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Land of division: lying between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, the mountainous Caucasus region has been notorious for centuries as a place of feuds and fighting; outsiders get entangled in the battles at their own peril.

The Caucasian Mountains form one of the world's great ranges, rising to 5,642 metres at the peak of Mount Elbrus. Geographers often refer to the range as one of the dividing lines between Europe and Asia. The mountains themselves and the areas to the north and south have seen human habitation for thousands of years. As with most mountainous regions, enormous ethnic complexity has developed over the centuries with peaks and valleys separating peoples from one another.

Throughout history Caucasia has served as a refuge for persecuted peoples who fled into the mountain valleys as protection against invaders. Wave upon wave of settlement produced a complex ethnic pattern. Today, in an area two-thirds the size of Manitoba, about 40 languages are spoken.

There are three countries in the South Caucasus region--Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. All used to be part of the Soviet Union, and all are struggling to stand on their own two feet as sovereign nations.

The North Caucasus is inside the boundaries of Russia and it too is facing difficulties. The extremely violent struggle for independence by the Chechens is well known (see sidebar). How ever, there was also an armed revolt in Dagestan in 1999, and there has been fighting in Ingushetia.

Russian influence in Caucasia is centuries old, and for the people of the region it has often been negative. For 70 years, the nations of the region were swallowed up by the Soviet Union. With a massive military presence and the heavy-handed activities of the secret police rivalries among the peoples of the Caucasus were kept from exploding. Although independence came in 1991, the South Caucasian region is still in Russia's backyard and everything that happens there is of great interest to Moscow.

Internal squabbling began almost immediately after the I collapse of the Soviet Union in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia--Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Chechnya to the north all exploded in violence. This prompted the EastWest Institute to describe Caucasia as having the "characteristics of war-torn societies and countries in transition."

From a distance, the fighting in the region doesn't look all that serious when measured against conflict in say the Middle East, the Balkans, or Indonesia. Close up though, Caucasian battles take on a different complexion. The region is rich in natural resources, particularly oil and gas. This means that what might look like a couple of ethnic groups renewing ancient hatreds because someone stole a goat three centuries ago has wider implications. Economics, politics, and strategic advantages are at stake.

What keeps diplomats awake at night is the possibility these smoldering disputes will turn into gale-driven forest fires. As the EastWest Institute puts it, there is the possibility that "spillover into other volatile zones could bring about the open intervention of powerful neighbours, such as Dan, Iraq, Russia, and Turkey, and could threaten larger peace and security arrangements."

One problem even preceded the break-up of the Soviet Union. It was in Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region in southwestern Azerbaijan; 80% of its total population are ethnic Armenians. Since 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh has been in rebellion against Azerbaijan, with the very active support of Armenia. In 1991, warfare got really serious between the government and the rebels, claiming more than 35,000 lives. The fighting ended in a ceasefire in 1994. But, the two sides are still haggling over a permanent peace agreement, and rebel forces still control the province. Three quarters of a million refugees have fled, often living in appalling conditions in Azerbaijan. Freedom House says most refugees "are unable or unwilling to return to their homes because of fears for their safety and concerns over dismal economic prospects in the breakaway territory."

Once called the Soviet "silicon valley," Armenia's economy collapsed when its old markets disappeared. It has since recovered somewhat, but job creation and poverty reduction have not kept pace with growth. Armenia also suffers from a trade blockade, imposed by neighbouring Turkey and Azerbaijan since the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Turks and Armenians have been bitter enemies for a long time. Armenians say Turkey killed 1.5 million of their people in a four year, organized genocide that began in 1915. To this day, the Turkish government denies any plan of mass murder; the official line is that the deaths were casualties of a war the Armenians started.

Armenia has always experienced waves of emigration, but the present exodus is causing much alarm. It is estimated that Armenia has lost 20% of its population in recent years, as young families leave for a better life abroad. The negative consequences for the economy have been widespread.

It is estimated that 50% of Armenians live below the poverty line. Corruption and political killings add to the sense of a society under threat. Gunmen who stormed the Yerevan parliament in 1999, killing the prime minister and other politicians, said the plight of the Armenian people was the reason for the bloodshed.

To the north, Georgia has been plagued by separatist movements and conflicts between political factions since 1991. Several of Georgia's minorities felt threatened by the prospect of Georgian independence. Nationalist movements in South Ossetia (starting in 1991) and Abkhazia (in 1992-93) sought independence from Georgia, and bitter fighting broke out between these groups and Georgian forces. By 1995, Abkhazia and South Ossetia were outside the control of the Georgian government. Most ethnic Georgian inhabitants of those territories had been forced into exile. The Georgian government doesn't have a lot to say about what goes on in Ajaria in the southwest either. A man called Asian Abashidze exercises almost complete control over what goes on in that province. As if all that isn't enough to keep the government on its toes, it has a major problem to deal with in the Pankisi Valley.

The valley is about 150 kilometres north of Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, and it's another place where the central government doesn't call the shots. The people in the valley are of Chechen origin: they follow Islam and it's the village elders who run things. In recent years, the local population has been swollen by the arrival of Chechen refugees from the north.

