Reply to Prof. R. Pipes' "The Caucasus: A New Middle Eastern Tinderbox?"

(10 April 1997)

To speak only of the UK press, of which I have direct experience, though I suspect the same probably applies in the US, there tends  to be a rather arrogant assumption that 'our  correspondents know best'. The result is that, when a remote and largely unknown part of the world suddenly hits the headlines, the nearest correspondent is despatched to report the  incident, even though (s)he may have no knowledge of the background  and will almost certainly not know the local language(s). Errors are to be expected, but media-machoism seems to demand reluctance both to accept criticism and to make the necessary emendations. Ever since the tiny Caucasian province of Abkhazia found itself commanding Western media-attention (in 1978 as a result of anti-Georgian demonstrations; again in July 1989 when deaths  resulted from ethnic clashes engineered by nationalist opposition-leaders in central Georgia;  finally in 1992-93 during the bitter war initiated when Shevardnadze ordered in his rag-bag fighters to quell, entirely peaceful and constitutional, moves to loosen ties with Tbilisi), it has been all but impossible to read the word 'Abkhazians' without  the accompanying epithet 'Muslim' (and often 'Turkic-speaking' in addition). It is sad to  see even such a distinguished academic colleague as Harvard's Richard  Pipes repeating the former of these formulae. Journalist Thomas Goltz has already criticised Pipes' piece in this and some other respects, but I think more can be said on the specific issue of Abkhazia.

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