Even though Georgia and the USA have formal ties, Azerbaijan is also pro Western, having formal relations with Israel. It has supported the war in Afghanistan and made logistical facilities available to the USA. This is another one of Russia's woes but this does not mean that Azerbaijan is not without its own problems. Before WWll it was a lot bigger than it is now. Most of what was Azerbaijan is now Iran and that is where the majority of Azerbaijanis now live. The Imam Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was an Azaibijani but whereas he was a Shi’ite nearly all Azerbaijanis are Sunni Muslims. Shi'ites are more sacred and take literally the word of the Koran, whereas Sunnis are slightly more secular and model their behaviour on the way Muhammed conducted his life. If it helps, you can think of the Shi'ites as being more akin to the Catholics and the Sunnis more akin to the protestants. An important issue Azerbaijan has with Iran is that Iran is sending clerics into their land to open Shi'ite schools and thus dilute the beliefs of their country. Adding to the complexity, Azerbaijan has long been a major producer of oil and has recently become an exporter of natural gas near the capital of Baku, exporting it to Turkey via a pipeline passing through Georgia. From the Turkish point of view, this provides alternative sources of energy to Russia and Iran, something that obviously pleases the United States. It is also an obvious reason why Russia sees Azerbaijan as undermining its position as the region’s dominant energy exporter.
Moscow, for its part would welcome the installation of a pro-Russian leaning regime in Georgia to link up both with its 1998 gains in the region and its position in Armenia. They would then become a force to harass Turkey and to Face Azerbaijan. The USA would oppose this for the same reasons that Russia would want it. The Russians would like to be able to integrate Azerbaijan’s exports into its broader energy policy, which would concentrate power in Russian hands and increase Russian influence on Russia’s periphery. This was made clear by Russia’s recent offer to buy all of Azerbaijan’s natural gas at European-level prices. Any gains by Russia in the region would disadvantage Turkey so whether they want to or not, Turkey must support Georgia.
Iran would like nothing better than to re-establish its pre WWll dominance over Azerbaijan but such a move is not in the offing and is very unlikely to happen. What would be a problem for Iran, so far as it has one, is that the opposite would happen and Azerbaijanis living within Iran would try to link up with their former homeland. Consider this from the American side. When we look at the map, we notice that Azerbaijan borders both Russia and Iran. That strategic position alone makes it a major asset to the United States. Add to it oil in Baku and investment by U.S. companies, and Azerbaijan becomes even more attractive. Add to this that its oil exports support Turkey and weaken Russian influence, and its value goes up again. Finally, add to it that Turkey infuriated Azerbaijan by negotiating with Armenia without tying the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh to any Turkish-Armenian settlement. Altogether, the United States has the opportunity to forge a beneficial relationship with Azerbaijan that would put U.S. hands on one of Turkey’s sources of oil. At a time when the Turks recognize a declining dependence on the United States, anything that could increase that dependence helps Washington. Moreover, Azerbaijan is a platform from which Washington could make the Iranians uncomfortable, or from which it could conduct negotiations with Iran.
The Kurds are the worlds largest ethnic group without a homeland of their own. Although not directly in the Caucasus theatre, the land they lay claim to extends across Northern Iraq; South East Turkey and into Iran. The Kurdish military the PKK has for some time been making forays into Turkey out of Iraq. If they, at some future time, caused problems in Iran and laid claim to the lands occupied by Azerbaijani groups this has the potential to cause a domino effect into the Caucuses proper. Since this land is in the region of some of Iran's richest oil fields then Iran would make this potential problem go away before it became a real problem however it is another factor to be built into the equation.
As mentioned earlier, Russia has its own ethnic problems. The Greater Caucuses are home to a myriad of ethnic groups. STRATFOR (The Office of Strategic Forecasting) identifies 16 separate groupings however The Joshua Project, who have given themselves the task of selling Evangelical Christianity to peoples who have had 1200 years of Islam, identify 24 so theirs is the map I am going to go with. I have not looked into all 24 groups myself but I will give you a few to let you see the type of peoples they are. The Chechen people are definitely the stone in Russia's shoe. They are the Russian equivalent of the Taliban, the same ones who saw off the Red Army from the mountains of Afghanistan. Remember that Russia cannot afford to loose its foothold in the Caucuses so it must contain the situation at all costs.
