A Game of Musical Chairs That No One Wins the Fighting Has Stopped in the Caucasus, but Ethnic Tensions Make It Tough for Refugees to Go Home

Article excerpt

Rosa Alburova is a careworn woman with three small children clutching at her skirt. She looks around the shabby, dimly lit room in a former sanatorium that has been her family's home for the past six years and voices her dearest wish: "A place of our own where we could live a normal life, even if it was a poor life."

Mrs. Alburova is an ethnic Ossetian who was chased out of her home in Georgia by gun-wielding young Georgian thugs during a 1990 civil war.

A hundred or so miles to the south, in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, Nana Aveliani sits with some of her 10 children in a similar room in a former student dormitory and says: "I know only that I want to go back home." Mrs. Aveliani is an ethnic Georgian who was chased out of her house in Abkhazia by gun-wielding young Abkhazian thugs during a different civil war in 1992. But when I tell Alburova how much her refugee plight reminds me of Aveliani's, and ask how she feels, her response is sullen. "I have my own problems to think about," she says. "I don't care about other people's problems. And anyway, I don't like Georgians much now." Her sour attitude is a reflection of the deep mistrust, hostility, and fear that still poison ethnic relations all over the Caucasus region years after the shooting stopped, and have all but frozen efforts to restart normal life. Nearly half a million people remain homeless on either side of the Caucasus Mountain range - Georgians, Ossetians, Chechens, Russians, and Ingush. They are continuing victims of wars that the world scarcely heard about and, if it did, has now forgotten. And for the most part, their dreams of returning to the homes they fled in terror remain just that - dreams. Crammed into old hotels, prefabricated huts, other people's apartments, and even shipping containers, they eke out a living with odd jobs when they are fortunate or with government handouts when they come. Refugees if they fled across an international border, "internally displaced persons" if they simply sought shelter among ethnic kin, they are a frustrated and often desperate testimony to the political ruins of the Soviet Union. Everywhere the refrain is the same: They want to go home, to the houses they built and the land where their ancestors are buried. But everywhere their lot is the same: They are pawns in a geopolitical chess game that has largely stalled since the violent collapse of the USSR forced them from their homes. "Ethnic cleansing" won worldwide notoriety in the former Yugoslavia, but it was a familiar scourge in the Caucasus before the Bosnian war broke out, as the region's ethnic soup soured and curdled. When Ossetians made a bid for independence from Georgia, they expelled ethnic Georgians. In revenge, ethnic Ossetians were expelled from Georgia proper. They fled across the mountains to North Ossetia, where they helped their brethren kick ethnic Ingush out, and moved into their homes. Many of the Ingush fled to Chechnya, where the Chechens were busy making life impossible for ethnic Russians long before the war broke out there in 1994. And Abkhazia, a strip of subtropical paradise on the Black Sea coast that claims to be independent of Georgia, is more than half empty since all the Georgians were expelled after they lost the war there in 1993. Russia's hand lies heavy on its seething southern border, and Moscow holds the key to solving many of the conflicts in the region. The Abkhazians fought with Russian guns and feed their dream of independence on quiet encouragement from Moscow. It is Russan money that keeps separatist authorities in South Ossetia afloat, and it was Russian frustration that unleashed the bloody war in Chechnya. "Quite strong forces within the elite in Moscow see Abkhazia and Ossetia as instruments for retaining their influence in the region," says Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagarishvili. "Unfortunately such tendencies have not yet been overcome. …