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From the epicentre of the conflict

Much attention has been paid to the global dimensions of Russia’s brief war against Georgia last month, with many commentators concluding that Moscow has spoiled its relations with the West, reports Fred Weir.

world Updated: Sep 27, 2008 00:28 IST
Fred Weir

Much attention has been paid to the global dimensions of Russia’s brief war against Georgia last month, with many commentators concluding that Moscow has spoiled its relations with the West through its aggressive action.

But here, at the epicentre of the conflict, there’s a completely different perspective. Experts say that if Russia hadn’t intervened to protect its long-time allies in South Ossetia, the whole turbulent and unstable Caucasus region might have exploded.

“Russia is the guarantor of order in this entire region, and if it had shown itself to be impotent in a crisis, then all the different nationalities here would have turned against it,” says Khasan Dietsev, director of the official North Caucasus Institute of Social Research in Vladikavkaz.

“No one wants to belong to a weak state. Russia’s firm and swift action to repel Georgian aggression assured everyone here that Moscow is in charge and fully capable of asserting itself,” he says.

“That will have a calming effect, not only on Moscow’s friends in this region, but even its enemies will think twice before advocating rebellion.”

The volatile northern Caucasus region is often called “Russia’s Balkans” because it is a complex knot of little mountain nations, many of whom have traditionally hostile inter-relationships.

Some of these groups, such as the Orthodox Christian Ossetians, joined Russia voluntarily two centuries ago. Others, like the Muslim Chechens, were conquered by Imperial Russia after long and bloody 19th century wars.

The Soviet Union froze the national divisions in the region by giving each large ethnic group its own “autonomous republic”, while according a lesser “national district” status to smaller groups.

Russia’s north Caucasus includes seven autonomous republics, most of which have mainly Muslim populations.

But Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin divided Moscow’s most loyal subjects, the Ossetians, into two separate republics. North Ossetia, which occupies the northern slopes of the Caucasus range, remained in Russia. South Ossetia, on the other side of the mountains, was included into the bigger republic of Georgia.

None of that mattered until the USSR collapsed, and the South Ossetians — with much help from their northern brethren — rebelled successfully against Georgia. Under a 1992 ceasefire deal, Russia stationed peacekeepers to protect the south.

That is the essential backstory, experts here insist, for why Moscow had to act when Georgia attempted to forcibly restore its sovereignty over S. Ossetia in August.

If Russian tanks hadn’t rolled immediately, they say, Moscow would have forever lost the allegiance of its most important local republic, North Ossetia. Others, such as the Chechens, might have been emboldened to rebel against a central state that proved incapable of enforcing its writ in this unforgiving region.