Georgian Strife Compromises Russia as Referee

The return of former leader could spark new power struggle in Georgian capital, Tbilisi

SEPARATISTS in the Abkhazia region of Georgia appear ready for a cease-fire after having driven a bedraggled government force from the regional capital of Sukhumi.

But a truce to end the fighting in Abkhazia is unlikely to bring peace to the turbulent former Soviet republic. And Russia's inability to resolve the crisis could have repercussions beyond Georgia's borders, hindering Russian efforts to stabilize relations among the former republics of the Soviet Union.

The fall of Sukhumi damages Russia's credibility as a mediator in conflicts flaring in several former Soviet republics, including Azerbaijan and Tajikistan. Russian leaders have said stability is essential if efforts to form an economic union among the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) are to succeed. (Yeltsin's ultimatum to the Russian parliament, Page 2.)

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and other officials have condemned Russia for failing to stop the combat in Abkhazia. Russia was the guarantor of a cease-fire signed in July, which broke down when Abkhazian forces laid siege to Sukhumi in mid-September.

``Imperialist forces [in Russia] staged the conflict,'' Mr. Shevardnadze raged before fleeing Sukhumi. Georgian observers claim the Russian military, supported by Russian nationalists, provided weapons and fighters to the Abkhazian forces with the aim of keeping Georgia under Moscow's control. The Russian Army maintains several bases in Abkhazia.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Georgia refused to join the CIS, annoying many in Moscow. As part of a last-ditch effort to entice the Russian military to prevent Sukhumi's fall, Shevardnadze sent a telegram to Moscow saying Georgia was willing to join the CIS. But that initiative failed.

The Russian Foreign Ministry categorically denies that Moscow has aided the Abkhazians and insists it made ``persistent efforts'' to stop the fighting.

But some observers in Moscow say it is not the diplomats but the Russian Army that is in the best position to influence Abkhazian events. And because President Boris Yeltsin is relying on military and police loyalty in his ongoing standoff with Russia's parliament, the Army's influence on Abkhazian policy is greater than ever, says Karen Brutents, an analyst at the Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow. ``Generals are always generals, only thinking about the geostrategic situation, about military bases,'' he says.

Abkhazia could be a double-edged sword for Russia, setting a dangerous precedent in which separatists achieve their aims through force. Restless national groups from the Russian North Caucasus have helped Abkhazians in their struggle against Georgia. ``Using the Abkhazian example, [the North Caucasians] may try to defeat the large empire - Russia,'' wrote political commentator Besik Urigashvili in the Izvestia daily. ``If events evolve in this direction, a large Caucasian war is around the corner.''

On Sept. 28, Abkhazian fighters moved to consolidate their control of Sukhumi, once a choice Black Sea resort. They occupied the city Sept. 27 following a 12-day siege, in which outnumbered and outgunned Georgian forces, led by Shevardnadze, put up desperate resistance. Shevardnadze returned Sept. 28 to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, the Itar-Tass news agency reported. Fighting continued on the city's outskirts.

Discussions on the Abkhazian situation were to continue Sept. 28 in the United Nations Security Council. Meanwhile, Abkhazian leaders said they planned to offer a cease-fire, effective Sept. 30, at UN-mediated peace talks Sept. 28 in Geneva, Radio Russia reported.

In the midst of the siege, Shevardnadze warned that Sukhumi's fall could spark Georgia's disintegration amid a frenzy of ethnic conflict. Not only have Abkhazians agitated for sovereignty, but other ethnic groups, including Ossetians and Adjarians, also have made independence rumblings. But now that Sukhumi has been lost, Georgian leaders are trying to play down the apocalyptic scenario.

``The loss of Sukhumi does not mean that Abkhazia is lost to us forever,'' says Georgian Christian Church leader Patriarch Ilya II. ``Even Tbilisi has been lost to us periodically in history, but that has amounted to nothing.''

As for Georgia, Shevardnadze now will not have to contend merely with ethnic groups, but also a bid to reclaim power by Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the former Georgian leader ousted in a January 1992 uprising. During the Sukhumi siege, Mr. Gamsakhurdia returned to western Georgia from exile in the North Caucasian region of Chechnya.

Forces loyal to Shevardnadze and Gamsakhurdia had formed an alliance in the face of their common Abkhazian enemy. But following Sukhumi's fall, Georgian observers say pro-Gamsakhurdia guerrillas may renew their campaign against the Shevardnadze government.

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