Chechen Peoples (Population 1 431 000)
The Chechen live in the remote valleys of the Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. They are a strong, determined people with a long history of fighting for their independence. Soviet rule dominated the Chechen during the first half of the 20th century. For years the Chechen had based land tenure upon joint-clan ownership. When the Soviets introduced the idea of property ownership by society rather than by clan, the Chechen fiercely opposed it.
When World War II broke out, most Chechen opposed the Germans and fought alongside the Red Army. Despite this, in 1944 many of the Chechen and their
The Chechen span a variety of occupations and income levels. Most grow grains, vegetables or fruit; others work in oil refineries or are stockbreeders, particularly of fine-fleeced sheep. Chechen women work outside of their homes daily, as do other women in the former Soviet Union. The Chechen generally marry outside their own clans. Marriage between blood relations is forbidden within a span of three generations. A dowry is paid by the bridegroom's family to the bride or her family as a guarantee against divorce. Traditionally, a Chechen wife is not allowed to eat with her husband or to speak to his relatives; her role is one of subordination.
The core of the Chechen society is the taip, a clan-like organization whose members descend from a common ancestor. An assembly of elders, with their own court, rules each taip.
Ossetian Peoples (Population 529 000)
The Ossetians call themselves "Irons" or "Digorons," and are one of the oldest Caucasian peoples. When the Iranian speaking tribes (Alans, Scythes and Sarmats) settled there, the local population took their language and many cultural features. The Alans and the Ossetians started the formation of the Ossetians. This alliance was destroyed by the Mongol-Tatars, and the Alans were driven from the plains to the mountain ravines, part of them moving to the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus where they still live. Like other Caucasian peoples, they preserve and develop their traditions, customs and holidays. These are remembered in tales, proverbs and songs that depict the centuries-long history of the Ossetian people.
Most Ossetians live in North Ossetia (capitol is Vladikavkaz) and a large number also live in the Republic of Georgia. A smaller number are in South Ossetia (surrounded on three sides by Georgia). The Ossetians and Georgians have a long relationship and share some of their customs. There are also numbers of this group in Kabardin-Balkaria and the Stavropol Region of Russia. North Ossetia and South Ossetia straddle the northern border of Georgia. Most of the Ossetians professed Christianity that came from the Byzantine Empire and Georgia during the sixth and seventh centuries. Islam spread into Ossetia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.Most of the Ossetians are Orthodox. A large number profess Islam (Sunni).
Kalmyk-Oriat (Population – 183 000)
The Kalmyk of Russia are Mongolian in origin. In the 16th century, the Kalmyk, or Oirat, left their homeland, now known as areas of north-west China, to avoid political and economic pressures. They had hopes of settling in the rich pastures of the northern Caucasus Mountains.
In 1771, the majority of the Oirat decided to move back to their homeland in order to escape the Russian dictatorship, but only a few survived the long journey. Those who stayed behind in Russia became known as the Kalmyk, which means "to remain." As Kalmyks looked for their identity, they discovered it in Buddhism.
In 1943, Stalin had the Kalmyk descendants deported to Siberia for allegedly uniting with occupying Nazi troops. About half did not survive the Siberian cold; others were so dispersed that the Kalmyk language and culture suffered irreversible decline. In 1957, after Stalin's death, they were allowed to return home. Modern day Kalmykia is located north of the Caspian Sea and west of the Volga River. Animosity still remains between the Russians and Kalmyk.
After their return from Siberia, many Kalmyk were forced to conform to the Soviet lifestyle, living in traditional grey, five story apartment complexes of the 1950's and working in industrial plants. After Perestroika, or the collapse of the Soviet regime, the economy disintegrated and factories closed, leaving many unemployed and causing widespread hardship.