Mixed in with the 7,000 refugees are probably a fair number of Chechen rebels, Russia says as many as 500 have been holed up in the Pankisi Valley. Moscow claims they use the valley as a base from which to launch strikes against Russia. There are other claims that some al-Qaeda fighters fresh from battles in Afghanistan are also using the Pankisi Valley as a base. This is where the United States and Russia move into the frame.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has told the Georgian government that if it doesn't clean out the nest of terrorists in the Pankisi Valley he will do it for them. There are already several hundred American military advisers in Georgia, and the U.S. is paying the government $64 million to train and equip the country's rather rag-tag army.

So, in this 20-kilometre-long valley there is the potential for Russia and the United States to come face to face. There has already been some heated discussion. A U.S. State Department spokesperson said in September 2002, "The United States strongly supports Georgia's territorial integrity and would oppose any unilateral military action by Russia inside Georgia." This strikes the Russians as a little bit odd, coming from a U.S. administration that was in the middle of planning unilateral military action inside Iraq for much the same reason.


The showdown in a Moscow theatre was a grisly business. A small group of Chechen rebels seized the theatre in the middle of a performance of the Russian version of "Chicago." For a couple of days, the Chechens held 700 people hostage. Then came the rescue mission. A disabling gas was fired into the theatre, quickly followed by soldiers. While the gas dealt with the terrorists it also killed 117 hostages.

The bloody episode in October 2002 was the latest in a series of terror attacks on civilians in Russia.

The Chechen people have a long, long history of resistance to Russian domination going back well into the pre-communist era. In the 19th century, it took the Tsars decades to quell the Chechens. The Communists had to do it all over again after they seized power in Russia in 1917. In the latest outbreak of nationalism, the Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev declared his republic's independence from Russia in 1991. By December 1994, Russia had had enough of Chechnya's rebellion against its control and sent in the troops.

Russian bombardment flattened the capital city, Grozny, and caused very heavy casualties. At its heaviest, shells were falling at the rate of 900 an hour--the greatest destructive firepower aimed at a European city since World War II.

The estimated death toll in the first seven months of fighting was 40,000. Chechen rebels took to the hills from where they mounted guerrilla attacks on Russian troops. At the end of July 1995 a disengagement agreement was reached.

In the spring of 1996, the Chechens returned to the offensive and retook Grozny from the Russians. A ceasefire was signed in late August. This called for both Russian and rebel forces to be pulled out of Grozny. Peace plans called for both sides to talk about a framework for greater Chechen autonomy.

Three years of relative peace ended in the fall of 1999 when a series of bombs were detonated in Russian cities, including Moscow. The bombs killed more than 300 people and the Russian government said they were the work of Islamic terrorists, particularly Chechens.

Russian troops were ordered back into Chechnya and refugees poured out of the region. By the end of December 1999, the Russian forces were back in control of Grozny, but the city was not much more than a pile of rubble. The rebels are still killing 20 to 30 Russian soldiers a week and both sides have committed gross human rights violations against prisoners.

From time to time, fighting has also broken out in neighbouring Dagestan and Ingushetia. Mercenaries have also shown up in all the conflicts. And, guess whose money seems to be funding some of the Islamic groups fighting in region. Give up? Osama bin Laden's.


perhaps peace in the Caucasus will come from a pipeline. In the fall of 2002, the Presidents of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey took part in a ceremonial laying of the first section of an oil pipeline. The line will stretch 1,750 kilometres from Baku on the Caspian Sea to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. It will pass through Georgia on the way although a more direct route would be through Armenia. However, nobody in the region seems to be able to get along with the Armenians at present

"This project guarantees peace, security, and stability in the region, and still further unites three countries and three peoples," Azerbaijan's President Haydar Aliev said.

Certainly, there are plenty of people who hope Mr. Aliev is right, among them U.S. President George W. Bush. As a measure of the importance the U.S. places on this pipeline, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham was sent out to attend the ceremonial start of the project. The United States needs much of the oil that will come out of the Turkish end of the pipeline and it needs regional stability to make sure the oil flows.


Canada has no embassies in the South Caucasus.

At the start of the 19th century, the German scientist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach used the word Caucasian to describe the white race, which he believed to have originated in the Caucasus region. Scholars no longer use the word and the very concept of a "white race" has been discarded. However, it survives in popular usage.

Medieval Arab writers described the Caucasus Mountain range as Jabal al ansan--"the mountain of languages."


1. The political culture of the Caucasus has been described as "parochial. " This kind of society places great importance on kinship ties, the clan, and its values of honour and mutual obligations. It makes the creation of loyalty to a nation state very difficult. Discuss how barriers between peoples might be broken down.

2. Open clipping files on the various conflicts going on in the Caucasus and periodically review the contents to assess whether or not progress towards peace is being made.


Azerbaijan Internet Links

Caucasus Early Warning Network--http://www.fewer. org/functions/issues/index. htm

Caucasus Foundation english/index.html

Country Indicators for Foreign Policy--http://www.

Human Rights Watch (Chechwa)--http://www. chechnya/
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Title Annotation:Caucasia
Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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