The Caucasus: Europe, or what?

Is the Caucasus even part of Europe?

See, I was just writing a post about the various conflicts, frozen and otherwise, that criss-cross this region. And I had to pick a category. And I found my arrow hovering over “not Europe”. But…

Here’s what wikipedia says:

The south-east boundary with Asia is not universally defined. Most commonly the Ural or, alternatively, the Emba River serve as possible boundaries. The boundary continues to the Caspian Sea, the crest of the Caucasus Mountains or, alternatively, the Kura River in the Caucasus, and on to the Black Sea… However, numerous geographers consider Azerbaijan’s and Armenia’s southern border with Iran… as the boundary between Asia and Europe because of political and cultural reasons…

Due to sociopolitical and cultural differences, there are various descriptions of Europe’s boundary; in some sources, some territories are not included in Europe, while other sources include them. For instance, geographers from Russia and other post-Soviet states generally include the Urals in Europe while including Caucasia in Asia.

There’s a more detailed discussion here. Short version: there are various definitions, and all of them leave a lot of people uncomfortable. There’s general agreement that the northern Caucasus is part of Europe — geographically, anyway — but the southern half of the big isthmus, well, hum.

The discussion gets a little fraught because if the countries of the South Caucasus, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, are geographically part of Europe, then they might have a claim to be EU candidates some day. Which at least two of them would really, really like.

Let’s put that aside for the moment. Is Georgia part of Europe? Armenia? They’re in Eurovision, of course, but so are Cyprus and Israel. And they’re in UEFA, but so are Turkey and Kazakhstan.

I have some thoughts on this, but I’d like to hear some other opinions first.

33 thoughts on “The Caucasus: Europe, or what?

  1. Geographically, I think there are probably more reasons to place them in Asia and not Europe.

    Culturally though, it’s a lot trickier. While I certainly don’t subscribe to the notion that the EU is a Christian club (I’m a supporter of eventual Turkish membership, for example, and historically muslim Albania should certianly be a candidate at some point), the fact that both Georgia and Armenia are the only two Christian countries in Western Asia does count for something – not because being Christian in itsself is a positive reason to join, but more because it is a reason why they are both less likely to become more integrated with their muslim neighbours.

    Having visited both countries, they also felt somehow European. I don’t know how I define that, but the feeling was there all the same.

    However, having visited both countries (admittedly quite a long time ago),

  2. However arbitrary, I would count Georgia and Armenia part of Europe, Azerbaijan not..Thereby would draw the line, starting on the Caspian, north of Azerbaijan, following the borders with Georgia and Armenia turning south.Azeri Nachitsjevan would thus be Asia as well,together with Armenian-occupied Azeri territory and Nagorno-Karabach, although that remains slightly tricky until this dispute will one day be resolved (if ever).As is commonly known, Georgia and Armenia were the first states embracing christianity, have culturally survived many centuries of foreign domination, and consider themselves Europeans.Azeris are a turkic people who cling more to a Turkish identity, plus having a larger sister-community southwards in Iran. However, I would not persé bar Azerbaijan to be able to apply for EU membership if the western neighbours were to be allowed. Slightly OT, but would anyone also have any opinion about the sorry plight of the Meshketian Turks within this regional framework?

  3. People of Armenian descent used to be considered white in the United States, but over the past few decades have become reclassified, at least on an informal basis, as a nonwhite racial group. This is particuarly true in California, which has by far the largest Armenian population in the country. Because “white” is basically a synonym for “European ancestry” this might be relevant to Armenia’s classification as part of Europe.

    Georgians and Azeris presumably also would be considered nonwhite in the United States if there were enough of either group to merit consideration. The fact that most Azeris are Muslim would reinforce their nonwhite status.

    Of course, maybe we shouldn’t read too much into this considering that American definitions of race have almost no connection to logic or biology!

  4. I certainly count them as European due to their European-style history and culture, and the fact that Armenia & Georgia speak languages from the European language family.

  5. Short answer: Western Eurasia.

    Geophysiaclly, Asia and Europe are undeniably but a single continent.

