The Caucasus mountains, a turbulent crossroads

Agence France Presse -- English
September 3, 2004 Friday 3:54 PM GMT

MOSCOW Sept 3 -- The Caucasus, scene of a dramatic hostage crisis
that ended Friday with more than 100 dead, is the turbulent home to
scores of ethnic and religious groupings prone to regular outbreaks
of violence.

The mountainous region, roughly the size of California, forms a
natural crossroads between east and west, north and south and currently
comprises three newly independent states -- Armenia, Azerbaijan and
Georgia -- along with part of the regional superpower, Russia.

The seven Russian republics in the region are themselves highly
diverse, including strife-torn Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, North
Ossetia, Karachai-Cherkessia, Adygeya and Kabardino-Balkaria.

Dagestan alone, wedged between the Caspian Sea and Chechnya, is
inhabited by 30 nationalities, each with its own language and customs.

Many of the region's languages are of Indo-European or Turkic origin,
others are indigenous.

Islam is well-established in the Caucasus, notably in Azerbaijan and
several of the Russian republics, but Orthodox Christianity in its
Russian, Georgian and Armenian variants is also widespread.

Its key position made the Caucasus a target for regional empires
including those of the Ottomans and Persia.

More recently the Russians have dominated the region, and many of the
conflicts of the past decade have been exacerbated by administrative
demarcations decided during the Soviet era and the wholesale
deportations ordered by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin during World
War II.

Nationalist sentiment among the rugged, fiercely independent mountain
peoples was never entirely extinguished, and aspirations to self-rule
contributed significantly to the break-up of the Soviet Union.

The first out-and-out conflict erupted in the late 1980s between
Armenians and Azeris scrapping over the remote enclave of Nagorno
Karabakh, administratively part of Azerbaijan but inhabited mainly
by Armenians.

That conflict, like others that have broken out subsequently, has
still not been resolved.

In 1992, in the months following the dissolution of the Soviet Union,
South Ossetia, part of Georgia, fought a brief war with government
forces to claim independence from Tbilisi, while Christian North
Ossetia, part of Russia, battled with Muslim Ingushetia over a
territorial claim.

The same year, Georgia's western Abkhazia region -- with suspected
Russian support -- fought a year-long separatist war that won de
facto independence at a cost of thousands of dead and a ruined economy.

In December 1994 Russian president Boris Yeltsin poured troops into
Chechnya to put down a separatist insurgency headed by Dzhokhar
Dudayev. Less than two years later he was forced to withdraw the
troops, leaving rebel leaders in control.

Chechnya's de facto independence, marked by chaos and warlordism,
lasted less than three years as an incursion by rebels from Chechnya
into Dagestan triggered a further invasion by Russian troops, ordered
this time by Yeltsin's prime minister and heir apparent Vladimir Putin.

Putin has made frequent claims since then to have stabilised the
situation in Chechnya, usually finding them belied by events.

The Caucasus region, particularly its Russian republics, are also
dogged by lawlessness despite -- some say because of -- the presence of
Russian troops, with oil-trafficking, clan warfare and hostage-taking
rampant.