A shared US-Russia interest in a stable Georgia

A small miracle in the difficult Caucasus: In Georgia, people power threw out a corrupt regime without shedding a drop of blood and then elected its successor in a genuine landslide.

A surprise to all, including big brother Russia, which keeps a wary eye on the scene.

Until 1991, Georgia was a Soviet republic, occupying a special niche as the birthplace of Stalin and a source of citrus fruits and other produce for the Soviet Union. After independence, Georgia was geopolitically important to the new Russian Federation, adjoining Chechnya and other volatile areas of the Russian Caucasus. It was so important that the Kremlin under both Presidents Yeltsin and Putin determined to install safeguards against this small obstreperous neighbor spreading its brand of independence. They employed divide and rule, as did Stalin and the czars before him.

Moscow actively encouraged secession in the province of Abkhazia, on the Black Sea in northwest Georgia. Russian Army, Navy, and air units helped rebels of an Abkhazian ethnic minority fight off the Georgian Army. Today, Abkhazia is a separate state, albeit recognized only by Moscow, and the status quo is ensured by Russian "peacekeeping" troops.

Farther inland, Southern Ossetia won its quasi-independence in the same way. A third object of the Kremlin's attention is Ajaria, on the Black Sea in Georgia's southwest. It has not, or not yet, seceded but does what it pleases, including boycotting the Jan. 4 election of Mikhail Saakashvili as president of Georgia.

Moscow might play this territorial card, too, if it thinks necessary. It has others as well, such as the oil and gas upon which Georgia depends and - as a possible last resort - troops. Russia has military bases in Georgia, a presence that former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze was made to swallow after the loss of Abkhazia, when he was also coerced into joining the Russian-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States.

The Kremlin played hardball. In 1998, the self-styled Abkhazian ambassador in the US warned those planning the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline (from the Caspian Sea to Turkey via Azerbaijan and Georgia) that they risked their "investments, equipment and personnel" because Abkhazia would "completely disrupt" the enterprise. He was the dummy, Moscow the ventriloquist. In response, Mr. Shevardnadze went so far as to accuse the Russians of being behind an attempt on his life as an effort to block the pipeline.

There may be no threats or saber rattling from the Kremlin today, but the Russians have not given up any of their trump cards as Washington quietly increases its influence in the region - primarily to ensure access to the enormous oil fields of the Caspian Sea. Western oil companies are building the BTC line with plans to open it next year - over initial loud objections from Russia which wanted all the crude to run through its own pipeline.

The US has also guarded neighboring Azerbaijan from Russian pressure. On the other hand, when Secretary of State Colin Powell asked the Kremlin to honor the promise to withdraw its troops from Georgia, he was told they'd remain for at least 10 years more. He also admonished Moscow not to support secessionist elements. No reply.

One bone of contention between the US and Russia is the stationing of 150 US Special Forces after the Sept. 11 attacks in Georgia's Pankisi Valley, a pathway for guerrillas and refugees to and from Chechnya. Their mission is to train and equip Georgian border guards and a small fast-reaction antiterrorist force. On the whole, however, differences between the countries haven't been emphasized.

When the Georgian political crisis came to a head last November, both the US and Russia worked for a peaceful solution. In the end, the Russian foreign minister flew to Tbilisi to bring Shevardnadze and opposition leaders face to face and obtain his resignation.

It appears that the US and Russia, which have much bigger fish to fry with each other, want stability in the region. They have, at least for now, brought their disparate interests into balance.

Richard C. Hottelet is a former CBS correspondent.

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