Caucuses Report

July 19, 2002

KUNM, 89.9 fm, Albuquerque, NM

Far from New Mexico in the former Soviet Union between the Black and Caspian Seas lie the countries of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, independent states since the early 1990s. They are beautiful. The Caucus Mountains which ring them to the north are snow-capped even in July, gleaming white mile after mile under a jetliner’s wing. There could be fine alpine resorts amid these peaks and rich agriculture in the valleys. Azerbaijan has extensive oil reserves and British Petroleum and Shell and Chevron have been drilling in the Caspian for about ten years. Georgia was a traditional supplier of fruits and vegetables to Moscow during the Soviet years. Armenia was an intellectual center tied to the others by webs of trade and science.

But today there is no prosperity here. The region is unstable, disunited, oppressed everywhere by dictatorship, depleted by debt, factories closed, incomes down, unemployment in some areas reputedly as high as 60%. Self government is an elusive and undefined skill that requires a mind of fairness and balance, a re-orientation from Soviet times, a commitment not only to an individual’s right of dissent but also to the public welfare and the formula has not been found here in the Caucuses.

In Azerbaijan, taxi drivers recently told me that the country’s great oil wealth “is not ours,” meaning not for the ordinary people, not for schools or streets or restarting factories. Average income is about $35/month while millions of dollars of energy profits are siphoning out to foreign bank accounts or to the benefit of the exploiting nations. The ordinary man in the streets of Baku sees his life getting worse under capitalism and sees the US as the chief architect of that system.

I attended a conference on the Caspian Sea that brought Azeri psychologists together with counterparts from Georgia and Moldova and Tajickistan, Moscow and Lithuania. The Georgians reported that their country, too, was falling apart, that the control of President Eduard Shevardnadze was shrinking; that he is harrassed by civil war in the west in Abkhazia, in the north with Ossetia, and in the south with Armenians. They do not predict that he will last long.

Armenia, the third of these Caucuses nations, used to have a population of 3 million but in 1988 it went to war with Azerbaijan and in the aftermath of that conflict one-half the 3 million have emigrated, simply gone away. Armenia’s president, with half his population remaining, has persecuted the free press and harrassed the political opposition to the point of extinction.

Everywhere in the Caucuses, therefore, there is not only war, but also dictatorship. The Bush administration has not responded to this crisis in the name of democracy. Instead of working to strengthen the voices of opposition groups, or human rights organizations or to increase refugee funding or legal training or university funding, in all three of these countries America has reinforced the dictators. Instead of encouragement to women and ethnic or political minorities, instead of schools which give poor people hope and a future, the United States now encourages old-fashioned Soviet-style tyrants who help in the so-called war against terror.

US funding for charitable foundations that used to train journalists and opposition leaders in the Caucuses has been largely discontinued. The US will help to get the oil out; we will not help to get the oil money back in to the people, or to empower the people to self-government. It was poignant that in Baku last week, no one knew why the United States would invade Iraq, but they knew that President Bush wants to do it and they discuss this sadly, as if an old friend had become addicted to some blood lust.

When the terrorists next attack in Baku or Yerevan or Paris or Washington, it will not be difficult to understand the conditions that produced them. It will be difficult to understand why the US continues to promote these conditions by supporting– in the Caucuses among other places–government censors rather than free journalists, armies rather than professors, dictators rather than democrats.