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Book Review

Lands of Tumult and Long-Held Grudges

EASTWARD TO TARTARY Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus by Rober Kaplan Random House $26.95, 384 pages

November 14, 2000|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The split-up of post-communist Yugoslavia in the 1990s was the subject of Robert D. Kaplan's last book of travel and political journalism, "Balkan Ghosts." The possible disintegration of a wider swath of the world in the early 21st century is the subject of "Eastward to Tartary." As in Bosnia and Kosovo, Kaplan warns, the West may have to deal with explosive conflicts in regions--such as the oil-rich Caspian Sea--about which it knows far too little.

Kaplan's thesis is that the Turkish slaughter of Armenians in 1915 and the atrocities committed by Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia had similar causes. The breakup of two multiethnic empires, the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman, during World War I allowed the creation--often by Western powers bent on their own interests--of compact states with strong ethnic majorities. That some of these states were democratic didn't prevent minorities from being killed or displaced; in fact, it may have made things worse.

Communism, Kaplan says, put this process on hold. Stalin in the Soviet Union and Tito in Yugoslavia ruthlessly suppressed internal conflict. But they also wiped out alternative institutions that might have cushioned the shock when communism collapsed. Once the Berlin Wall fell, only tribal allegiances remained.

In 1998-99, Kaplan traveled by train, bus, ferry and taxi southeast through Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. Then, returning to Turkey, he struck east through the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan and doubled back to Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian-settled enclave of Azerbaijan that Armenia seized in the early 1990s.

Kaplan is a graceful writer, equally at ease in describing the alpine beauty of Transylvania and Georgia and the desolation of such places as Sumgait, Azerbaijan, littered with abandoned Soviet chemical plants, where "in a field of bramble and broken bottles I saw a clutter of black stones identifying small dirt mounds--the graves of children who died of birth defects from the industrial pollution."

He also has an eye for the complexity of Near East politics and a strong sense of historical irony, so that any summary of "Eastward to Tartary" is bound to be an oversimplification. To sum up anyway, however:

Kaplan finds Romania haunting, longing to be "European" but crippled by the legacy of communism and exiled beyond two ghostly but real divides: the old Turkish-Austrian frontier and the Iron Curtain. Bulgaria's fragile democracy is battling a new kind of Russian imperialism: infiltration by gangsters.

Turkey is booming. Its military coups and Islamic fundamentalism are relatively benign. Syria's minority government, on the other hand, must rely on brutal oppression to keep the country from flying apart. Jordan, too, is inherently unstable, though better ruled. Another country likely to crumble is Lebanon, which has bought peace at the price of covert Syrian rule and a corporate-run government. Israelis and Palestinians, unable to drive each other out of the land they share, may increasingly live apart.

A former secret policeman, Eduard Shevardnadze, saved Georgia from the chaos into which democrats had plunged it, but prospects after he's gone are murky. Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan have strongmen but no effective governments. Armenia "boasts a dynamic merchant tradition and a wealthy diaspora" but, like its neighbors, is chained to age-old grudges.

Providing historical (and cultural and religious) context is what Kaplan does best in "Eastward to Tartary." Americans take a belief in progress for granted. Kaplan immerses us in the histories of peoples who have no reason to share this belief--who, across the centuries, have done the worst and had the worst done to them, over and over. Civil societies may evolve in that part of the world, he says, but the West is naive to insist on democracy now: "The fundamental issue will be the survival of the states themselves--by whatever means."

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