    Culturally, I’d argue that it is also a single continent, with three civilations: Western Eurasia (Europe), Eastern Eurasia (East Asia), and Southern Eurasia (the Indian Subcontinent). Jared diamond puts a good case for the cultural unity of Eurasia in Guns, Germs and Steel.

    But this is just a defintion on that reduces the most thorny categorisation ambiguities like this one you bring up.
    Myself, I don’t a much patience for maniacal taxonomy, and I am quite happy to use different names in different contexts.
    I mean, when does a large pebble becomes a small rock?

  6. I’m thinking, countries that are semi/sort-of/partly European geographically could and should give rise to a meaningful inclusion of the “near abroad” just short of membership (in 2004, concerning the Ukraine, I called them “Janus countries”) that would also allow to better handle countries that are political “Janus countries”, like Ukraine. Turkey is a case in both categories.

    This is what Wikipedia tells us about the “caucasian race” and “European Americans” – they don’t differentiate between North and South.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caucasian_race

    “In contemporary U.S. parlance, Caucasian and white are slowly being replaced with European American as a racial identifier. As with African American, the term has the advantage of describing two characteristics; both the ancestry of the person and his or her more immediate nationality and culture.”

    But being “Caucasian” doesn’t always help…

    “However a year later, the same court was faced with the trial of United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923). The court ruled that a person from the Indian subcontinent could not become a naturalized United States citizen, because they were not “white”. The Supreme Court conceded that anthropologists had classified Indians as Caucasians, and thus the same race as whites, as defined in Ozawa. However, it concluded that “the average man knows perfectly well that there are unmistakable and profound differences,” and denied citizenship.”

    Looks like we have to figure that out for ourselves…

  7. Armenians and Georgians consider themselves European. Both governments consider themselves to be part of Europe. CUlturally, historically and politically both states along with Cyprus are unquestionably European. As was said before the border between Europe and Asia is subjective. I know several Armenians here in Canada and they self-identify as White-Europeans nor would I ever confuse them with anyone else.
    Also, Armenians are considered White in California as well. In Ocotber for example the state of Claifornia celebrates European Amrican heritage, Armenians are always a part of the official celebrations. There is however a small minoriity of Armenians who at least pehnotypically resemble Middle Eastern populations thus they’re not White. these people are remnants of ancient Chirstians such as Syrians and Persian Christians who eventually fled to Armenia and got Armenianized as a result of Islamic invasions. Nevertheless, there are far more racially non-White “traditional” Europeans both in Europe and the Americas than Armenians or Georgians. The average and typical Armenian and Georgian is most certainly White. As for Turks and Azeris, some of them racially at least are White because they are just Turkified natives such as Armenians, Greeks, Janissaries (serbs, Romanians etc.)…But because they are Turkic and Muslim they are neither White or European.

  8. This is a tricky question. But to answer it one must look to the people. What do they consider themselves? Having been to all three countries my definite answer is Yes, Armenia and Georgia are European but Azerbaijan is not. How do we define Europe? I do not think that the EU, NATO or UEFA define what Europe is. Because each one of the above mentioned are a bunch of clubs with little regards to the actual meaning of Europe. For example if EU ever admits Turkey to the union I think Russia needs to be given the memebership too (both eventualy contributing to the breakup of the Union). Also Israel is a part of UEFA because it is too dangerouse to parade the Israeli teams accross the Middle East on tournaments. But to go back to Armenia and Georgia. The physical boundary of Europe are the two mountainranges the Urals and the Caucasuss. However, Caucasuss is less defined then the Urals. Why? Because Armenia is essentialy a cluster of mountains which are called the lesser Caucasuss. Also the people as a whole regar themselves historicaly European. Since the ancient times Armenian kings were known to be distant cousins of the Greek Kings. Armenia was always the bordering state with the Roman Empire, and later with Byzantium.

    Georgians, are so close in historical ties to the Armenians that wherever one goes the other will follow. Azerbaijan is on the other hand a Turkik tribe or rather a turkish enclave in the Caucasus which was traped in the Soviet Union thus giving the poeple this notion of independence and statehood. Lets be real, Azeris are Turks. And Turks are not European by any means.

