TBILISI, GEORGIA — AT dawn on Nov. 4, warships of the Russian Black Sea fleet, their holds crammed with armor and marines, sailed into the Georgian harbor of Poti. It had to be a bittersweet moment for Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze, who was on hand to greet the arriving troops.
Little more than a month earlier, he was forced to flee the resort city of Sukhumi up the Black Sea coast to the north in the region of Abkhazia. As Mr. Shevardnadze left, he cursed the Russians for militarily and politically backing the Abkhazian separatists in pursuit of reestablishing their imperial dominance.
But as he returned to the capital, Shevardnadze faced yet another revolt from supporters of former President Zviad Gamsakhurdia in western Georgia. His back to the wall, the man who served long in the Soviet empire as head of the Georgian Communist Party, and later as Soviet foreign minister, bowed to reality.
Called to Moscow, Shevardnadze agreed on Oct. 8 to join the Commonwealth of Independent States, the loose confederation of former Soviet republics, satisfying one of Moscow's long-standing desires.
The next day, the Georgian military signed an agreement legalizing the presence of Russian bases on Georgian soil and Russian troops along the border with Turkey.
Shevardnadze's reward was not long in coming. Covertly, though it was a poorly kept secret, Russian T-72 tanks driven by Russian crews drove back the Gamsakhurdia rebels. And the Black Sea marines arrived to establish control over the rail lines that link Russia to the Trans-Caucasus, through Georgia, down to Azerbaijan and Armenia.
All this was just another familiar moment in the Great Game, as the struggle for empire in the Caucasus and Central Asia has long been known. The empire of the czars collapsed in 1917 but was reestablished by the Bolsheviks in a new form. The Soviet Empire itself fell apart in 1991 as the nations captive within it regained long-lost freedom.
Will another Russian Empire emerge? The answer can best be sought here in the Caucasus, a region once celebrated by a Russian general as ``the greatest fortress in the world.''
From the days of Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century, Russia has sought and won control over this mountainous bridge between Europe and Asia. Its principal enemies were the Persian and Turkish empires, which at various times held sway here. And the tools of battle were often a combination of military force and subterfuge, playing off the various nationalities of the Caucasus in a complex game of divide and conquer.
``The Trans-Caucasus have been part of the Russian Empire for over 200 years now,'' says Gela Charkviani, Shevardnadze's foreign policy adviser. ``It wants to retain the territory, now not as part of its empire but as a sphere of influence. The Trans-Caucasus is the key to the Middle East and the Middle East has been and always will be a strategic part of the world.''
In the new Russia, diplomats and generals brush aside charges of imperial ambition with a smile. They talk more gently of ``interests,'' of negotiation, of the dispatch of ``peace-keeping forces'' to end the civil wars and ethnic conflicts that have burst into the open since the Soviet Union's demise. The officials refer, sometimes only obliquely, to the threat of Muslim neighbors in Turkey and Iran who seek to expand into the space of the collapsed empire by ``internationalizing'' conflicts there.
``This is an area of special interest, of special responsibility for Russia,'' Foreign Minister Andrei Kozryev told reporters last month. ``We have historical ties to the region, including a history of agreements and treaties that are still in force.'' Russia wants stability
Deputy Foreign Minister Boris Pastukhov, a soft-spoken former leader of the Komsomol, the Communist Party youth organization, is Moscow's point man for Georgia. Like other Russian officials, he vehemently denies any Russian military involvement in the Abkhazia conflict. Pointing to the two ethnic wars that have torn apart Georgia and to the bloody war between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, he talks of Russia's desire for stability in that region.
``Our main interest is that calm and peace should prevail in the Caucasus, in the North Caucasus, in the Trans-Caucasus, a very explosive region,'' Mr. Pastukhov explains during an interview in his Moscow office. ``We don't have any intent to keep our armed forces there forever. We are interested in having our military presence in the Caucasus but in accordance with international law, on bases with states that sign agreements with us.''
Russians sometimes compare their role in the Caucasus to that of the United States in Central America, their bases to US bases in Panama or Cuba. Russia's desire to play the role of peacekeeper in what was once its empire is a Russian version of the Monroe Doctrine, some say. But in moments of candor, Russians acknowledge, though with some discomfort, that old imperial games are still being played according to old imperial rules. Air Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, the genial soldier who served as the last Soviet minister of defense and the commonwealth's first commander in chief told a group of security experts last month that Russia is enduring its second imperial transition.
