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Post-Soviet 'frozen conflicts' heat up as big-power interests collide

Tensions are growing as NATO and a resurgent Russia divide over future of breakaway statelets.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 26, 2008

Abkhazia: Russian construction troops repaired railroad tracks damaged by bombs last week in the rebel statelet.


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OstIngur, AbkhazGeorgia border

Tensions are again spiking here on the lush, subtropical Black Sea coastal plain, where heavily armed Russian troops aided by United Nations observers have held apart the warring armies of Georgia and insurgent Abkhazia for 15 years.

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Last Wednesday, two powerful bombs exploded in the Abkhaz capital of Sukhumi, destroying a section of a railroad recently repaired by Russian construction troops that Georgia says are illegally in the rebel statelet, which Tbilisi – supported by most of the world – views as Georgian territory.

The next day, a few miles from this border post, Georgian police arrested four of the Russian peacekeepers, who have been in place under a 1994 cease-fire deal, leading a top Russian general, Alexander Burutin, to warn that if it happens again, "the consequences will be grave and there could be bloodshed."

If the fragile 1991 settlement that enabled the former Soviet Union to break relatively peacefully into 15 countries starts to unravel, the flash point may well be right here. But the antagonists would not be ragtag irregulars of the 1993 war but real armies, probably backed on one side by a resurgent Russia, on the other by NATO.

Peering over the half-mile-long bridge that separates Abkhazia from the Georgian town of Zugdidi, Ruslan, a burly Abkhaz border guard, says he helped to drive the fleeing Georgian Army across that bridge 15 years ago and expects to see them – now trained and equipped by the US – attempt a return any day now. "We will never agree to be part of Georgia again," he says. "I intend to live as an Abkhazian in a free country, and I'll fight for as long as it takes."

Most of the world breathed a sigh of relief when the USSR's collapse did not bring vast Yugoslavia-like upheavals, and cheerful scenarios seemed to be borne out when the former Soviet Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined the European Union and the NATO alliance in 2004.