|A primer on Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia|
Back on Aug. 8, as the world turned on their television sets to watch the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, there was a momentary distraction in the pomp and pageantry caused by news that Georgia had just launched an attack into South Ossetia.
While most Canadians had to consult an atlas to locate these regions, the drama and magnitude of the clash was dangerously intensified when Russia entered the fray. The initially successful Georgian troops were soon routed by the allied Russian and South Ossetian forces, and pushed back into Georgia proper.
Strange-sounding place names such as Tskhinvali, Gori and Tbilisi punctuated the newscasts. Yet another region, Abkhazia, allowed the deployment of additional Russian troops along the Georgian border, and suddenly Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, was pleading for the international community to save his country from "Russian aggression."
Republican presidential candidate John McCain espoused the ridiculous quip, "Today we are all Georgians," and U.S. military pundits were dusted off to warn us of the dangers of a revitalized Russian Bear seeking world domination.
The fear-mongering apparently worked as gun shops quickly sold out across the southern United States. "Them Russkies may have taken Georgia, but they won't take Alabama," shouted the good ole boys.
However, by the time the Olympics ended it was evident that Russia had no intention of annexing Georgia back into a reborn Soviet Union. France had brokered a peace deal that would see Russian troops withdraw in stages from both the occupied Georgian territory and subsequently from South Ossetia.
As the fighting died down, so did North American coverage of this strategic flashpoint known as the Caucasus. Interestingly enough, both the U.S. and Canada had pushed for Georgia's accelerated membership into NATO at the alliance's summit in Bucharest last April. Had Western European nations not vetoed that motion, the events of August could have been the opening round of a full NATO-Russia showdown.
Following the clash, Prime Minister Stephen Harper did not waiver or reconsider his support for Georgia entering NATO, and he claimed that had it already been a member, Russia would not have reacted so forcefully.
Most other NATO countries now view Saakashvili as a loose cannon and believe that they were well warranted to delay Georgia's membership in light of the fact that they have two unresolved territorial claims right on the Russian border.
Given that Harper and Canadian foreign policy firmly support the right of Georgia to invoke its sovereign authority over South Ossetia and Abkhazia rather than recognize the Abkhazians' and Ossetians' right to self-determination, I felt that if Canada could end up as a combatant in Third World War, we should at least better understand the issues at hand.
As such, I recently embarked on a 15-day, seven-destination fact-finding tour of the Caucasus. I have visited the region several times in the past few years, but the very complexity of the political and strategic situations makes even the most fundamental travel planning a severe challenge.
Situated between the Black and Caspian seas, the Caucasus has been for centuries the faultline between the Ottoman-Turkish, Persian-Iranian, and Russian-Soviet empires. Throughout the Cold War, it was constituted by three republics: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, these three republics sought independence from Moscow and, in turn, various minorities sought to secede from them. The result was a brutal series of civil wars, ethnic cleansings and atrocities that raged into full-blown civil wars from 1992 until 1994.
At that time, the Western media was focussed on events in the former Yugoslavia, and little coverage was given to a war equally complex and bloody in the Caucasus. When the dust settled, there were a number of frozen conflicts, closed borders, disputed territories and unrecognized new states.
All of this could easily still be simply ignored by the West but for the fact that Caspian Sea oil reserves are enormous and the new pipeline from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey is pumping over one million barrels a day. Obviously this is of concern to both Iran and Russia, which share in the Caspian Sea resources but do not posses the same offshore drilling technology.
While I intend to keep an eye on the greater economic and strategic implications during my travels, I hope to focus on the complex circumstance of each of the players.
The trip began in Ankara, Turkey, and since the country's border with Armenia remains closed, I had to fly to Yerevan via Germany. From Armenia I visited the self-declared but unrecognized state of Nagorno-Karabakh. Simply having their visa in my passport causeed me difficulties when I later attempted to enter Azerbaijan, which maintains claim to Nagorno-Karabakh as their sovereign territory.
To reach South Ossetia, I had to fly to the Russian city of Stavropol and drive 12 hours to Tskhinvali. As Georgia and Russia presently have closed borders, I had to return to Yerevan, Armenia, then take a bus to Tbilisi. Due to the unresolved issue of Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia and Azerbaijan have a closed border, so I had to fly from Tbilisi, Georgia, to Baku, Azerbaijan.
For the absolute Caucasus junkies, I apologize in advance that my travels (on this trip) will not include Abkhazia or Iran.
Given that Canada monitors this region remotely from embassies in Moscow and Ankara, I marvel at the fact that back in those confusing days of August, Stephen Harper was able to compute such a vast amount of variables in the Caucasus equation and come to the exact same conclusion as President George Bush.