Shaun Walker: Ethnic tensions ... War in the Caucasus is Stalin's legacy





[Shaun Walker is the Moscow correspondent of the Independent.]

The Georgians are bombing South Ossetia; the Russians have come through the Roki tunnel to take Tskhinvali; a second front has been launched in the Kodori Gorge; the Russians have occupied Gori, Poti and Senaki. It's been a week where names and places that previously didn't register a blip on the Western consciousness have suddenly become headline news. Even most of the journalists covering the conflict, shipped in from big bureaux across the world, had never heard of Tskhinvali in the morning when they flew in. By evening they were pontificating about the significance of its fall to the Russians on live television.

The most intense stage of conflict is over now in South Ossetia, but hopes for a negotiated settlement remain very slim indeed. The real bad news, though, is that South Ossetia is not alone as a potential hot spot in the former Soviet Union. There are many spots that you may never have heard of, dotted all around the territory that was once part of the Red Empire.

As well as South Ossetia, there is Georgia's other breakaway state of Abkhazia. Tiny South Ossetia is inconceivable as a "real country", and could only be part of either Russia or Georgia, but Abkhazia might have a better shot of making it. It has a coastline, which fuels the tourist industry that is beginning to revive, and means that trade with countries other than Russia is possible.

Hidden in the lush forest above the coast at Gagra in Abkhazia is a lime-green mansion; one of several dachas built for Joseph Stalin, an ethnic Georgian, along the Abkhaz coastline. He'd come for weeks in the summer, relaxing on the balcony or playing a game of pool with other leading Bolsheviks. It may have been here that Stalin made many of the decisions that scattered and divided nations, and led to many of the conflicts that have flared up since the Soviet Union collapsed...



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