The first, from October 1917 to December 1922, resulted in the creation of the Soviet Union. The second, going on now, is no less bloody and violent as nations seek self-determination. The Soviet leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev tried in its final years to halt the tide of nationalism by triggering separatist struggles within the republics, such as Georgia, he said.
Now, the air marshal continued, the same thing is happening. ``In principle, Russia is a mighty state and she should carry out her policy not secretly but openly,'' Shaposhnikov said. ``We should not resort to lies and cunning tricks. How come Abkhazia all of sudden had heavy tanks and aircraft? What is this? Again resorting to the principle of divide and rule.''
The intrigues and battles under way in the Caucasus are deeply rooted in centuries of Russian history, says Sergei Arutyunov, head of the Caucasian department of the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology in Moscow. Mr. Arutyunov's biography gives a hint of the complex interactions of this region: He is a Russified Armenian, born and brought up in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.
The North Caucasus mountain chain is a wall stretching from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea, pierced by only two passes, the ethnographer explains. It is the stronghold of a string of mountain peoples, mostly Turkic or Persian in origin and Muslim in religion, but also of ancient pagan tribes turned Christian, such as the Ossetians.
Beyond the wall lies the Trans-Caucasus, inhabited mainly by three peoples - the Christian nations of Georgia and Armenia, whose languages and cultures date to before the Christian era, and the Azerbaijani Turks, who inhabit an area that includes the northeastern part of modern Iran. Until the 17th century, Persian dynasties held most of the region. But they were challenged by Ottoman Turkey, which by the mid-18th century controlled most of eastern Caucasia.
Russia, driven in large part by its rivalry with Turkey for control of the Black Sea, sought allies among the Christian Georgians and Armenians, who themselves saw Russia as a protector against their Muslim overlords. By the first quarter of the 19th century, Georgia was annexed, and the Armenian-populated khanates (areas ruled by khans) were seized from Persia.
The conquest of the North Caucasus Muslim tribes of Chechen, Dagestan, and Circassia, celebrated in the works of Russia's greatest writers, including Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, and Leo Tolstoy, took even longer.
``In Russian eyes, the Caucasus was a country of romance, of militant tribes, of alien Islamic ways of life, and of brotherly islands of Christian civilization and Christian mentality,'' Arutyunov says. ``The Muslim nations were considered potential allies of Turkey that had to be pacified.... When it was not possible to pacify them, they had to be conquered, subjugated, or destroyed completely.''
Modern nationalist movements in Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan quickly seized the opportunity provided by the 1917 revolution to restore independence. In the midst of Russia's civil-war turmoil, they sought new allies from among the Western powers warring in Europe - the Georgians among the Germans, the Armenians among the British, and the Azeris, in Turkey and Britain.
But independence was short lived. By 1922, the Bolsheviks had marched back in under the banner of world revolution. The Western powers were unwilling to fight for the Caucasus, despite the lure of Azeri oil; Turkey was sated with a treaty ceding significant parts of Armenian territory to its control.
Despite the Bolshevik pledge of self-determination for all nationalities, Soviet rule was even more ruthless in imposing Russian colonial control. Yet national yearnings persisted, even grew, exploding in the late 1980s as Moscow's grip began to weaken. The collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 ended Moscow's formal control over the Trans-Caucasus for the first time in nearly 70 years.
But Russian involvement remained largely intact. Economically, all the former Soviet republics remain tightly bound into the vertically integrated industrial structure created by Soviet central planners. Militarily, Soviet - now Russian - troops still sat on the borders with Turkey and Iran and manned radar stations, air force units, and bases within all three Trans-Caucasus republics.
Each newly independent country took a different stance towards its former colonial master. Armenians were angry over Moscow's failure to restore the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, put under Azeri control by the Bolsheviks. But as they did in the past, the Armenians have generally embraced Russia as a strategic ally against their historic enemies, the Turks, who virtually surround them.
``We proceed from the assumption that in this unstable situation, this transitional period, Armenia could not risk its security, could not leave a security system created over decades,'' Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan told this reporter in an interview in his Yerevan office.
``The Russian presence in the Caucasus is a factor for stability,'' the Armenian leader, a former nationalist dissident, continued. ``If Russia left completely, a very serious vacuum would be created and other forces would try to fill this vacuum - Turkey and Iran.'' A different stance
Azerbaijan's attitude toward Moscow has swung widely, shaped by the largely unfavorable course of the war over Karabakh and the resulting political turmoil. The first post-independence government of former Communist leader Ayaz Mutalibov sought Moscow's aid, but military setbacks led to a takeover by the nationalist Azerbaijan Popular Front in the summer of 1992.
