On 25 years of postmodernity in the South Caucasus

A quarter century since the collapse of Soviet rule in Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, where is the region now and what can come next?

(opendemocracy.net – Georgi Derlugian – October 4, 2016)

Armenia MapGeorgi Derluguian, in his earlier life a Soviet-trained Africanist, studies the evolution of human societies along with practicing expeditionary fieldwork. Among his books are Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus (2005), The Way This World Works (2012, in Russian), and, co-written with Immanuel Wallerstein, Randall Collins, Michael Mann, and Craig Calhoun, Does Capitalism Have a Future? (2013, translated in 17 languages). Since 2011 he has taught sociology at New York University Abu Dhabi and lives in Yerevan, Armenia.

Georgia Map

The village of Sadakhlo sits at the intersection of borders between Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Lauded in Soviet times as the “point of friendship”, this place now seems more like a latter-day Checkpoint Charlie. On one side stand olive-skinned locals in American-style uniforms with M-16 rifles. They are Georgians. On the other stand similarly olive-skinned men in Soviet-style uniforms with AK-47s. They are Armenians; Armenia houses Russian military bases. The reason is immediately to the east where one finds Azeri soldiers, trained and equipped by their Turkish friends.

Map of Azerbaijan and South Caucasus Environs Including Portions of Armenia, Georgia, Russia, Iran, Caspian SeaFire is periodically exchanged between the Armenians and Azeris. The war over the disputed territory of Nagorny-Karabakh has been going on and off since 1991 – with no end in sight. The Georgians, with little sympathy for either side, stay neutral in this conflict. They face their own separatist enclaves in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are protected by Russia. In the twisted geopolitics of the South Caucasus, the Georgian soldiers stood alongside US troops in Afghanistan and earlier in Iraq, where they once even made the second largest contingent – quite a feat for such a small country.

Here at Sadakhlo, the ironies of postmodernity are all around us. How did we get into this mess?

A short history of grand schemes

Modernity was the epoch when humans developed an optimistic belief in progressively bettering the world. This was to be achieved through the activist application of collective will and rational plan. Postmodernity then marks the more recent epoch when historical optimism turned to pervasive disillusionment in grand schemes to better humanity. The epochs changed not merely due to artistic fashions or collective psychology. It was rather the unbearable realisation that mechanistic bureaucracy, the very epitome of modernity, had monopolised the pursuit of both rationality and collective will.

The devastating accusations of official hypocrisy came actually from the New Left, whose various currents advocated the same progressive ideals of modernity, only “with a human face”. The desire to question “authority” started in the youthful dissident protests of 1968 and continued up to the Occupy revolts and the Arab Spring of 2011, yet its peak arrived in 1989-1991 with the wave of protests engulfing communist regimes from East Berlin to Beijing.

These fast-burning revolutions ended mostly in the forgetful embarrassment. Their aftermath left us amidst apathy and doubt, the irrational search for authenticity in fundamentalist nationalism and religion, or the pursuit of self-realisation in the libertarian (and very Russian) fantasies of Ayn Rand.

In large part this is because the classical modern theories of revolution, be they Marxist or the liberalism of Tocqueville, offered no plausible explanation or blueprint.

But far from all classical social thought became irrelevant in this newest epoch of bureaucratic capitalism without alternatives. The core theory of Marx will stay relevant as long as there is capitalism. Moreover, Max Weber, the pioneering theorist of bureaucracy, hierarchy, and status groups (i.e. “identities”), offers a good starting point for a more sober understanding of postmodernity.

The questioning of authority in 1968 and 1989 marked the transition to a novel kind of revolution that might be rightly called Weberian – the broadly citizen efforts to overcome the “iron cage of bureaucracy”. Its early failures then must be re-analysed, with duly substantive rationality, in view of a movement politics that are capable of confronting reigning bureaucracies with something more transformative than symbolic performance.

This theoretical concern seems the most urgent practical issue on global agenda. What alternatives could organise human society if the old structures of domination collapse in sudden chaos as in the Soviet bloc? Capitalism is losing its dynamism in the successive crises of its own making. The first popular reactions are typically defensive reactionary. Faced with worsening economies and social services, environmental degradation, migration, and wars, people try to preserve what they have and hold dear. Particularist reactions, emphasising the bonds of kinship, shared ethnicity or faith, can escalate nastily. But they cannot effectively address global challenges.

