Georgian Conflict Tests Russian Diplomatic Skills

Negotiations this week may be the last chance to stop the spread of the Georgian civil war to ethnic groups in Russia

AS the chances for a peaceful settlement of the Georgian civil war seem to fade, Russia faces the prospect of being dragged into the conflict in the Caucasian nation.

All efforts to contain the conflict, which pits Georgian forces against separatist-minded rebels in Abkhazia, so far have proven ineffective.

The two sides agreed to a cease-fire on Saturday, but heavy fighting resumed less than 24 hours later.

A force of 1,000 Georgian troops, backed by 10 tanks, launched an attack Sunday on the Abkhazian town of Gagra, Abkhazian authorities claimed. Georgian officials, meanwhile, blamed Abkhazian troops for violating the cease-fire.

The failure of the truce to take hold reduces the chances for a political solution to be found at a planned Thursday meeting between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister who is now the head of Georgia's provisional government.

The Yeltsin-Shevardnadze summit aims to provide new momentum to the regional peace process. Some experts say the meeting is perhaps the last chance to prevent a major escalation of the war, including the widescale participation of various ethnic groups in the northern Caucasus region of Russia.

"A lot depends on the negotiations [on Thursday]," says Richard Ovinnikov, a senior adviser of the Foreign Policy Association, a Moscow think tank headed by Mr. Shevardnadze before his return to his native Georgia in March.

"The alternative to a settlement is a major conflagration and this would mean the direct involvement of the Russian Federation," Mr. Ovinnikov adds. "Russia should avoid direct involvement because this could set a dangerous precedent for other border areas."

More than 1,000 volunteers from the so-called Confederation of Mountain Peoples in the northern Caucasus have already infiltrated Georgia to fight on the Abkhazian side. The participation of northern Caucasian armed groups has raised the possibility that fighting could spread to southern Russia.

Despite the desire of both Russian and Georgian political leaders to keep the conflict from spreading, their ability to contain the situation seems to be diminishing by the day.

The Russian government, which wants domestic stability to facilitate market-style reforms, has tried to soothe hot tempers in the traditionally volatile northern Caucasus. But an appeal by Mr. Yeltsin for the northern Caucasian nationalities to show restraint has largely been ignored.

Shevardnadze seems equally unable to control his military forces, as Georgian field commanders appear to be acting independently of the politicians in the Georgian capital Tbilisi.

"The weakness of Shevardnadze's position lessens the chances of a peace settlement. Even if he can reach an agreement with Yeltsin, there's no way he can guarantee his side will implement it," says Oxana Dmitriyeva, a specialist in ethnic conflicts at Moscow's Institute for International Relations and World Economics.

More than 100 people have been killed so far in the Georgian civil war, which began in mid-August when Georgian forces moved into Abkhazia, a semi-autonomous region situated along the Black Sea coast. The invasion followed a vote by the Abkhazian parliament to restore the region's 1925 constitution - an effective declaration of independence.

The separatists have continued the fight, despite the occupation of Abkhazia's regional capital, Sukhumi, by Georgian troops. Abkhazian leader Vladislav Ardzinba has said the withdrawal of Georgian forces is a precondition for peace talks. He has also vowed to unleash a guerrilla war if Georgian soldiers attack the provisional Abkhazian capital of Gudauta.

Historically, the Caucasus has been a trouble spot for Russia, which in the 19th century was embroiled for decades in colonial wars against regional tribesmen.

Russia, which is coping with several independence-minded ethnic minorities of its own, opposes Abkhazia's effort to break from Georgia. Moscow instead is pushing for a settlement in which Abkhazia would receive special rights while remaining within Georgia.

But some experts say Russian diplomatic intervention is coming too late for it to have an effect on settling the situation.

"They should have acted before - two years ago - when things were relatively peaceful. Precious time has been lost," Ovinnikov says.

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