TBILISI, GEORGIA — RU0SSIAN marines are starting to board their ships in the Georgian port of Poti, returning to their Black Sea Fleet bases in Crimea. Their main job - to provide crucial backing to the Georgian government of Eduard Shevardnadze, who was facing an armed rebellion in western Georgia - is done.
But Russian engagement in the tumultuous and violent politics of the former Soviet republic in the Transcaucasus is far from over. Russia is now the only effective mediator in two other civil wars in Georgia between the government and ethnic minorities in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The conflict in Abkhazia is regarded as a crucial test of Russia's intentions in Georgia. Georgians accused Moscow of backing the separatist rebellion there, or at least of looking the other way when fighters from the North Caucasus region of Russia came to the aid of their Abkhazian brethren.
Georgian leader Shevardnadze expressed such feelings himself after a Russian-mediated July 27 cease-fire collapsed in mid-September and an Abkhazian offensive took control over their entire area along the Black Sea coast. But Mr. Shevardnadze has since bowed to the reality of Russia's presence, agreeing to join the Commonwealth of Independent States of former Soviet republics.
The Russians have mediated three separate cease-fire agreements in the recent year of fighting - in October 1992, May 1993, and finally on July 27, 1993. The last of these provided for withdrawal of heavy military equipment and forces and a process of political settlement, with both Russian and United Nations observers.
Now Russian diplomats are back at work trying to repair the cease-fire deal. The Russian government is now mediating a new effort, along with UN envoy Edouard Brunner, to resume talks in Geneva at the end of November. Following meetings with Abkhazian officials recently, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Boris Pastrukhov believes there are grounds for returning to the basic terms of the July agreement.
Russia has to hustle to restore a semblance of credibility as a mediator. Mr. Pastrukhov told the Abkhazians that Russia refuses to accept the military ``fait accompli'' that resulted from Abkhazia's violation of the cease-fire. On the other hand, he calls Georgian demands to return to previous military lines ``unrealistic.''
Both Russians and Georgians rule out a use of force to regain the lost territory. ``We are seeking a political solution,'' says Alexander Kovsadze, the Georgian representative to the Abkhazian negotiations.
While there is some tough talk in Tbilisi, Russian mediation is grudgingly accepted as perhaps the only option. ``By any means we have to restore our jurisdiction in Abkhazia and bring those 250,000 refugees to their homes,'' says Nodar Notadze, leader of Georgia's Popular Front party. ``By `any means,' I include even very bad treaties with Russia.''
But Russia will not find it any easier to broker peace now than before. First of all, there is now the added problem of some 250,000 Georgian refugees, expelled in what both Georgian officials and Western diplomats believe was a deliberate case of ``ethnic cleansing.'' The UN is now assessing that charge and the responsibility of the Abkhazian leadership for it. Pastrukhov says Russian sanctions will remain in place until the Abkhazians allow the return of the refugees.
Russian involvement in Abkhazia has been driven in part by its fear that ethnic separatism in Georgia could encourage a similar process across the border in the North Caucasus. From the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea, there is a belt of ethnic, autonomous republics, many of them Muslim, where anti-Russian separatism is growing. The region of Chechenya, for example, has already effectively seceded from Russia.
Georgian analyst Ghia Nodia is hopeful the Russians will be more ready to impose a settlement out of growing fears of a North Caucasian uprising. But he also fears this can effectively take place only by ceding to Russian control.
``In a military sense, it will mean the Russian occupation of Abkhazia while the formal territorial integrity of Georgia will be preserved in the eyes of the world community,'' he says.
Russian officials deny any previous military involvement in the Abkhazian conflict, and any aims to restore some kind of pseudo-imperial presence in Georgia.
``Nobody refutes that Russia has its historic interests here that did not disappear with the dismantling of the Soviet Union,'' says Temuras Stepanov, senior aide to Shevardnadze. ``But the question is how they promote those interests.''