Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Caucasus

The Caucasus is a geopolitical region that separates Europe and Asia.  Mount Elbrus is the highest peak at 5,642 meters (18,510.5 feet) as is considered the highest point in Europe.  The Caucasus region lies between the Black and Caspian seas and between Russia, Turkey and Iran.  The Caucasus can be divided in to northern and southern sections.

The North Caucasus region is part of European Russia.  This area is home to Krasnodar Krai, Stavropol Krai, and the autonomous republics of Adygea, Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia-Alania, Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan.  Again, these are all part of the Russian Federation.

In the south are the post-Soviet states of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan which all became independent countries in 1991.  The Caucasus region has been one of the most complicated areas following the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Abkhazia is at the western end of Georgia, on the Black Sea, and is about 8,600 km² (3,320 sq mi).  When the USSR was breaking up, ethnic tensions grew between Abkhazia and Georgia over independence.  The war in Abkhazia lasted from 1992 to 1993 and ended in Georgian defeat.  There was a ceasefire in 1994 but fighting broke out again in 2008 during the war in South Ossetia.

It is a part of Georgia and is considered a Russian-occupied state.  However, Abkhazia considers itself to be an independent state – the Republic of Abkhazia.  It is recognized by, fellow breakaway republics, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria.  The only real countries which recognize it are Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

A visa is required to enter Abkhazia.  The only way to get there is via Russia or Georgia and you have to exit the same way you entered.  So for Russia, this requires a double-entry Russian visa so that you can go back to Russia.  If you enter from Russia and exit in to Georgia then it is considered a violation of Georgia's borders. 

The situation in South Ossetia is pretty similar to the one in Abkhazia.  South Ossetia is a part of Georgia but it declared independence in 1990 as the Republic of South Ossetia.  The South Ossetia War was from 1991 to 1992 with additional fighting in 2004 and 2008.  In 2008, fighting broke out between Russia and Georgia when the Russian army entered South Ossetia.  Today, Georgia considers the area to be a Russian-occupied territory.  If you are not a Russian citizen you need permission from the Foreign Ministry of South Ossetia in order to visit.

Nagorno-Karabakh is the third breakaway republic in the region.  It was a mostly Armenia area, 4,400 km² (1,699 sq mi), which was made a part of Azerbaijan during the Soviet era.  With the breakup of the USSR, the region declared independence from Azerbaijan and was supported by Armenia.  The war in Nagorno-Karabakh lasted from 1988 to 1994.  Internationally, Nagorno-Karabakh is recognized as part of Azerbaijan but it has not had control of the region since 1991.  The borders are closed between Azerbaijan and Armenia so the only way to enter Nagorno-Karabakh is from Armenia, provided you have a visa from the Nagorno-Karabakh embassy in Yerevan.

Azerbaijan considers entering Nagorno-Karabakh as a violation of Azeri territory.  If your passport shows any evidence of travel to Nagorno-Karabakh then you will not be allowed to enter Azerbaijan.  And regardless of your citizenship, if you happen to have an Armenian surname then you won't be allowed entry in to Azerbaijan.  Then to make things even more complicated, part of Azerbaijan sits on the other side of Armenia.

The borders between Azerbaijan and Armenia are closed so the only way to get from one to the other is by going through Georgia or Iran.

Turkey is an ally of Azerbaijan, and in part because of the Armenian Genocide, the borders between Turkey and Armenia are closed.

There is a large Azeri population in northwest Iran.  In order to keep the area from trying to join Azerbaijan, Iran has allied itself with Armenia.

Here's a 2010 video I found out on YouTube which gives a good overview of the geopolitical issues going on in the Caucasus.

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