Twenty years after the end of the Soviet Union, news from the South Caucasus is bleak. The region's two longest borders, which stretch between Armenia and Azerbaijan and between Georgia and Russia, remain wholly or partially shut. Corrupt bureaucrats make even the nominally open borders closed to free trade. Three de facto statelets - Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh -- exist in a twilight zone, separate from their Soviet-era "parents," Georgia and Azerbaijan, but not quite sovereign states either. Hundreds of thousands of refugees remain displaced by war. Poverty and unemployment are endemic. Millions work away from home as migrant workers, mainly in Russia. Both locals and outsiders share the blame for creating this miserable picture.
How do outsiders share responsibility? We are at fault, I believe, because our faulty perceptions and interpretations have helped make bad local politics worse. I identify three dangerous mirages -- misguided approaches to this region that reverberate in decidedly unhelpful ways.
The first mirage may be the oldest: the notion that the region is a "Great Chessboard" where the big powers push the locals around like pawns to serve their own goals. That is not what actually happens. In actual fact, however the geopolitical weather changes, the locals always manage to manipulate the outside powers at least as much as the other way round.
In the 21st century the Caucasus is still the Caucasus, in all its complexity and variety -- not an assimilated province of Russia, Turkey, or Iran. The peoples of the Caucasus may be too weak to prosper, but they remain strong enough to withstand fading into their bigger neighbors. You could call it a "balance of insecurity." Over the course of history, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Georgians, as well as the region's other smaller ethnic groups, have all persistently survived invasion and resisted assimilation. It's true the price of survival has come in the form of Faustian pacts with other Great Powers, in which the Azerbaijanis allied themselves with Turks and British; Georgians with Germans and British; Armenians, Abkhaz and Ossetians with Russians.
The outside power that has most determined the fate of the region over the last century has been Soviet Russia, which for a period of time did not so much resolve the contradictions of the Caucasus as smother them. Beginning in 1920, the region was under the Soviets' suffocating authoritarian rule. When Soviet power waned in the late Gorbachev period, the pendulum swung again. The years 1919 and 1991 bore many similarities; Abkhaz and Ossetians sought Russian assistance against what they saw to be a Georgian nationalist threat, while newly independent Georgia looked to new Western allies to protect itself against a perceived Russian threat. Fast forward to August 2008, and long-simmering tensions helped make South Ossetia the arena of the worst clash between Russia and the United States since the end of the Cold War.
Given the complexity of these relationships, it is better to describe this picture not as a giant chessboard, but as a castle of dominoes, wherein the whole construction totters if you dislodge one piece.