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.
''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.
''This conflict will drag on for a long time and will strongly affect the integrity of Russia,'' comments Najaf Najafli, a member of the Azeri parliament from the opposition Popular Front. ''It will worsen relations between Russia and the Muslim world and will diminish the fear of Russia on the part of states that maybe were afraid of it, for example Ukraine.''
Nowhere are the complex implications of the Chechnya war more evident than in Georgia.
The obsession of Georgian political life is reestablishing control over Abkhazia, along the Black Sea coast south of Russia. Abkhaz rebels, backed by fighters from neighboring regions, ousted the Georgian Army in September 1992. In the ensuing chaos, Shevardnadze's government was forced to seek Russian help, even to re-invite a Russian military and political presence to survive.
Georgians are still bitter that the rest of the world stood by, despite the presence of United Nations monitors. The Abkhaz war also stirred anti-Chechen feelings in Georgia because Chechen units fought fiercely on the side of the Abkhazians.
Since then, Russian and United Nations-mediated negotiations have yielded little progress toward the Georgian goal of restoring sovereignty and permitting the return of the approximately 300,000 Georgians driven from their homes. But Georgian officials detect a shift in recent months, with Moscow now putting more concerted pressure on the Abkhazians because of the war in Chechnya.
''It's a simple logic,'' explains Shevardnadze. ''Russia is now convinced that separation is not beneficial for either Russia or Georgia. It is impossible to fight against Chechen separatism and support Abkhaz separatism.''
The Georgian government has sought to take advantage of Russia's temporary difficulties in Chechnya to restore its hold in Abkhazia. Still, Georgia had to accommodate Russia greatly in a base agreement initialed in early April by Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, though not yet ratified by either parliament.
In what one Georgian politician calls a ''very cynical and open trade,'' the Georgians reluctantly agreed to a 25-year presence of four Russian military bases, and deployment of Russian troops on their border with Turkey. They also transferred to Russia half the quota of arms they are allowed to have under the treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe.
In exchange, Moscow will train and equip the Georgian Army and support Georgian jurisdiction over its entire territory. A separate Georgian-drafted document, which General Grachev agreed to, links implementing the treaty to restoring Georgian control over Abkhazia. The Georgians in turn will create a federal structure granting Abkhazia -- as well as South Ossetia and Adzharia, where Russia also plays a dominant role -- widespread autonomy.
Even this deal may not hold up, Georgian officials realize. So far the Abkhaz authorities have refused to sign the federal pact, and there is doubt whether Grachev can ever deliver an Abkhazian agreement. The Abkhaz are waiting for December elections in Russia to strengthen the hand of hard-line nationalists who back them, a senior Georgian official suggests.
The pact has been widely criticized in the Georgian parliament as a sell-out to Moscow. Shevardnadze responds that they had little real choice.
''NATO can't help us,'' he says. ''We give the bases and they give us equipment for the army and [allow] us to keep our territorial integrity. I am aware of the negative side but this is the only realistic way.
''Maybe after the cold war, I imagined a different world order -- more just, and stronger. Of course, the end of the cold war was a very big victory but the period that has followed has been very difficult for me,'' he adds.
* Next: Oil in the Caucasus. Part 1 and 2 ran May 30 and June 1 respectively.