AFTER months of negotiations, Russian troops are poised for deployment as peacekeepers in Georgia's secessionist province of Abkhazia, setting a precedent for Russian intervention into other conflicts in the former Soviet Union.
Envoys from Russia and the United Nations have been mediating talks between the Abkhaz rebels and the Georgian government since last year, attempting to reach a political settlement that would be enforced by UN-mandated peacekeepers. Moscow has been touting the Abkhaz peacekeeping agreement as a model, trying to gain UN backing for a preeminent Russian role in the collapsed Soviet empire.
But the UN has balked at deploying troops - only UN military observers are now present - and at giving a carte blanche to a Russian military force. UN officials, backed by the United States and other Western powers, argue that peacekeepers cannot be deployed without first reaching a political settlement on the key issues. Moreover, the UN is hesitant to back the use of Russian troops, which is contrary to standard policy in which peacekeepers should come from countries neutral to the conflict.
Many Western observers worry that Moscow's desire to promote stability and bring peace to conflicts along its borders is mixed with the desire to reassert its control over the former Soviet Union. Russian officials deny such motives - pointing to their cooperation with the UN as evidence of their peaceful aims. Russia already has peacekeepers in former Soviet republics such as Moldova and Tajikistan.
Failing to get UN backing, however, Moscow has opted for the thin cover of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the loose confederation of 12 former Soviet republics under whom the peacekeeping operation in Abkhazia will take place. Georgian officials, who earlier sought a UN rather than Russian force, now back this plan.
The forces were to be comprised of CIS troops, but it appears that the first to be dispatched will be solely Russian. Russian TV reported that 2,000 to 3,000 troops are to be deployed, possibly during Defense Minister Gen. Pavel Grachev's visit to the Caucasus this week.
General Grachev's tour is aimed at consolidating the Russian military presence in Georgia and Armenia, as well as gaining approval to send Russian troops to Azerbaijan. Russia canceled an economic blockade against Abkhazia on May 24 after it became convinced the province would agree to peace agreements.
``Peacekeeping, particularly in Abkhazia, answers Russian national interests. I have in mind the stability of the expanses of southern Russia,'' Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze told Georgian radio earlier this week. ``A successful completion of the mission, while being primarily in the interests of the Georgians and the Abkhazians, answers ... the interests of all CIS countries and of Russia above all.''
Model for deployment
The Abkhaz deployment is being carefully watched as a prelude to an even larger and similar use of Russian troops to enforce a signed, but so far unimplemented, cease-fire around the nearby Nagorno-Karabakh region, where thousands have died in the six-year territorial war between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
In both cases, the Russian peacekeeping strategy has the immediate appeal of ending the bloodshed - although perhaps only temporarily - but may also make long-term political solution infinitely more difficult.
Bloody fighting between Abkhaz rebels, supported by other North Caucasians, and the Georgian government broke out in 1992. In September 1993, the rebels captured most of the territory, driving out Georgian forces. Some 300,000 Georgians, the vast majority of the region's population, fled as refugees.
During the talks, the Georgians insisted on several conditions aimed mainly at blocking the Abkhaz desire to an eventual separation of the Black Sea coastal region from Georgia. Georgia called for the return of some 300,000 refugees driven out of the region by fighting last fall, and for deployment of peacekeepers throughout Abkhazia to ensure their safe return.
Ongoing Abkhazia talks
The Georgians, now economically and politically dependent on Moscow, have bowed to Abkhaz demands, backed by Moscow, to place the troops along the cease-fire line, the Inguri River, effectively separating the rebel region from Georgian control. Moreover, there is little practical assurance of the return of substantial numbers of refugees, and the talks on the ultimate political status of Abkhazia are still ongoing.
``We have never been in favor of a border along the Inguri River because Abkhazia is part of Georgia, and Georgia will never agree to any borders,'' Valerian Advadze, Georgia's ambassador to Moscow, said in a Monitor interview on Tuesday. ``But the most important thing is that Russia does not recognize Abkhazian independence or sovereignty.''
Peacekeepers are needed to guarantee the safety of the refugees, he said. ``The Abkhazians cannot guarantee this. They have carried out ethnic cleansing, they have drafted Chechens and other northern Caucasian groups, and they are ready to kill any Georgian who returns home.''
But Taras Shamba, head of the World Congress of Abkhazo-Abkhazian Peoples, told the Monitor on Wednesday the Georgian government must first pay Abkhazia $52 billion in damages. ``We consider the proposal of returning the refugees a form of diplomatic demagoguery,'' he said.
Lawmakers in the Federation Council, or upper house of parliament, on June 2 failed by one vote to gain approval to dispatch peacekeeping troops. Russian President Boris Yeltsin confirmed in a later conversation with Mr. Shevardnadze, however, that the peacekeepers would soon be deployed. Further talks are scheduled later this month in Geneva.