilisi and Baku. Not an express then. Travelling time was due to be 14 hours 40 minutes, to cover 551 km. My companions were three affable Azeri young men who told me Baku was much nicer than Tbilisi.

There was no dining or buffet car, but when we arrived at the Georgian border we were able to buy drinks and snacks at little shops in the station, where we had a one-hour scheduled stop. Then we moved slowly to the Azerbaijan border, where we had another scheduled 60-minute stop. One border guard took my photo and another rummaged through my luggage, paying particular attention to reading matter in the best traditions of a police state.

At the Azerbaijan border it was pretty warm on the train and I went into the corridor at one point to get some air. A train stewardess whom I nicknamed the Gulag guard brusquely ordered me to “sit down” in my compartment. Not wishing to create an international incident I complied, but soon the corridor filled with sweat-soaked passengers yearning to be cool.

Eventually we got through the border and had some sleep under spotless bedclothes, but hours before arriving in Baku the Gulag guard knocked on our doors and insisted that we rise, so that she could gather the bedclothes.

The view outside was of scrub and low brown hills. The final approach to Baku was the best bit of the journey. The Caspian Sea came into view on the right of the train and on the left for a while was a lake with petrels, I think, swooping low over the water. Scattered over the landscape on both sides of us were dozens of “nodding donkeys” pumping oil. Very atmospheric!

We arrived in Baku one hour and five minutes late, making it a journey of 15 hours 45 minutes. I am glad I did the train ride, but once was enough. Taxis take half the time and if costs are shared work out as not very much more expensive.