Conflicts in Caucasus roil

Political turmoil in Tbilisi and a murky war in breakaway Abkhazia rock already fragile Georgia.

In the tiny ex-Soviet republic of Georgia, flaring political unrest and a sputtering regional war are threatening to bring down the pro-Western regime of President Eduard Shevardnadze.

Late last week, Mr. Shevardnadze sacked his entire government in a bid to assuage thousands of protesters surging through the streets of Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, to demand the president's resignation. The demonstrators were protesting violent attempts by Georgian security police to shut down an independent, outspoken TV station.

But experts say Georgia's national malaise runs much deeper, and has been pushed into a potentially shattering crisis by post-Sept. 11 international intrigue.

"Things are changing very rapidly in the Caucasus," says Alexander Konovalov, director of the Institute of Strategic Assessments, an independent Moscow think tank. "The pieces are all re-arranging themselves."

Ever since Georgia became a separate country in 1991, it has had a troubled relationship with Russia, which has vital interests in the Caucasus region.

"Before Sept. 11, Shevardnadze was able to appeal to the US for aid and political support to counter Russian influence," says Alexander Iskanderyan, director of the independent Center for Caucasian Studies in Moscow. "Now there are new realities in the world, and this option is no longer available to him."

Mr. Iskanderyan says that the fledgling nation's internal weaknesses, combined with pressure from its meddlesome powerful neighbor are adding up to "the collapse of Georgia."

As political unrest has heated up in Tbilisi, a murky war in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia has flared over the past month. No one can say who or what is behind the escalating violence. Moscow and Tbilisi accuse each other of stirring the pot in Abkhazia, a lush former Soviet mountain and beach- resort zone that won unrecognized independence from Georgia with Russian help, after a bloody civil war, in 1993.

Moscow, which regards Georgia as part of its historic sphere of influence, has watched with growing irritation over the past decade as Shevardnadze parlayed his personal good relations with Western leaders - in the late 1980s he was Mikhail Gorbachev's Soviet foreign minister, credited with dismantling the cold war - into generous aid infusions and other marks of special interest from the US.

Shevardnadze has even talked of bringing Georgia into NATO and the European Union eventually, and has offered to let Western oil companies build a pipeline across Georgian territory to carry Caspian oil to world markets, bypassing Russia.

Experts agree that the Kremlin has covertly backed separatist movements in the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as a way of warning Shevardnadze that his country's security depends on Russia's goodwill, not on faraway Washington.

Meanwhile, Georgia has infuriated Moscow by allowing Chechen rebels to take refuge in the Pankisi Gorge, which abuts Georgia's frontier with the secessionist Russian region of Chechnya. Russia has threatened to launch military strikes against what it terms "terrorist bases" in the Pankisi Gorge, but was restrained by fears that the world, especially the US, would react angrily.

A Russian peacekeeping force has protected Abkhazia's quasi-independence since 1993, and is the most obvious sign of Moscow's continuing interference in the region. Georgia has demanded that the peacekeepers be withdrawn.

On the other hand, the Kremlin has turned a deaf ear to the Abkhazian government's requests to join the Russian Federation.

"Abkhazia is a dead-end situation for both Russia and Georgia," says Alexei Malashenko, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. "Politically, Moscow cannot accept Abkhazian independence, because of the precedent it would set for separatist regions inside Russia, such as Chechnya. On the other hand, Georgia is incapable of retaking Abkhazia, much less governing it effectively."

Several things have happened in the past month to push the area closer to crisis. Up to 1,000 Chechen rebels, under legendary field commander Ruslan Gelayev, traveled 186 miles through Georgia to the Kodori Gorge, a remote area that straddles Georgia's border with Abkhazia. Moscow claims Georgia provided logistics and transport to the Chechens, Tbilisi retorts that they reached Abkhaz territory on their own.

The Chechens linked up with several hundred Georgian irregulars, probably drawn from the 250,000 ethnic Georgians expelled from Abkhazia after the region won de facto independence, and began a military drive against the regional capital of Sukhumi.

Most analysts say that unmarked jet fighters and attack helicopters that bombed and strafed the Kodori Gorge last week are Russian. "The Chechens have opened up a second front against Russia," says Mr. Malashenko. "The presence of the Chechens there is a red flag for Moscow."

Shevardnadze denies his government had anything to do with the fresh outbreak of war in Abkhazia, though he was clearly aware that it was brewing. In early October, the president told a Tbilisi street rally: "We shall return to Abkhazia, and it will be soon."

Some Russian experts charge that Shevardnadze encouraged the Chechens to attack Abkhazia, hoping to recover the breakaway region before the changing world situation allowed Russia to eliminate Chechen bases inside Georgia. "Before Sept. 11, the West was indulgent toward the Chechen rebels, but now that's changed," says Andrei Sharovov, an expert with the independent Institute of Humanitarian and Political Research in Moscow. "The US is interested in building a new global security order, and it needs Russia for this. Georgia has no more room to maneuver between Moscow and Washington."

Last week, Georgian security police raided the Rustavi-2 television station in Tbilisi, which had angered officials with its attention to the growing Abkhazian conflict, and its long-running coverage of official corruption. The attack on press freedoms prompted thousands of mostly youthful protesters to rally to the station's defense. Shevardnadze fired his entire government, but rejected demands for his own resignation, saying he must stay in office to prevent chaos.

In addition to its uncertain geopolitical status at the moment, Georgia remains one of the world's poorest nations, deeply fractured by ethnic divisions and constantly rocked by political unrest. "Shevardnadze has solved none of Georgia's basic problems, and they are all gradually getting worse," says Mr. Malashenko. "The long term prognosis is trouble, and more trouble."

But for the moment, the former Soviet apparatchik appears to have coped. "Shevardnadze isn't known as 'the Georgian fox' for nothing," says Iskanderyan.

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