    Idealy I think Caucassus needs to be an area on its own, but since we have to make the distinction, I say Europe is Armenia and Georgia and not Azerbaijan

  9. The division between Europe and Asia geographically is silly. The Caucasus like all other areas at one time under Ottoman rule are part of the Orient. The fact that Armenia and Georgia are Christian is not important. Not too long ago most of Lebanon was also Christian.

  10. For what it’s worth, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia are all three full members of the Council of Europe, as are Cyprus and Turkey, but not Israel, Lebanon, or any of the North African countries.

  11. Otto, are you implying that Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, Hungary, Greece etc. are also part of the “Orient” (whatever that is) as a result of Turkic (Ottoman) invaders?
    I suppose Spain and Portugal are part of North Africa as a result of so many centuries of Moorish and Islamic rule?
    What about Sicily? How about Malta, do you know what language the Maltese speak?

    Armenians are not European because they are Christiana! Ethiopians are Christian as well for crying out loud. The Lebanese do not regard themselves as Europeans nor are they culturally European although a large number of Maronite Lebanese are of ancient Greek, Roman, Armenian and Crusader stock.

    To me personally Armenians are the closest related people to us Hellenes, even linguistically Greek and Armenian are closely related.

  12. “I certainly count them as European due to their European-style history and culture, and the fact that Armenia & Georgia speak languages from the European language family.”

    Huh?
    If by “European language family” you mean the Indo-European — then those who speak Hindi, Urdu, and Tajik would qualify as European. Somehow I don’t think you meant.

    And if you don’t mean “Indo-European”, then what do you mean? OK, Armenian is a Indo-European language, and is related to European and Asian languages, but Georgian belongs to the Kartvelian (Caucasian) language family and has to cousins in the wider world.

  13. This is a very good example of how globalization is making geographical differences less relevant. More power to it for doing that.

    I’m an Asian-American and consider Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan to be Asian countries. Geographies are evolving measures of who we are. Cultures and economies are what matter. In a social and economic context, our world is getting smaller. All three nations should and will one day be members of a united Europe. And that’s good news for everyone.

  14. Focusing on the trans-national organizations, I would point that that Romania is not on the shores of the Atlantic, yet it is a member of NATO. I also remember that the second resolution of the UN, when it was mainly an anti-German alliance, they setup a military council where Russia and US, among others, were to meet monthly; and they did meet for the next 60 years or so. Names don’t mean anything. Turkey, Georgia and Australia can try to join EU – it’s the values that matter. My judgement about Asia might be of a lesser value (never been there, living in societies culturally biased against Asia etc.). But I think that the existence of those unique European, or EU, or NATO values are debatable. At least EU and NATO are obviously delimited, but what defines Europe? The answer is in the eye of the beholder.

  15. All members of Council of Europe are Europeans! Some of you, are trying to distance Azeris from Georgians & Armenians but in fact all of them are White Caucasians live in Caucasus and share both European & Asian heritage, history, culture etc. Eventually all three of them might be a part of EU…. By they way, Caucasoid race is a term used in physical anthropology to refer to people falling within a certain range of anthropometric measurements. The concept of a “Caucasian race” or Varietas Caucasia was first proposed under those names by the German scientist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840). His studies based the classification of the Caucasian race primarily on skull features, which Blumenbach claimed were optimized by the Caucasian Peoples. Blumenbach writes:

    Caucasian variety – I have taken the name of this variety from Mount Caucasus, both because its neighbourhood, and especially its southern slope, produces the most beautiful race of men, I mean the Georgian; and because all physiological reasons converge to this, that in that region, if anywhere, it seems we ought with the greatest probability to place the autochthones of mankind. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caucasian_race

  16. Well, I personally like the term “Eurasia” as we seem to straddle both Europe and Asia in terms of culture, lifestyle and mentality.

    However, Armenia has a history of European cultural and education values as propagated by the Mkhitarian Fathers.

