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Remembering a Winter of Discontent:
Letter from the South Caucasus * - [PDF]
Spring again in the Caucasus! The mountain snow caps melt away; the rivers carry rich brown torrents to the lowlands, which riot in greens and reds and yellows as new private landowners till and sow. Folks smile for the first time after the long, cold, dreary months of winter. And if we in the West have any say about people's happiness in year 2000, Eduard Shevardnadze will have won a clean victory in the Georgian presidential sweepstakes, Heydar Aliyev will have stamped out endemic corruption in Azerbaijan, and Robert Kocharian will have brought Armenia back from political bloodshed and internecine strife.
Fat chance. After the happy summer and sublime autumn of the Caucasus 2000, get ready for a real winter of discontent--and don't tell me I didn't warn you. This should surprise no one who has spent more than a few hours outside the fancy new hotels in the area's capital cities. The social stage is set for upheaval: A depressing déjà vu of the collapse of the Caucasus republics that emerged in 1918, only to be reabsorbed by Bolshevik Russia in 1920. Whether Russian president Vladmir Putin can be the one to play that particular role after all the nasty associations with Moscow's post-Soviet imperialism remains to be seen. But if the harsh, dreary winter of 1999-2000 is any indication, things are going to get a lot harsher and drearier by the time winter rolls in again.
Here, for the record, are a few impressions from a trip taken up the main highway between Baku and Tblisi, and from many stops at places not found on ordinary maps. I was tempted to call this letter "A Winter's Tale," but it might be best called "A Report from the Lower Depths." [End Page 69]
The Lower-Depths People
Knots of men in leather jackets and black ski caps are everywhere, shuffling their leaky boots in the slush and snow. Three men here, five there; another four here, a half dozen over there. They wait and shuffle and stare at the odd passing car or motorcycle or tractor, smoking cigarettes and not speaking, having little to say and even less to do.
They are, or were, lawyers, doctors, mechanics, poets, and farmers. Now they are also casualties, the fallout of the new "capitalist" order in the post-Soviet space, the people shunted aside, the "lower-depths people." The legions of unemployed young men and women start looking less like the useless relic of an embarrassing socialist past and more like a living threat to the much touted future of market reform, democracy, and general happiness in the land of the old USSR. All that is lacking is a Pied Piper to sound the call to some new radical ideology embracing the disgruntled and dispossessed for the new armies of street people to explode.
Where is the West?
"It is time to hit the crisis button," said my friend Roger at a recent conference about corruption in booming Baku, capital of energy-rich Azerbaijan. "The birds are not singing here; they are being shot and put on the grill. It is time to address the reality of impoverishment and growing resentment against the West for being perceived as the importer of an ideology that has brought only despair to the majority of citizens." Roger is a senior Western European ambassador, and anybody who really wants to can find out his family name and what country he represents. I am not sure if his remarks were on the record or not, but they hit the mark.
At least the Europeans seem to have a sense that things are not complete, postcommunist bliss. The Caucasus region is in crisis, but a crisis to which official Washington seems willfully oblivious. Not a single member of the U.S. Embassy in Baku was in attendance at the aforementioned conference, nor a single representative...