THE WANTON and thus far unexplained assassination of Armenia's Prime Minister and half a dozen of his colleagues is yet another tragic illustration of the instability of the lands wedged between the Black and Caspian Seas. The thin glue that once bound them was membership of the Soviet Union. But today the Caucasus region stands revealed for what it is: arguably the most fragmented region on the face of the Earth, home to as many as 50 identifiable ethnic and religious groups, a territory united only by a self-reinforcing cycle of economic backwardness, poverty and violence.
Yerevan on Wednesday witnessed a mass murder of its politicians. But at that very moment, just a couple of hundred miles to the north, Moscow's army was bombarding Chechnya in an attempt to stamp out an insurrection which threatens to engulf other neighbouring republics, juridically part of the Russian Federation but by culture and tradition utterly different. In Georgia and Azerbaijan, which along with Armenia became independent states in Transcaucasia after the collapse of Communism, dormant conflicts over Ossetia, Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh are capable of flaring up at any moment.
It is tempting to say that none of this really matters and that, even if it did, there is little we can do about it. The Caucasus, after all, is of scant strategic importance to the West. Militarily it carries no threat, and even its fabled oil wealth has so far flattered to deceive. What is more, Russia treats the region as in its sphere of influence. Any direct intervention by the West which threatened that assumed pre- eminence would bring us into confrontation with a nuclear-armed state with the power of veto at the United Nations. …