More encouraging and universalist alternatives have to emerge if we are to preserve the achievements of modernity. It is on this world map that the South Caucasus and its Soviet past are better analysed.

Actually existing modernity

Our standoff at Sadakhlo perhaps traces its roots to the 1980s, with Mikhail Gorbachev’s well-intentioned bid to “rejuvenate socialist democracy”.

The Soviet Union was created by a small band of radical internationalist intelligentsia. Among them were many Jews, Russians, Latvians, Tatars, Armenians, and, quite prominently, the Georgians including Stalin. Believing in changing the whole world, the Bolsheviks reconquered the erstwhile territories of the Russian Empire, creating a revolutionary superpower. However, military force alone cannot explain their improbable success. The Bolsheviks carried a hugely modernistic belief in industrial development as the solution to all social and ethnic problems. My colleague Stephen Hanson wryly observed that the Bolsheviks became what Weber himself could not imagine: a charismatic bureaucracy.

Once the Leninist charisma wore out in the world of brutally realist geopolitics, what remained was merely a bureaucratic superpower. Where could it steer next? After Stalin’s death in 1953, a spate of Soviet oligarchic reformers, starting with the ruthless pragmatist Lavrenty Beria (incidentally, also a Georgian), sought appeasement with the west and economic reintegration with world capitalism. In short, the Chinese way out of communism epitomised by another such pragmatist: Deng Xiaoping. The difference is, however, that following the Cold War calculus America helped to modernise China against the USSR while rightly fearing that the emergent pan-European alliance of France and Germany with the reformed USSR could undermine the US hegemony.

The Soviets were themselves prisoners of their superpower pride vested in military-industrial complex and the east European buffer zone. This is what Gorbachev set out to undo, boldly sacrificing first the ballistic missiles and then the cumbersome satellite states.

Domestically, Gorbachev direly needed to replace the old party stalwarts with younger energetic supporters. Disguised as democratisation and glasnost (public debate), Gorbachev’s domestic campaign in fact revived the old Stalinist practice of purges against “bad” officials. The Party nomenklatura felt at once disoriented because they could not resist the General Secretary in the still totalitarian Soviet institutions. But Gorbachev overplayed his hand in the attempt to consolidate personal power through inviting popular denunciations against all wrongs.

Unwittingly, Armenians were the first to expose internal fragilities. Loyally blaming everything on the long-dead Stalin, a group of prominent Armenian intellectuals petitioned Moscow for the transfer to Soviet Armenia of the small borderland province of Karabakh which, though predominantly Armenian, had been placed under Soviet Azerbaijan in 1921. This, they pleaded, would be a small compensation for the unredeemed losses to Armenian nation suffered in the 1915 genocide.

Against the grandiose tasks of a superpower changing its course, Moscow’s first bewildered reaction was to shrug it off. But the issue rapidly escalated from the Armenian petitions and Azerbaijani counter-petitions to pogroms in Azerbaijani cities in 1988 and the emergence of Armenian guerrilla groups. Two Soviet republics were now at war with each other. The communist bosses on both sides stood accused of impotence, lack of patriotism and corruption. War led to revolutions.

Gorbachev faced the impossible choice of either resorting to repression on a truly Stalinist scale, which would have ruined his foreign gambits or he could try to throw money at the crisis. But the money wasn’t there anyway. Perestroika was, in the first place, prompted by a budget crisis amidst slowdown in the over-invested Soviet industries and the sudden shortfall in export earnings due to the slump in world oil prices.

Once taboos were broken in the Karabakh conflict, radical nationalism and violence entered the political repertoire. In Tbilisi, in April 1989, Soviet paratroopers recently withdrawn from Afghanistan were ordered to disperse the round-the-clock nationalist vigil protesting the plight of fellow Georgians under minority rule in Abkhazia, another Soviet ethnic autonomy. The result was massive injuries and twenty fatalities, most of them women. Implausibly, Gorbachev denied prior knowledge of such orders. Overnight, an indignant Georgia became ungovernable. It remained so for almost two decades while losing territory, population and a grievous two-thirds of its economy, the biggest such loss among the post-Soviet countries.

The Soviet state had thus collapsed before 1991 amidst the popular mobilisations for democratisation which turned nationalist and violent in all three countries of the South Caucasus. Why was the collapse so sudden, so ruinous, and lasting? The references to ethnic diversity and historical legacies are standard as they are wrong.