Then nationalist President Abulfaz Elchibey adopted a strongly pro-Turkish stance, looking to the Azeris' ethnic brethren for aid and political support. He ousted all Russian troops from Azeri soil, moved to develop rich oil reserves with Western help, and withdrew from the commonwealth.
But the fortunes of war led to a military coup, aided, many say, by Moscow, and the eventual ascension to power this past summer of former Communist leader Heidar Aliyev. The one-time member of the Soviet Communist Party Politburo quickly moved to gain Moscow's goodwill, rejoining the commonwealth in September and allowing Moscow a piece of the Caspian oil project. But the Azeri leader has balked at allowing a full return of Russian troops, insisting Moscow first deliver a retreat by the Karabakh Armenians from captured Azeri territory. Nationalist resistance
Georgia elected fiery nationalist dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who joined the three Baltic states in refusing to join the commonwealth. He pursued a tough policy as well toward the breakaway aspirations of the Ossetians and the Abkhaz, both of whom looked to Russia for help.
``A considerable part of the troops that fought against Georgia were composed of North Caucasians - Ossetians, Chechens, Kabardins, Adygeis, and Cossacks,'' says Fyodor Starcevic, a Bosnian Serb who serves as the United Nations representative in Georgia. ``Those people were promised land and property in Abkhazia once the Georgians were chased out.''
But Moscow also faced rebellions from its own Caucasian minorities - the Chechens have virtually seceded from the Russian Federation and separatist tendencies abound elsewhere in the mountains. ``The rational goal is to ensure the territorial integrity of Russia itself,'' comments Ghia Nodia, the head of the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development in Tbilisi. From this strategic point of view, ``Georgia is the rear of the North Caucasus,'' he says.
Indeed Moscow's actions - whether in the Karabakh war or in Georgia - are often incoherent and contradictory. Georgian leader Shevardnadze seeks to explain this as a conflict between ``democrats'' and ``reactionary forces,'' the latter term a blanket reference to everyone from the deposed Russian parliament to elements of the military.
``If Russia tries to reconstruct the empire, it will be destroyed,'' Shevardnadze told this reporter in Tbilisi. ``That is why the fate of Georgia is associated with Russian democracy.... Democratic Russia is not a threat to Georgia.''
The military is often the chosen culprit on which to blame Russian imperial impulses. ``There are feelings of humiliation among the Russian military who were kicked out of many countries and regions,'' Mr. Nodia says. ``They need some satisfaction of some place where the Russian military presence is extended.''
But even those who share this schematic view of division in Russian ranks agree things are not quite so neat. ``Some of the lines are blurred,'' foreign policy advisor Charkviani says. ``You cannot see where one Russia ends and the other Russia begins.''
Nodar Notadze, the leader of the Georgian Popular Front, offers a darker picture of the Russian mind. Whatever the opinion of any individual Russian leader, ``the average Russian thinks and feels imperially and he is sure to go on thinking this for decades,'' he says. ``The only way for the world to solve the acute problem of luring Russia to a democratic way is to bar all roads to restoring Russia's empire.''
But the view shared by both the Georgian and Armenian leaders, men who have long experience of interaction with the highest levels of Soviet and Russian leaders, is more nuanced and optimistic.
For Shevardnadze, the key to changing Russia is to foster the nation's desire for prosperity, a condition antithetical to once again taking on the burdens of empire. ``When the economy of Russia transfers completely into a free market economy, I think that will change the point of view and perspective of people a lot,'' he says.
Ter-Petrosyan also sees Russia struggling with the tension between its desire to spread its political influence and its economic future. ``Of course, there are serious forces in Russia that would like to restore the empire and the Soviet Union,'' he says. ``But as concerns official forces of Russia, they haven't made up their mind. They haven't determined their strategic interests.... Russia is trying to make a choice between both political and economic interests, achieving prosperity.''
For now, Russia seeks only to prevent others from invading its sphere of influence, waiting for better days to decide its ultimate policy.
``Russia is in a period of transition,'' says Ter-Petrosyan. ``If it can't strengthen its position, it feels it should at least not lose those positions and give them away to others.... Today Russia would like to keep its presence in its previous domain, waiting for better days for itself.''