Georgian-Russian Ties Fray Over Abkhazia Revolt

Georgian leaders blame Russia for fanning separatist demands

THE Iveria Hotel here is packed with refugees, nearly all of whom have brought horror stories about the civil war in the western Georgian region of Abkhazia.

"What is going on is beastly," says Mimosa, a mother of three, who fled the town of Gagra on the Black Sea in early October.

"Abkhazians and Chechens burst into our home and briefly took us prisoner.... And they ransacked and destroyed the house," she continues. "Among just people I personally know - relatives and neighbors - five people have been killed. It was mostly the Chechens who did the killing."

Yet in spite of the accusations of Russian involvement in the civil war, anti-Russian feeling does not seem to have spread among Georgians. It is not taboo, for example, to speak Russian in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. And most residents here say they harbor no animosity against the Russian people in general for the conflict.

"Georgians and Russians have always gotten along. It is the mountain peoples [as mercenaries are known here] and the [Russian] generals who are to blame for the problems in Abkhazia," says student Badri Georgadze, expressing a widely held sentiment here.

The conflict in Abkhazia pits Georgian government forces against Abkhazian partisans, who are fighting to break away from Georgia. Georgian officials accuse some elements of the Russian Army of backing the Abkhazian rebellion.

Without the support of Russian militants, many Georgians doubt Abkhazia would be capable of resisting the Georgian forces.

In his public statements, newly elected Georgian Parliament Chairman Eduard Shevardnadze is harshly condemning Russian nationalists, particularly several rogue generals stationed in Georgia - while withholding criticism of the Russian government.

"When I speak of generals and reactionary forces, I don't necessarily mean [Russian] President Boris Yeltsin and the democratic wing," Mr. Shevardnadze said at a news conference last Saturday.

Shevardnadze says he still has confidence that Mr. Yeltsin is pushing for a peaceful settlement to the Abkhazian conflict. But other Georgian political leaders are not so sure about the Russian government's intentions.

Georgy Chanturia, head of the influential National Democratic Party, says the Russian Army's action in Abkhazia is part of an effort by Moscow to reestablish the Russian empire following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"Everything is going on with Yeltsin's permission" Mr. Chanturia says. "Russians are using Ossetians and Abkhazians to undermine Georgia's independence. They are trying to recreate the Russian empire."

Separatists in the South Ossetia region in northern Georgia fought government forces during much of the first half of this year. Ossetians were seeking to withdraw from Georgia and unite with their ethnic kin in the North Ossetian Autonomous Republic in southern Russia.

A Yeltsin-Shevardnadze deal in June brought a joint-peacekeeping force to the area. But no sooner did the situation start to settle in Ossetia, than tension began to rise in Abkhazia.

On the surface, the struggles against the Ossetians and Abkhazians would seem to indicate that Georgians are intolerant of other ethnic groups, but the opposite is true, says Darrell Slider, a professor at the University of South Florida who specializes in Georgian affairs.

"The largest ethnic minorities in Georgia aren't Abkhazians and Ossetians, they are Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Russians, and they don't have many problems with them," says Professor Slider, who was in Tbilisi to observe Sunday's parliamentary elections.

"Georgians in general get along with other nationalities," says another observer in Tbilisi. "But something seems to snap in them when territory is involved."

Indeed, even Shevardnadze, one of the staunchest supporters of a negotiated settlement in Abkhazia, has vowed to retake all territory occupied by Abkhazian forces in the event peace talks fail.

Negotiations so far have not produced much. A cease-fire document was signed Sept. 3 by Georgian, Russian, and Abkhazian leaders, but it failed to halt the fighting. And in contradiction to his professed trust in the Russian president, Shevardnadze said "treachery and deceit" on the part of the Russian officials were partly to blame for the agreement's failure to take hold.

Subsequent moves by Moscow appear to have further eroded Georgian confidence in Russia's desire for a peaceful settlement.

Shevardnadze, for example, accused Yeltsin of failing to act on a Georgian request to recall the Russian generals stationed in Georgia considered "unsatisfactory" by Tbilisi.

And on Tuesday the Russian Navy brushed off a Georgian protest over the appearance of nine vessels of Russia's Black Sea Fleet off the coast of Sukhumi, the Abkhazian capital. The Georgians complained the ships had entered Georgian waters without permission. A spokesman for the Russian Navy said the ships were deployed to provide security for a Yeltsin-Shevardnadze summit that never took place.

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