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In Caucasus, Frozen Conflicts Are Still Hot

Disputes stoked after the Soviet breakup wreak misery and instability years later.

September 13, 2004|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

GIZEL, Russia — Each day for 12 years, the rhythm of life in this village of scrap-metal lean-tos, plywood shacks and misery in North Ossetia has been the same.

Those who have jobs in the nearest city hike up to the main road and flag down a passing car or, with luck, catch a bus. Later in the morning, the children set out for school, walking a mile and a half along roads that are often muddy or buried in snow. At 5 p.m. sharp, the water tap in the center of town opens up for precisely three hours.

There is a reason why no bus stops at Gizel, why there is no school or running water and two outhouses must do for 300 people: Gizel is a "temporary" place, set up in this Russian republic in 1992 to accommodate some of the 100,000 refugees fleeing South Ossetia's separatist war against Georgia.

Somehow, the war never officially ended, and many of the refugees never went home. In addition, brief clashes have flared again over the last few weeks, and officials here say a revival of the fighting is their worst fear.

Across the territory of the former Soviet Union, as many as 1 million people are living in the forgotten limbos of frozen ethnic and territorial conflicts, some so obscure that most of the world isn't aware of them, and so deeply hostile that they may never be resolved.

Nowhere are these frozen conflicts as volatile as here in the North Caucasus, where ethnic battles that erupted after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 could ignite again at the slightest provocation.

Here in North Ossetia, the horrific hostage-taking at a provincial school in the town of Beslan resurrected in many minds another conflict from 1992, with the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia, that killed 200 people and displaced thousands. The Beslan hostage-takers, a combination of Chechen and other rebels, were reportedly led by a well-known Ingush militant.

No sooner had the hostages been taken than some Ossetians began pulling weapons out of their closets, determined to strike against Ingush villages in North Ossetia.

"Me and my friends had a plan. We wanted to go to an Ingush village ... and we were going to capture two schools there," said one man, a veteran of the Ingush-Ossetian war. "But in the end, we realized those were such evil terrorists that even if we had their schools, we could never break them."

For those seeking to undermine what remains of the Russian empire, the North Caucasus is the chosen field of battle, thanks in part to the constant threat of instability in this highly strategic region. One of the hostage-takers captured in Beslan said that the real aim of the school seizure was not simply to free the neighboring province of Chechnya from Russian rule, but to "start war in the entire territory of the North Caucasus."

Frozen conflicts plague the region. In South Ossetia, officially part of Georgia but seeking to join Russia, periodic mortar attacks and small-arms skirmishes claimed several dozen lives over the summer as Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili moved to end the de facto autonomy there and in the Black Sea republic of Abkhazia.

The conflict over Azerbaijan's Armenian-majority enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh is no closer to resolution than it was when the heaviest fighting ended 10 years ago. And in Moldova, the self-proclaimed but otherwise unrecognized republic of Trans-Dniester has seen deliberate electricity shut-offs and a rail blockade after increased tension over language issues.

The world may tune out the conflicts in these hard-to-pronounce areas, but analysts warn that it does so at its peril: The conflict belt runs along the vital energy corridor linking Caspian Sea oil supplies with Western Europe and the United States.

Moreover, the self-declared independent zones -- answering to no recognized governments -- are potential breeding grounds for problems that can spill well beyond their borders, experts warn.

Abkhazia, which Saakashvili has sworn to bring back under Georgian rule, was the site of the reported disappearance of more than a pound of highly enriched uranium sometime after fighting broke out in 1992. On at least two other occasions, Georgian officials have found stolen radioactive material they believed was bound for a port in Adzharia, a third breakaway region that Georgia retook in May.

"It is widely and correctly believed that these unresolved fragments of the Soviet empire now serve as shipment points for weapons, narcotics and victims of trafficking, and as breeding grounds for transnational organized crime -- and, last but not least, for terrorism," said a report produced by the German Marshall Fund and the Project on Transitional Democracies.

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