True, the Caucasus is a linguistic and anthropological wonderland. Flanked by great empires, the Caucasus always stayed an unyielding small rock between the grinding wheels of world history. Ethnic diversity alone, however, is not a fatal predicament. Elsewhere in eastern Europe, between Poland and Lithuania or in the fabled Transylvania, the legacies of ethnic cleansing somehow failed to reignite during the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Their peoples peacefully transitioned into becoming EU citizens. In fact, this might be a clue.

From the periphery to the spotlight (and back again)

Despite commonly heralded as a “bridge between east and west, north and south”, the Caucasus is relatively small, remote and, except for the oil and gas pipelines contested by Russia, Turkey, and the west, overall peripheral to the world economy. It was the same for Soviet planners, whose major industrial assets (again, except the oilfields of Baku) were located mainly between the Donbass and the Urals. Nonetheless in the USSR, a very big and mostly cold country, the Caucasus held a crucial advantage: its subtropical climate.

When the busy central planners could not be distracted with such trifles as supplying the sun-starved populations of northern industrial cities with fresh fruit and wine, the enterprising people of the Caucasus filled the market niche. The profits, though very unevenly distributed geographically, brought fabulous wealth to the region. This fed whole hierarchies of corruption as officials at all levels – black marketeers and pure criminals established comfortable monopolies in unsanctioned markets. Moscow, of course, was aware of the corruption, but regarded the Caucasus somewhat like its Sicily: a land of wine, great food, songs and the mafia.

In their heroic earlier years, the Bolshevik commissars were expected to be more than managers – they were continuously demanded to produce miracles. Willpower, however, works best when it somehow finds the means, and this “somehow” always belonged to the informal understandings shared in the Soviet managerial hierarchy. During the extraordinary years of Stalinist industrialisation, the second world war and post-war recovery the commissars were more than a Weberian rational bureaucracy.

In the long years of Soviet decline, their nomenklatura successors became much less than a rational bureaucracy. That extra space ordered by informal understandings gradually filled up with nepotism and corruption, a more typical variety of informal bureaucratic understandings. In the Caucasus, this demoralising process simply ran deeper. When Gorbachev shook the whole Soviet system from above, the nomenklatura felt stunned and scared. When popular uprisings surged right under their windows, they lost nerve and fled. Resistance was minimal.

In the aftermath of 1991, power across the South Caucasus first fell to the hands of nationalist intelligentsias, who excelled in radical rally oratory. They usually lasted about a year or less. Only in Armenia, where the intelligentsia tribunes rode the wave of victorious patriotism during the Karabakh war, they had time to learn the unsavoury tricks of post-Soviet politics. One example is the alleged exploits of Vano Siradeghyan, children’s writer turned the dreaded security chief, include 30 political assassinations and running monopolies on several food imports. Since 2000 he has been on an Interpol warrant, however, still at large.

Nonetheless after 1998, the elements of Yerevan intelligentsia were ousted by the cruder, yet more practical provincials promoted during the Karabakh war. This war essentially created the new Armenian state, and its commanders were used to ordering men and procuring the supplies by whatever means. They now seized the state and saw business positions as rightful spoils. These guerrilla veterans gradually displaced all economic and political rivals. But, after all, God loves the Armenians – and gave them no oil.

On the Azerbaijani side, defeat created an acute turmoil masterfully exploited by the ex-KGB general and ex-member of the Soviet Politburo Heydar Aliyev. As if a signal that the old Master was back, things quietened down, though not after a series of bizarre events and unsolved assassinations. Baku’s oil now flowed to world markets. Outdoing Dubai, Baku got its Heydar Aliyev Centre designed by no less than Zaha Hadid.

Remarkably, even basic facts of Heydar Aliyev’s biography, such as the date and place of his birth and death, are hotly contested. Did Aliyev die before or after the succession of his son Ilham to presidency? A tired-looking Azeri intellectual told me in Istanbul: “do not believe that we are one nation with the Turks. They are a state nation, and we are a familial nation.” Although the statement rather betrays the despair of exile, Azerbaijan does look increasingly like a Middle Eastern “presidency for life”. In fact, frighteningly so.

Georgia, meanwhile, is an ever eccentric case. Its post-Soviet politics goes in an odd cycle where each new leader is first greeted as saviour and in the end cursed as scoundrel. Such was the rise and fall of the mystical national-fundamentalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia in 1989-1992, the Soviet-era big boss Eduard Shevardnadze in 1992-2003, and the mercurial reformer Mikheil Saakashvili who continues playing enfant terrible in the Ukrainian revolution as the governor of Odessa.

