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Former Soviet Republics Beset by Power Struggles

By Justin BurkeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 6, 1993



MOSCOW

WITH Russia politically paralyzed and unable to exert a stabilizing influence, old conflicts in former Soviet republics are escalating dangerously, while new flash-points are developing in places that previously were relatively calm.

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The conflicts in hot spots concern not just former Soviet republics, but also neighboring states, such as Turkey and Afghanistan, posing an increased threat to global security.

The most dangerous hot spot is the four-year war between Transcaucasian neighbors Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. A massive Armenian offensive has forced Azerbaijan to declare a 60-day state of emergency, and Turkey, a traditional Azeri ally, has warned that its "patience is running out" with "Armenian oppression of the Azeri people."

Many leaders in the former Soviet republics say the hot spots cannot be doused without political stability in Russia, which is currently crippled by a power struggle between President Boris Yeltsin and his parliamentary foes.

But some fear Russia is heading in the wrong direction and will further aggravate the general situation. For example, Askar Akayev, president of Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia, warned of a "communist comeback" in Russia.

The communists would like to restore the Soviet empire, Mr. Akayev said in a recent television interview. But any such attempt would meet fierce resistance from all newly independent states.

While a stable Russia could help normalize many of the conflicts in the former Soviet Union, the Karabakh war appears to have grown beyond anyone's control. Until the recent Armenian offensive, the war was contained primarily to Nagorno-Karabakh, a mostly Armenian enclave which technically is Azeri territory. But in the blitzkrieg, the war has spilled over Karabakh's borders.

Armenian forces have overrun about one-tenth of Azerbaijan's territory, including the regional center of Kelbadzhar in the western part of the nation, Azeri defense officials say. Tens of thousands of civilians have been trapped in the fighting.

In response, Azeri President Abulfaz Elchibey declared the state of emergency April 2, including a nationwide curfew and press censorship. Azeri officials also have ordered a general mobilization for a counterattack. Armenian officials deny their soldiers are involved, saying the offensive is being conducted by Karabakh self-defense forces.

Nevertheless, Turkey has suspended international aid deliveries through Turkish territory to Armenia, which suffers from fuel shortages. But Turkish Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel also declined a request by Mr. Elchibey to provide helicopters to Azerbaijan, showing a reluctance to become directly involved in the conflict.

President Turgut Ozal, on a tour of Central Asian nations, is taking a tougher stance. "One should not be afraid of military intervention.... We should bare our teeth," the Itar-Tass news agency quoted him as saying. Later he backed off the idea of military intervention.

If Turkey became an active participant, it potentially could cause a conflagration with global consequences. Armenia is party to a security pact among former Soviet republics, also including Russia, that requires all signatories to help defend any member that is attacked. Turkey, meanwhile, is a NATO member.

The Karabakh war is not the only conflict escalating during the Russian political crisis.

Enmity between Georgia and Russia is reaching the boiling point. The Georgian government, battling separatists in the Black Sea region of Abkhazia, accuses Russia of whipping up the conflict. Russia charges Georgia of abusing ethnic Russians in the battle zone.

In addition, guerrillas from Afghanistan are joining the fray in the Central Asian nation of Tajikistan, in support of Islamic brethren fighting the pro-Communist government forces. Government forces yesterday were battling Afghan guerrillas in Tajik territory near Moskovsky, about 35 miles north of the Afghan border, news agencies reported.

Meanwhile, there are signs that even some relatively quiet former Soviet republics - namely Belarus and Kyrgyzstan - are becoming embroiled in Russian-style power struggles.

In Belarus, a Slavic nation bordering Poland, a clash between the legislative and executive branches of government is developing.

As in Russia, the dispute is over power. Parliament Chairman Stanislav Shushkevich opposes the latest draft of a new Belarussian constitution that would make the executive branch the supreme body of power. Mr. Shushkevich advocates parliamentary predominance. Cabinet officials accuse Shushkevich of trying to grab power.

Kyrgyzstan, the most reform-minded of Central Asian republics, also is beset by political infighting. President Akayev is facing stiff resistance to his reforms from the Centrist Bloc political movement, which wants a slower reform pace.