Land of passion and treachery

Death in Armenia, war in Chechnya: 'new' Russia only has old answers on its turbulent southern marches, writes Rupert Cornwell
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The Independent Online

TODAY a numbed and grieving Armenia buries the prime minister and seven other senior officials cut down when a group of deranged gunmen burst into the Yerevan parliament last week.

TODAY a numbed and grieving Armenia buries the prime minister and seven other senior officials cut down when a group of deranged gunmen burst into the Yerevan parliament last week.

As it does so, a general election in neighbouring Georgia could damage the standing of its president Eduard Shevardnadze, the one acknowledged statesman of the region. And all the while, almost certainly, Russian bombs and shells will be raining down a few dozen miles away on the wretched people of Chechnya. The Caucasus has always been an unstable and dangerous place - but rarely has it looked as dangerous as now.

In all probability, there is no connection between Moscow's savage bludgeoning of Chechnya and an apparently random act of political assassination in Armenia. But in the Caucasus, nothing is sure. It is a land of passion and treachery, of ancient feuds and ancient memories, where poverty and violence are endemic, where as many as 50 distinct ethnic, racial and religious groups live in a territory no larger than the British Isles, and where chain reactions of instability can lead in almost any direction. In its time it has been fought over by Greeks, Turks and Persians. Distant European powers such as Britain have meddled there. But one giant shadow still hangs over the Caucasus. Its name is Russia.

Until 1991, the region belonged to the Soviet Union. Before that, for a century or more, its component republics and statelets had been part of the Russian Empire. The collapse of Communism brought independence to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, but the bits that previously were in Soviet Russia - Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, North Ossetia and the rest - remained within the new Russia. In many respects ,however, the difference has been slight. The Romanovs are long gone, and Russia is weakened and half-bankrupt. But the mentality behind Tsar Nicholas I's remark 150 years ago still holds true: "Where the Russian flag has been hoisted, it can never be lowered." Now as then, Moscow regards the Caucasus as its backyard, within its sphere of influence, where it may meddle as it pleases. Eight years on, the Kremlin has barely come to terms with the reality of three independent states in Transcaucasia. And, as two Chechen wars within five years prove, woe betide the territory within Russian borders which seeks to break free.

And so a pattern begins to emerge, and chain reactions become easier to discern. The onslaught against Chechnya was brought about not only by the bombs allegedly planted in Russian cities by Chechen terrorists - but also by what Moscow saw as an attempt by Muslim insurgents in Chechnya to invade neighbouring Dagestan and set up a fundamentalist Islamic republic on Russia's southern edge. As a result of the onslaught, however, 180,000 Chechen refugees have fled westward, throwing tiny Ingushetia into turmoil.

The shockwaves spread southward, too, into Georgia, sympathetic to Chechnya and sharing a short and mountainous border with it. Whether Georgia is offering sanctuary to Chechen guerrillas is unknown. Were it to do so, it would assuredly incur Moscow's darkest fury. Between Russia and Georgia there is already no love lost. With good reason, Georgia suspects Moscow of having sought to weaken its statehood by backing the separatist movements in the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia, meanwhile, is driven by personal anger as well as geopolitical ambition.

Moscow has never forgiven Mr Shevardnadze for his role in hastening the break-up of the Soviet empire when he was foreign minister under Mikhail Gorbachev. In the Russian government many regard him as little better than a traitor - an opinion merely confirmed by Mr Shevardnadze's strongly pro-Western policies and his advocacy of Nato membership for Georgia. If he loses ground in today's vote, Russia's room to meddle can only increase.

The Chechen ripples stretch into Azerbaijan as well. Control of Chechnya, astride a pipeline carrying oil from Baku, in Azerbaijan, to Russian Black Sea ports, is vital if Moscow is to retain its leverage in the Great Game already under way over the oilfields of the Caspian Sea and West Asia. Russian commanders believe Azerbaijan is a transit route for foreign mercenaries fighting with the Chechen rebels - though they deny having bombed targets on the territory of a sovereign foreign state.

And so finally to Armenia, Holy Russia's main Christian ally in the region, but since its independence a case study in the self-perpetuating Caucasian cycle of war and economic backwardness. Armenia's 11-year conflict with its ancestral foe Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh may have produced military victory and de facto virtual incorporation of the enclave into Armenia. But the cost has been huge: isolation, the loss of freight routes across Azerbaijan and into Russia, and disruption of its energy supplies. All this in a country already caught in a no man's land between a Communist command economy and the free market, where factionalism and corruption reign.

The signs are that Nairi Unanian, former journalist, ultra-nationalist and leader of the assassins last Wednesday, was acting from longstanding disgust at the government. He wanted, he said, "to save the Armenian people from perishing". And if the chosen method was extreme, it is not unknown in a region where the gun has always been part of politics. But, ask others, was it really so simple ?

A peace settlement containing a few figleaf concessions to Azerbaijan, by all accounts, is close to hand. Might not Mr Unanian have sought to prevent what he regarded as a sell-out of the national interest - and might Russia somehow even have been involved? The war with Azerbaijan has obliged Armenia to maintain close military links with Moscow. A peace deal could render these unnecessary and cost the Kremlin an important strategic foothold in the Caucasus. In which case there would be a connection between Chechen insurrection and murder in Yerevan. Conspiracy theorising run amok? Perhaps. But in its long and anguished history, the Caucasus has seen worse.