- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2003

By now it is a time-tested formula. Take an exotic location; mix in some travel writing and history, and in a few hundred pages, the reader may actually learn something while being entertained. Few of us can resist armchair travel.

A decade ago, the favorite spot to write about was the treacherous Balkans, made even more appealing after the collapse of Marshal Tito's Yugoslavia and the myth of postwar Balkan stability. Suddenly, old hatreds seemed very contemporary. Judging from Nicholas Griffin's "Cauasus: Mountain Men and Holy Wars," the Caucasus could be the early 21st century's bid for prize travel book locale replacing the Balkans for unvarnished ferocity.

In truth, and even more than communist Yugoslavia, in Joseph Stalin's empire the Caucasus was kept away from Western eyes for decades. No one, not even the CIA knew the fate of the region's peoples until Nikita Khrushchev partially lifted the curtain in his 1956 secret speech. Now with the Chechen war as a focus, the Caucasus, with its wild mixture of peoples, religions and ethnic hatreds is a near perfect recipe to whet the appetite of any vicarious traveler. Add oil and gas probably lots of it and geostrategists will succumb to the lure of the Caucasus as well.

Nicholas Griffin cashes in on Caucasian exotica and frames his work with alternate chapters on his wanderings through the region with a detailed history of one Chechen rebel, Imam Shamil, who bedeviled the mid-19th century Russian government for years. To make matters properly complicated in the Caucasian manner, Shamil himself was not a Chechen, but from neighboring Dagestan.

Anyone who has read Leo Tolstoy's account of Shamil's successor, Hadji Murat, will be on familiar ground. And Mr. Griffin reminds us that the slash-and-burn strategy of the czsars has been repeated by several post-Soviet Russian governments with so far about the same results. In a fascinating parallel, which Mr. Griffin draws, the 19th-century Russian practice of systematically destroying Chechen forests, thus depriving the rebels of cover, is being repeated today with the systematic leveling of Chechnya's capital, Grozny, where even the rubble was deliberately reduced to dust depriving Chechen snipers of any cover.

The Russian military obviously remembers the lessons of Stalingrad, but Mr. Griffin contends they don't remember the lessons of the 19th century. Well, perhaps. But the one thing that strikes me from both Tolstoy and Mr. Griffin's account, the Russians eventually did prevail over Shamil and Hadji Murat simply by outlasting them and a willingness to pay the price. Nearly any price.

The Kremlin may have the same strategy in mind despite the deplorable shape of Russia's armed forces and their experience in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, can anyone question the canniness of President Putin in buckling his war against Chechnya with the American crusade (why not use that lately unfashionable word?) against terrorism anywhere, anyplace it may show its face.

Still, the dirty war in the Caucasus remains an open question. Smothering the Chechens for a while may put them in their place. But at what cost? And for how long? The author wisely gives us no answer, but does give us the chance to think about it as well as the U.S. role in aiding and abetting this abattoir in the name of counter-terrorism.

As for the rest of the Caucasus, we get quick snapshots of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia that to the uninitiated may sound like all the same place, but they are not. Georgia hardly makes an appearance. Its ugly internal situation and its tense relations with Russia and the connection to Chechnya are barely touched upon. Armenia and the Armenian mentality are another story, however, which the author seems to understand thoroughly.

Mr. Griffin has a keen sense of Armenian uniqueness and why. No matter how far and how long from Armenia, these Transcaucasus people remain stubbornly Armenian, believing themselves, among other things, the oldest Christians in the world. And they don't much like the Azeris who were outfought and outclassed by the Armenians in the fight over Karabagh.

So whose claim is just in that conflict? The author is quite right. Like a thousand similar Balkan quarrels, each side can make its claim with equal legitimacy leaving the outsider either confused or taking sides with the latter the less preferable. In fact, the parallels between the Caucasus and the Balkans are all too clear. Mix Christian even Orthodox and Muslim whose histories go back centuries and who know only what it is like to be on top or the bottom there is no middle level and it is a recipe for unending conflict.

There is no assurance that the Caucasus will be any better than Bosnia.

Roger Fontaine was a member of the National Security Council staff during the second Reagan administration.

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