Crises Intensify in Georgia, Armenia

Republic leaders struggle to hold on in the face of discontent over territorial disputes

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

LEADERS in Georgia, struggling to maintain the former Soviet republic's territorial integrity, faced a new crisis over the weekend as government forces battled partisans in the breakaway region of Abkhazia despite efforts to negotiate peace.

Meanwhile, unrest also rocked Armenia, Georgia's southern neighbor. Thousands demonstrated Saturday in the Armenian capital Yerevan to demand the resignation of President Levon Ter-Petrosyan, charging his handling of the war over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh was unsatisfactory.

In Georgia, representatives of the republic's provisional government worked out a cease-fire Saturday with Abkhazian leaders, but some armed units on both sides have ignored the agreement.

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Government troops moved into the region on Friday, precipitating fierce street clashes in the Abkhazian capital Sukhumi, located on the Black Sea coast. At least 20 people have been killed so far, according to news reports.

Georgia has been buffeted by ethnic and political unrest since it gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union. During the first six months of this year, fighting centered in the South Ossetian autonomous region. Claiming discrimination, Ossetians were struggling to secede from Georgia and unite with the North Ossetian autonomous region in Russia.

Before the breakup of the Soviet Union, Abkhazia was an autonomous republic in the West of Georgia. Last month, the Abkhazian parliament declared independence, an act that officials in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi condemned as illegal. Leaders in the breakaway region charged that Tbilisi's decision to send in troops was motivated by a desire to stop Abkhazia's independence effort.

Georgian provisional government leader Eduard Shevardnadze denied the allegation in a television interview Saturday, saying the deployment of several thousand troops was designed to stop "banditry" in the region.

Western Georgia has been a base of operations for rebels loyal to ousted President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who lives in exile in the Chechen region in southern Russia. Since being toppled by the provisional government in January, Mr. Gamsakhurdia and his followers have staged numerous guerrilla raids in an attempt to regain power, including an unsuccessful attack on Tbilisi's television tower in June.

When Mr. Shevardnadze ordered the government expeditionary force into western Georgia he said its mission was to smash rebel resistance, as well as to secure release of government officials, including Interior Minister Roman Gventsadze. The officials were kidnapped by rebels during peace talks last Tuesday. The kidnappings dimmed hopes of implementing a national reconciliation plan announced by Shevardnadze in early August.

Mr. Gventsadze and several others were released by rebel forces on Friday, but the provisional government forces have remained in Abkhazia.

The developments prompted the Russian Defense Ministry to dispatch a paratroop regiment to Abkhazia to reinforce Russian Army installations in the region, the Tass news agency reported.

In Armenia, President Ter-Petrosyan rejected demonstrators' calls for his resignation and called a special session of parliament for today, Tass said. Legislators were expected at that session to consider a vote of confidence in Ter-Petrosyan's government, Tass added.

Ter-Petrosyan won a landslide victory in presidential elections last fall, but his popularity has fallen in recent months, since Armenia has suffered several battlefield setbacks to Azerbaijani forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. The enclave lies within Azerbaijani territory, but is largely controlled by ethnic Armenians.

Christian Armenia and Muslim Azerbaijan have battled over Nagorno-Karabakh for more than four years. The conflict has seen more than 2,000 killed, and military operations in recent months have expanded all along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border.

In May, Armenian irregulars drove disorganized Azerbaijani units from Nagorno-Karabakh. But Azerbaijan subsequently regrouped and this month regained some of the lost territory. Armenian leaders in Nagorno-Karabakh responded last week by declaring martial law and ordered the mobilization of all men between the ages of 18 and 45.

Charging Azerbaijan with aggression, Ter-Petrosyan last week sought the intervention of members of the Commonwealth of Independent States under a six-nation collective security treaty signed in May. (Georgia is not a member of the commonwealth.) Armenia is a signatory of the pact, Azerbaijan is not. The other signatories - Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan - have so far refused to become embroiled in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

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