IT WAS LAST YEAR around this time that I made an extensive reporting trip to the volatile Caucasus region. This strategically vital territory between the Black and Caspian seas is a veritable hornet’s nest of mutually hostile former Soviet republics and breakaway ethnic enclaves. Although the distances are not vast, my travels were made extremely problematic due to the number of closed borders, frozen conflicts and not so frozen conflicts.
In August 2008, the world’s attention had been briefly diverted away from the Beijing Olympics to news reports of conflict in South Ossetia. Very few pundits really understood the underlying cause of the clash, namely that ethnic Georgian forces had attempted to forcibly reclaim the tiny, self-declared independent territory back into its own sovereign authority.
When Russian troops subsequently intervened on behalf of the South Ossetians, western military analysts reverted to their well-worn Cold War playbooks to denounce Russia’s "aggression." It mattered not that Georgian troops had initiated the attack, and had been guilty of widespread slaughter of civilians and ethnic cleansing prior to the Russian intervention. The sight of columns of T-72 Russian tanks rolling through the North Ossetian mountain pass caused U.S. Senator John McCain to make the bizarre declaration that "today we are all Georgians."
As events unfolded, World War Three did not erupt, Russia did not annex Georgia, as many had feared, and after France successfully negotiated a ceasefire, the Caucasus returned to the status of being a wobbly stack of short-fused powder kegs. With the crisis thus averted, the western media coverage quickly returned to the Olympic Games.
Never fully examined was the devastating domino effect that could have plunged the entire region into yet another round of vicious bloodletting. For centuries, there have been eruptions of violence between the three major Caucasus occupants — Georgians, Armenians and Azeris — as well as the smaller minorities such as the Abkhazians, Ossetians and Circassians.
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