    See here.

    Nevertheless, regarding this question, two points.

    i) When we use the term Georgia are we referring to ethnic Georgians or any Georgian citizen be they ethnic Armenian, Azeri, Georgian etc?

    This is kind of interesting as Armenia and Azerbaijan are more mono-ethnic countries as opposed to Georgia which is more culturally diverse. Probably, that’s why I consider it more Europe than Armenia and Azerbaijan.

    ii) I remember having a chat with some western journalists in Stepanakert a few years ago. The same question came up and their response was that Georgia was Europe, Armenia was the Middle East, and Azerbaijan was Asia.

    Interestingly, the Armenian Diaspora has closer links with the Middle East culturally whereas Armenians here in Armenia probably consider themselves to be closer to Europe because of Russian-influence.

  17. I think that over time, whether or not you want to call it Europe or not, there will be an EU stretching out into the Caucasus, just as it will stretch to cover North Africa and parts of the Middle East.

    Not just for the obvious reasons, but also because these areas have always been historically linked.

    And I for one would welcome it.

  18. Religious affiliation is an insufficient condition to claim European status, IMO. Otherwise, you’ve got to worry about Christians from Morocco to Egypt to Iraq and Iran…China, or large parts of Africa even. Not to mention it risks internalizing exclusionary values in Europe proper where if you’re not Christian, you’re not entirely European, or at least a second class European. (We have endured enough of that already, haven’t we?)

    Not to mention, it can serve as embarrassingly hypocritical grounds for more than a little irredentism — just after Europe got done telling Easterners to stop rearranging borders along ethnic or sectarian lines. ;-)

    Far as I’m concerned, I think I prefer mountain ranges and continental divides as the (or at least one) standard geographic division. That gets part of Georgia for you (El’brus…). The tendency of humans to splatter political boundaries and ethnic distributions every which way does not strike me as a good way to define a geographical concept. ;)

    As for cultural space…it’s only in the 20th century we’ve invented some need for hard and fast barriers between continents and nation-states, barriers that older European civilizations (another loaded word, I know) would have considered pointless at best. When in fact, we have been trading cultural values and ideas between Europe, Asia, and Africa as long as humans have made use of their feet or hoisted sails.

    I might be convinced otherwise, but that’s how I lean for the time being.

    Way to start a debate, Doug! :-P :-D

  19. Australia is part of Greater Europe. That’s why our fearless leader, John Winston Howard, is bravely fighting in Iraq. Well, he’s not there but he’s sent some young Australians.

    Some say it’s because of his servile relationship with George but look at his middle name and scratch your head. He wants a knighthood, wants to feel a sword on his shoulder.

    I’m not popular in Australia because I give Winston and George a hard time. And Tony! My blog is likely under surveillence by Mossad and the CIA.

    Does this comment mean that MI5 will put me on their wanted list?

    If I haven’t suffered rendition, I’ll call again. Please.

  20. They can be part of Europe in larger content. Historicaly. Now there is a chance for them to grab a chance called globalization. Just my two cents.

  21. Geography is a tricky thing – as countries and native people’s identity often do not fully overlap. Take Armenians – they lived for ~3000 years – till early XXth century (when Ottoman government wiped them off in largely-unacknowledged genocide) – in Anatolia, which is part of present-day Turkey. After the Genocide Armenians were spread around the world (largest communities are in Russia, USA and France), in many cases sharing the identity of their adopted homeland. In addition – at least throughout the last two centuries – the biggest Armenian Caucasus communities were concentrated in Tiflis (Tbilisi) and Baku (today’s capitals of Georgia and Azerbaijan) – while half of the population of Yerevan (Armenia) were Azeris. Now, modern Armenia (like Georgia and Azerbaijan) became independent after USSR collapsed – on territory which was “designated” to Armenia by Soviet leaders (and yes, it excluded Nagorno-Karabakh despite its population being 96% Armenian, and despite it being historically Armenian – with numerous medieval Armenian monasteries and churches spread all over it – been there seen that). Does it serve as a basis for determining whether Armenians belong to European heritage? Or should we look at the people’s history/religion/culture?