Indeed, Saakashvili’s record in office is especially difficult to judge objectively for he is dismissed and despised even more than he is adulated. What to make of the president who enthusiastically hosted Donald Trump and renamed the road to Tbilisi airport George W. Bush Avenue? Most of Saakashvili’s grandiose investment projects remain a mirage, and he barely survived the 2008 war in separatist South Ossetia.

Yet Saakashvili and his western-educated upstarts did restore state power in Georgia, principally embodied in those soldiers at Sadakhlo wearing US uniforms and the new police force who no longer extort cash at ubiquitous roadblocks – their decent salaries come from the newly collected taxes. Their “tough cop” methods of combatting crime and corruption, however, allegedly bordered on sadistic pornography. His massive defeat at elections in October 2012 dealt a rude surprise to Saakashvili, sending him into exile and landing several key supporters in jail.

Georgia’s newest saviour was an unlikely figure: the shadowy billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili who had amassed his fortune – reportedly twice larger than Georgia’s state budget – in the gangland Russia of the 1990s. After a brief stint as prime-minister of the splendidly named Georgian Dream coalition, Ivanishvili left mere figureheads in his stead and once again secluded himself in the gaudily postmodernist palace dominating the cityscape of Tbilisi. It remains to see what happens in Georgia after elections this October. Saakashvili’s party survives and nurtures some hope, but the bombast and energy seem gone now.

The immediate prospects of Armenia and Azerbaijan appear more troubling. Falling oil prices exposed the overreach of Baku’s hubristic drive to become a Dubai on the Caspian. The sultanistic regimes of the kind created by the Aliyev family tend to become very brittle when faced with economic distress and loss of prestige. The kinds of opposition to Ilham Aliyev also seem familiar: liberal intelligentsia in the capital city, the much larger and largely unknowable Islamist opposition in poorer neighborhoods, and aggrieved oligarchs who fell out from the palace circle. The wealthy Azeris from Russia could pose a threat, too.

Probably on this political calculus, last April president Ilham Aliyev gambled on redeeming his prestige in a lightning strike against the Armenian forces in Karabakh. After four days of fierce fighting, the Azeris advanced by only a few hundred metres and called it victory.

Although the Armenian forces largely stood the ground, this shock sent Armenian society into deep soul-searching. The victory in Karabakh remains the single legitimating accomplishment of independent Armenia. It helped to redeem the lasting trauma of Turkish genocide. However, this became impossible to reconcile with the lavish, by local measure, lifestyles of a ruling oligarchy readily noticed in a small impoverished country. On the one hand, Armenia’s population grew politically fearless after all the struggles and travails that they have experienced since 1988. On the other, the Karabakh veterans in power backed themselves into corner by monopolising the state, leaving them with few good moves in the face of de-legitimation.

The absence of a credible opposition channeled popular emotions into the internet, which can surely enhance emotions, but may not achieve the authoritative coordination required for political struggle. Tensions came to a head in July when a group of Karabakh veterans – or rather a charismatic sect of aggrieved first-wave volunteers left without positions after the war – attacked a police garrison in Yerevan and declared the beginning of national insurrection. Their ill-conceived plan could not but fail. Even though president Serzh Sargsyan showed restraint, the mutiny accompanied by spontaneous street clashes between police and protesters, badly shook both Armenian society and state institutions.

Things need not necessarily end badly in the Caucasus. Overcoming gloom is an important immediate task precisely because our fears are not unfounded.

Nevertheless, Georgia might soon leave behind its messianic cycles, develop an orderly democratic rotation, and a more accountable political elite. Azerbaijan’s rulers, wearily following the oil markets and now puzzling over the infighting of Turkish patrons and Russia’s daring assertiveness, might instead try to re-legitimate themselves as prudent deal-makers, externally and domestically. Armenia, faced with debilitating impasse on all fronts, could finally turn to the pursuit of economic growth. The rare combination of the educated, hard-working but impoverished population in the homeland with the capital and global connections of an Armenian diaspora is begging for a developmental state of the kind pioneered in once impoverished East Asia.

These are all only modest hopes for avoiding further disasters and better managing the peripheral varieties of capitalism in the Caucasus. Anything bolder would have to involve the end of postmodernity. But the politics of minimising people’s pain now fosters conditions for a more successful way out of global postmodernity, wherever it ends.

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