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Ex-Cubs of Russian Bear Keep Close to the Den

The Chechnya war raises fears among new nations nearby, but they also hope it will distract Russia. Third in a four-part series on the Caucasus nations.

By Daniel SneiderSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 2, 1995



TBLISI, GEORGIA

JUST over the high mountains of the Caucasus range from here, Russia's brutal war against separatist rebels of Chechnya is now entering its sixth month. For the peoples of the neighboring former Soviet republics of the Transcaucasus -- who won their freedom only three years ago -- the Chechen struggle strikes a chord with their own battles against Russian dominance.

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''I am worried,'' says an Armenian college student. ''If the Russians can do that in Chechnya, then maybe they will do it next here, in Armenia, or in Georgia and Azerbaijan.''

The war ''is an experiment,'' echoes a taxi driver in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. ''They are trying to frighten us, Azerbaijan, and all the republics, by showing us how strong they are.''

Less openly, government leaders of the region share those apprehensions. ''A new hotbed of tension has emerged, a very dangerous one, which complicates an already difficult situation in the Caucasus region,'' Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan told the Monitor.

In all three Transcaucasian countries, the Chechen war is viewed through the prism of their own internal conflicts -- Georgia's civil war with a breakaway movement in its Abkhazia region and Azerbaijan's war with the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh who also seek separation.

Even more powerfully, the Chechnya war has reminded all in this region that they must find a way to live with the giant Russian bear. Romantic hopes that the West or Turkey would supplant the Russian presence have been dashed. In their place is a sober realism that their countries are too close for Russia to ignore.

All Transcaucasian governments are reluctant to criticize the war in Chechnya. Some even support Moscow's position.

''Chechnya is a part of Russia, as California is part of the United States,'' Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze told the Monitor.

While Shevardnadze expresses ''concerns'' about the use of force by the Russian Army, he echoes Moscow leaders that they had little choice against the fierce Chechen drive for independence.

''If Russia agreed with the separation of Chechnya from Russia, it would mean the beginning of the disintegration of Russia and this would be the beginning of chaos, not only in Russia, but first in Europe, in Eurasia and then in the whole world,'' contends Shevardnadze, who as Soviet foreign minister under Mikhail Gorbachev was the architect of the end of the cold war.

Both Georgia and Armenia have agreed in recent months to allow Russia to keep military bases on their territories for years to come. Both countries see the deals as a strategic necessity, dictated by the need to gain Russian support in their respective wars.

Azerbaijan holds out

Only in Azerbaijan is there still some belief, fed by a contract with Western oil companies to develop vast offshore reserves of oil, that they can deny Moscow a dominant role. But even there, the government is careful not to publicly assail the Russian war in Chechnya, not least because of the parallel with their struggle against Armenians seeking ''self-determination'' for Nagorno-Karabakh.

''We recognize Chechnya is Russian territory, and now it is not possible to change the status quo,'' says Vafa Guluzade, foreign policy adviser to the Azeri President. ''The same in Azerbaijan -- Nagorno-Karabakh is Azeri territory and we will never agree to another status,'' he adds. No country has recognized Chechnya as a separate state since Chechens declared independence in 1991.

But the Azeris, like others in this region, are happy to see Moscow bogged down in the war, calculating that it gives them room to maneuver.