Kalmykia is composed of steppes (treeless plains), semi-desert, and desert. It does not have good soil for crops. In rural areas, there are herdsmen who raise cattle, sheep, goats, and a few camels. They are known for their love of fine horses and horse racing. Those who live in the narrow neck of land with access to the Volga River are fishermen. Many have a small garden plot in the yard, growing melons, corn, and potatoes for their families. Some are employed in the trades, earning barely sustainable wages. Others continue to live as nomads, their lives characterized by seasonal migrations. Their dwellings are portable tents called yurts.
The Kalmyk traditionally lived in extended family units with a mother and father, married sons and their families, and unmarried sons and daughters. Today there is a growing tendency toward nuclear families. Couples usually marry in their early to mid-twenties. Kalmykian law still allows polygamy. Sadly, divorce is becoming more common, and legal abortion is the principal means of birth control.
The traditional Kalmyk dress includes velvet hats, loose fitted coats, and heavily padded long pants. Men often shave their heads, except for one small area in the back that is reserved for a ponytail.
Oral history in an important part of Kalmyk culture. It is traditionally recited by a poet and accompanied by a two stringed lute called a dombr. Favourite past-times include storytelling and singing.
Their diet is largely one of meat and milk. At social gatherings, the Kalmyk enjoy drinking kumiss (fermented mare's milk) or Kalmyk tea made of tea leaves, milk, butter, salt, nuts, and sometimes even meat.
In the late 1500's, the Kalmyk adopted Tibetan Buddhism. Many were later forced to convert to Russian Orthodoxy. Kalmyk Buddhism is a mixture of ethnic beliefs and Shamanism (belief in unseen gods, demons, and spirits). The people continue to depend on shamans, or medicine men, despite laws forbidding their practices to cure the sick by magic and communication with the gods. The obo, a heap of stones thought to be inhabited by local spirits, often serves as a site for performing various rituals. Occultism is occurring as Kalmyks have the custom of going to a Buddhist temple and inviting the gods to live inside them. Many are possessed by demons. Some are now being persuaded to join the Muslim religion.
Now that Russia has lost the foreground of Azerbaijan and large parts of Georgia, the peoples of the Greater Caucuses are its first line of defence. Many of these peoples have suffered directly as a result of Russian policy and are antagonistic towards the people whose land they occupy. The above section is intended to be representative of the immense cultural differences that must be reconciled within its own borders before it can be tempered with its expansionist ideals.
An American strategy, on the other hand, should include Georgia, but Georgia is always going to be weaker than Russia, and unless the United States is prepared to commit major forces there, the Russians can act, overtly and covertly, at their discretion. A Georgian strategy requires a strong rear base, which Azerbaijan provides, not only strategically but also as a source of capital for Georgia. Georgian-Azerbaijani relations are good, and in the long run so is Turkey’s relation with these two countries.
For Azerbaijan, the burning issue is Nagorno-Karabakh. This is not a burning issue for the United States, but the creation of a stable platform in the region is. Armenia, by far the weakest country economically, is allied with the Russians, and it has Russian troops on its territory. Given that the United States has no interest in who governs Nagorno-Karabakh and there is a U.N. resolution on the table favouring Azerbaijan that serves as cover, it is difficult to understand why the United States is effectively neutral. If the United States is committed to Georgia, which is official policy, then it follows that satisfying Azerbaijan and bringing it into a close relationship to the United States would be beneficial to Washington’s ability to manage relations with Russia, Iran and Turkey.
A problem for Washington is not allowing itself to be divided and ruled. With the dollar and more particularly the petro-dollar becoming weaker by the day it is imperative for the US economy to protect its illicit drug trade out of Afghanistan from Taliban interference. It is hard to see what the USA is getting out of still being in Iraq except that it is very close to Iran. I should imagine that it is a case of getting out to be more difficult than getting in. Washington would reap benefits from committing in deeds as well as words to Georgia and pro-Israeli Azerbaijan. Perhaps American intentions, as its economy declines, is to turn its military attention inward. If this happens we can only expect Russia to come out of its Caucasian lair.
It is all a game of cat and mouse.