The “Anarchic” Caucasus and Elite Co-Optation or Some Things Never Change

S. E. Slye | Critique | August 29, 2022


There is a case to be made that the Caucasus has historically been anarchic in a sense similar to what is observed in today’s international system of states, where there is no overarching power structure. Of course, there were attempts by some political formations or groups to establish dominance over others and we do find internal social stratification, for instance in the cases of Circassia and Georgia; but at the same time The Georgian Chronicles and historical record show a marked tendency for the different political and social groups to seek a modus operandi based on comparatively egalitarian relations and to willfully resist any attempts at domination by their neighbors.[1] To wit, the origin myth recorded in the first book of The Georgian Chronicles attests to the anarchic, horizontal system at the foundation of Caucasian political relations when it describes the Caucasian nations as being the descendants of eight brothers.[2] As an example of this anarchic tendency in a particular society, al-Masudi (10th century) writes that the only reason the Circassians (Kashak) could not resist the Alans was because they would not concentrate power under one king.[3]


This tendency of the Caucasian nations to jealously guard their internal independence in combination with the region’s geographical and demographic diversity and the consequential historical lack of any overarching regional power that could have established a common political-administrative framework and imposed or cultivated a shared ideological community created a dynamic that rendered local powers and societies vulnerable to the predations and machinations of mightier surrounding powers. During the age of the imperial rivalries between Ottoman Turkey, Persia and Russia, we see two main patterns related to this dynamic, of which the second is considerably stronger: 1) Caucasians ineffectively attempting to unite against outside threats, and 2) Caucasian elites allying with different outside powers in pursuit of various goals, including obtaining advantages over their neighbors.


As one example of elites seeking external support against their neighbors, in 1586 the Kakhetian King Alexander II asked his co-religionist, the Muscovite tsar, to help him fight the Daghestani Muslim Shamkhal.[4] Such appeals were not always necessarily about religion, however, as an episode from the early 18th century indicates. Here the Kakhetian princes Konsṭanṭine and Teimuraz, backed by Persian forces and Lezghians, are fighting the Kartlian King Vaxṭang VI and Imeretian mercenaries for control of Tiflis.[5] Waiting in vain for backing promised by the Russians, the king loses the city. He then returns to it with Imeretian mercenaries and a Turkish army led by “Ishak Pasha,” himself an ethnic Georgian. The Turks now imprison Konsṭanṭine and install Vaxṭang VI’s half-Circassian son Baqari, but Baqari runs off to wage guerilla warfare with Teimuraz and Konsṭanṭine, whom he helped escape, against the Turks. Vaxṭang VI flees via Racha and Circassia to Russia and the Turks install his brother Iese as governor until he dies, at which point Ishak Pasha puts Zemo-Kartli under the charge of Givi Amilaxvari. But Givi abandons the Turks and receives governorship of Kartli as a reward from the Persians only to switch back to the Turkish side to fight Teimuraz, who uses Persian support to defeat him and drive the Lezghians (his former allies) back out of Kartli and Kakheti.[6]

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