MOSCOW — AS rebels advance on Georgia's second-largest city, senior Russian government officials are signaling that Moscow may consider intervening to avert the overthrow of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze.
Rebels backing ex-President Zviad Gamsakhurdia have pushed the Georgian government to the brink of collapse, advancing eastward in recent days from their base in Western Georgia and seizing the rail and road junction of Samtredia. Yesterday rebel forces launched an attack on Kutaisi, a major industrial center.
Late Monday night, President Shevardnadze issued an urgent appeal for help from Russia and from its Transcaucasian neighbors, Armenia and Azerbaijan. He said rebel gains now endanger key transportation routes that link Russia with the three former Soviet republics of the Caucasus mountain region. ``We now face the threat of famine, not only in Georgia but Armenia as well. Azerbaijan is also suffering greatly,'' Shevardnadze said.
Shevardnadze, a former Soviet foreign minister, appealed broadly for support from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the loose confederation of 11 former Soviet republics. Georgia had resisted joining the CIS but under pressure of a successful separatist revolt in the region of Abkhazia, Shevardnadze announced on Oct. 8 his readiness to join the bloc. Russian officials have maintained that Georgian accession to the CIS was key to Russian support.
On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev and Defense Minister Pavel Grachev issued separate responses that rejected unilateral Russian intervention but left the door open to a joint move by Russia with the three Caucasus governments to control the transport links from Georgia's key Black Sea ports, such as Poti.
``Nobody intends to interfere in Georgia's internal affairs or civil war, but it is necessary to protect the Tbilisi-Poti road,'' Mr. Kozyrev said. ``Probably tough measures will be needed.''
General Grachev sharply reminded the Georgians that they would have to pay a price for their previously independent stance.
``Georgia is not a CIS country and is not thus part of collective security arrangements,'' Grachev told reporters. Russian military support could be interpreted by other countries as ``meddling,'' he said, but added that a Russian-Caucasian effort was possible.
A Georgian official told reporters in Moscow yesterday that a joint contingent of forces from the four countries would accompany freight trains from the ports of Poti and Batumi to eastern Georgia. Rebel forces would be asked to voluntarily unblock the rail and road lines, Chairman of Georgia's Committee for Ethnic Relations Alexander Kavsadze said, according to Interfax news agency. If this is resisted, ``force will have to be used,'' he said.
Rebel official Vissarion Gugushvili issued a statement on Tuesday appealing to Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan ``not to yield to provocations'' by Shevardnadze and ``not to intervene in Georgia's internal affairs under any circumstance,'' Interfax reported yesterday.
A Western security expert who has been discussing the situation here with Russian military and other officials reports a strong Russian sentiment in favor of moving to halt the rebel advance. ``They will not let Tbilisi fall,'' he says.
``Georgia is a cornerstone of Russian interests in the Caucasus,'' adds Russian security analyst Andrei Kortunov. ``They will try to help Shevardnadze because he is the most powerful pro-Russian leader you can possibly imagine in Georgia now.''
Mr. Kortunov believes that the Russians will be ready to send military hardware, and possibly provide air support, but will avoid direct use of ground forces. ``They might go in, but they should be cautious about the level of involvement,'' he says, warning that this could become even worse for Russia than Somalia has been for the United States.