  22. I won’t begin to take part in the discussion of Armenia’s geographical, social or historical ties, because its clear that opinions differ in the matter and evidence can be found to support whatever you want to argue. What I want to say is that I, as an Armenian, consider myself to be Middle Eastern and not European at all. Every Armenian will tell you something different, such is the fate of a country acting as the boundary between Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

  23. Anna, therefore you are not Armenian. You cannot be “Middle Eastern” and Armenian at the same time.

  24. The EU sure would love to have it be part of Europe, but then, one of the reasons the US wants to have a conflict with Iran is to control the oil fields and oil and natural gas pipeline-routes. Probably to isolate Russia further, too.

  25. Seems to me this discussion misses the larger picture. The important question isn’t “Is the Caucasus part of Europe?” but “Should the nations of the Caucasus be allowed to join the EU?”. So why should the “borders” of Europe determine who can join the EU?

  26. Armenia, azerbaijan and georgia are european culturally, politically and geographically. It is important not to make comparisons of europe of today as it’s cultures are dying along with others around the world.

    The southern caucasus have never been assimilated by middle eastern culture and if anything the mountainous nature of that area’s geography make it isolated both to europe and asia culturally. Also, the north is more muslim and less christian than south of the mountains. In relation to this many stupid geographers assign the north to europe alone.

    Turkey is also a European nation as it has been strongly involved and orientated to the north over the centuries. It is important to note that Turkey and Azerbaijan preach a secular Islam as opposed to other muslim nations.

    The caucasus were initially part of Byzantium,and later Ottoman and Russian empires throughout the modern era.

  27. I think that geographical boundaries is one thing, cultural boundaries are another.

    Culturally Armenia and Georgia is closer to Europe than Asia (Middle East). About Azerbaijan (and Turkey) it´s more diffiult to say. They are Turkic and Islamic but they have been under a considerable European influence to.

    Or maybe i should say “Euro-American”, for example Istanbul may seem to be like any western/European big city, with western architecture, metros and Mac Donalds.

  28. I think that Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia Asian countries.
    Also west of Istanbul is Europa and west of Kazakhstan is Europa too. But Israel and Cyprus geografically is not Europa. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borders_of_the_continents
    green – Europe; yellow – Asia; A – In 1964 officially declared as the boundary in Russia, International Geographical Union and some other countries;

  29. I have just come back from the southern Causasus and was curious as to their “location” – Europe, Asia or Middle East. It’s obvious there is no hard fast answer to this question and some of the arguments put up by people have been well founded. A fairly consistent opinion is that Armenia & Georgia could be viewed as part of Europe due to European leanings & lifestyle. Azerbaijan has been excluded. But I for one felt that Azerbaijan (at least in Baku) has just as much “European feeling” as the other 2. So there you go – another opinion! Not easy, is it?

  30. I originate from the Caucasus, north west next to Sochi , the Caucasus contain lots of different ethnicities, they differ linguistically but they do share some similar traditions due to their contact , some of the ethnicities are Turkic that came from the east long time ago ,and their are the indigenous Caucasians that were only known to have only lived in this area since God created it some are thought to be descendants of the Hittites , Circassians ,georgians ,Abkhazians , Chechens and Dagistanians and some others as well are original inhabitants ,those mentioned are viewed by historians and anthropologists as a white race ,because their are some settlers who arrived from the east previously like the Tatars and some other Turkic people (different than now a days Turkey) who are supposedly I yellow race.
    Islam and Christianity are spread throughout the area, due to the nearness with the Islamic countries .Some of the indigenous people are under the Russian rule which by the way have no what so ever right in this region , and were never its people or inhabitants and their presence there have started after the Russo Caucasian war that ended in 1864, when they started bringing their people (Slavs) and using the multiple ethnic mingling to keep the original people week and frustrated as well as expelling the from their homes and scattering them around the world in Turkey ,USA, Germany Balkanas and middle east.
    So yes they are Europeans and they might be the original ones as well.

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