06/08/2012 11:28 BST | Updated 06/10/2012 06:12 BST

The Problem With Mountains In the Caucasus

Outside the decrepit cafe where we stopped, a peppery tempered driver waited for the passengers to climb back into the silver marshrutka and continue the drive south down the Georgian Military Highway to Tbilisi.

Outside the decrepit cafe where we stopped, a peppery tempered driver waited for the passengers to climb back into the silver marshrutka and continue the drive south down the Georgian Military Highway to Tbilisi.

Further still, spread along Georgia's southern flank, were the borders of Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan, each traced out along the ridges of great ranges.

To the north - where we had come from - the road wended through the quiet spaces between vertiginous peaks that crowded out the clouds, before finally falling back on the Russian side to Vladikavkaz.

The problem with these mountains, as with most, is that they divide things. They divided my friend and me from our meeting in Batumi on the Black Sea coast. And they divided me from my holdall and clothes that Aeroflot never got around to putting on the plane in Moscow.

But more than that, they divided the peoples of this samizdat world; this world of Lermontov's Bela and passionate vendetta; of wholesale beauty, except in the patches where Soviet planners had tried to create Mordor.

In battle, mountains place the defender at an often insurmountable advantage. That is why, more than any benevolent minorities law, they are the greatest preservers of culture, lineage and soul. Yet, for connected reasons, people covet them and will fight for them. To rattle around the Caucasus in cramped mini-buses is to appreciate their Damoclean presence; always suspended in the minds of politicians and people.

For example, despite being replete with pretty peaks, Armenia loves just one - Ararat - the mountain on which it is said Noah's Ark came to rest after the flood had subsided and also the imprimatur of Armenia's famous cognac, sent by the caseload from Stalin to Churchill. Yet while Ararat stands as significant to Armenia as the Bald Eagle to the United States, it is not even in Armenia, but in Turkey, separated by a wire fence and hazy line of minarets.

In the east, Armenia suffers from similarly parlous relations with its dynamic neighbour, Azerbaijan. Driven by energy rents, Azerbaijan has seen several years of double digit GDP growth - way above that of China. Yet, at loggerheads over the fate of Nagano-Karabakh, Armenia and Azerbaijan 's bloody and undiminished yearning for control of this tiny mountain domain belie the putative sense of a region promisingly transitioning from the conflicts of the 1990s towards peace and prosperity.

It is Georgia that has led the way on political reform. In a highly symbolic gesture, all major police stations in Georgian cities are now made of transparent glass and most of the officers in them are new. This, together with a 50% odd reduction in the size of the state bureaucracy, has proved a hugely popular first step in tackling pervasive corruption; with practically all Georgians we asked heaping praise on the move.

Yet such boldness has come at a price for Georgia. Since 2008 its western districts of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have, for practical purposes, been annexed by Russia. And this conflict has little to do with the human rights of the people there and everything to do with the mountains. The Caucasus make Moscow feel secure and it greatly fears them coming under the influence of NATO should Georgia eventually join. The unheated guesthouses on the road between Tbilisi and Batumi say it all - 'hydrocarbons or independence, you can't enjoy both'.

Finally in damp and smoky Batumi, in the cosseted confines of the lobby at the Sheraton Hotel, we learnt from our meeting of Georgia's diversification response. Much of its Black Sea coast infrastructure has been sold to regional alternatives. Batumi port is now owned by the Kazakh state giant, Kazmunaygaz, while further up the coast the port at Poti is controlled by an assortment of Azeri companies. The waiter who knocked up a passable Mint Julep told me that the new hotel was a Turkish enterprise.

Coming to terms with geography that favours non-cooperation and bad neighbourliness is not going to be easy for this region. Yet, if the Swiss example is anything to go by, it is not an impossible task. Certainly, one essential factor, as when the Swiss finally kicked out the Habsburgs at the end of the 13th Century, is going to be breathing space beyond the gaze of bigger neighbours, and this applies to Turkey, Iran and the West, as much as to Russia.

With luck, the nations here will evolve a more collective version of the pride they understandably take in their unique mountain land, and hopefully have the option of picking from amongst their envious would-be partners beyond it.