THE collapse of a cease-fire in the civil war in the former Soviet republic of Georgia is straining Russia's claims to be a peacekeeper in the turbulent Transcaucasus.
Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev admitted Saturday he failed in his attempt last week to restore a peace agreement between the government of the former Soviet republic of Georgia and separatist rebels in the region of Abkhazia. Rebel troops shattered the cease-fire reached last July, in defiance of Russia's role as the broker and guarantor of an agreement to disengage forces after a year of civil war.
In an emotional appeal to the president of Russia, the United Nations, and world leaders, Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze yesterday called for them ``to avert the perpetuation of a monstrous crime, to stop the execution of a small country, and to save my native land and my people from destruction.''
Mr. Shevardnadze was speaking from Sukhumi, the capital of the Abkhazia region, where heavy fighting was reported yesterday as Georgian forces tried to hold off a rebel offensive. There was a hint of progress late yesterday, when representatives of the two sides and Russia met in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Shevardnadze placed much of the blame for the current outbreak of fighting on Russia, accusing it of failing to stand by the peace agreement, as it had with two earlier Russian-mediated cease-fires. ``Finally, for the third time, upon having come to believe in Russia's peacemaking mission and her role of guarantor and mediator, we concluded an agreement dated July 27, 1993, and again met with betrayal,'' said Shevardnadze, the former foreign minister of the Soviet Union.
Moscow's ability to enforce the peace in Georgia will be watched carefully next door in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia is attempting to mediate an end to their five-year-long conflict. Shevardnadze yesterday said he continued to trust Russian President Boris Yeltsin but accused nationalist forces in Russia of seeking ``the empire's bloody revenge'' against Georgia.
TALKS held on Friday between the Georgian leader and General Grachev failed to yield an agreement on introduction of additional Russian peacekeepers. Shevardnadze told reporters that Grachev said such a decision could only be made with the approval of both the Russian president and parliament. The parliament in a statement on Sept. 17 opposed the use of Russian armed forces.
``The time has come to stop blaming Russia for what is happening,'' retorted Grachev on Saturday, after his return from the region. The Russian military leader was clearly angered at Shevardnadze, accusing him of refusing to meet with the rebel leader and placing blame for the fighting on both sides.
According to Grachev, the Russians offered to dispatch about 5,000 additional troops to separate the two sides, while Shevardnadze asked for a far smaller force of 200 men. Grachev claimed that Shevardnadze had rejected his proposal as ``an attempted occupation.'' Grachev argued that a smaller force would be too vulnerable. A United Nations military observer mission is also in the region as a result of the July cease-fire.
Indirectly confirming Shevardnadze's complaints about confusion within the Russian government, the Russian Foreign Ministry places the blame on the Abkhazians for ``gross violation'' of the July cease-fire. In a Sept. 17 statement, it called for immediate withdrawal back to initial positions and threatened to impose economic and political sanctions. Electricity was cut off to the rebel region at the same time.
Most observers believe the Russian government has no interest in a resumption of fighting that could easily lead to the complete collapse of any semblance of central authority in Georgia and the spread of chaos in the neighboring North Caucasus area of Russia. ``The Russians sincerely don't want this unraveling,'' says a Western diplomat who closely follows events in the region. ``They worked hard to get this agreement, and it seems they want to put these conflicts to bed.''