War clouds are gathering over the former Soviet Caucasus, as Georgia's ambitious US-backed President Mikheil Saakashvili moves to reunite his fractured nation by confronting two separatist provinces with close ties to Russia.
Unlike a previous cycle of vicious civil wars in the early 1990s, when the pro-Moscow republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia won de facto independence from Georgia, the current tensions threaten to draw Russia directly into any fresh conflict. The US, nervous over the security of a crucial oil pipeline slated to open next year across Georgia, backs Mr. Saakashvili's bid to restore central authority - as long as it doesn't erupt into open warfare.
Many Russian experts argue that Saakashvili ought to concentrate on solving Georgia's massive economic and social problems, and cooperate with Russia to find a negotiated settlement for Abkhazia and South Ossetia that addresses the historic complexities of these regions.
But others warn the region is a powderkeg that could explode, despite the best intentions in Moscow and Washington. "Georgia is the No. 1 flash point between the US and Russia just now. There are competing interests there which could be managed if Russia and the US cooperate closely, but could easily fly out of control if they don't," says Vitaly Naumkin, director of the independent Center for Strategic and International Studies in Moscow.
Saakashvili, a US-educated lawyer, has set out to reverse Georgia's reputation as a failed state since coming to power in the peaceful "Rose Revolution" that overthrew former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze last November. He was elected in January, with over 90 percent of the vote, on pledges to end Georgia's official corruption, rebuild the economy, and reunify the country.
He scored a major success in May by peacefully driving out the strongman of another wayward Georgian region, Adjaria, and bringing it back under central government control.
Saakashvili insists his goal is to extend the democratic "Rose Revolution" and rule of law to all of Georgia. "These current tensions in South Ossetia began as a result of our successful and resolute efforts to put an end to the criminality and illegality that for too long was the norm in the South Caucasus," Saakash- vili said during a visit to the US last week.
Daily gun battles are reported from South Ossetia, a mountainous region of about 100,000, which straddles the most important pass through the Caucasus Mountains and enjoys very close relations with the neighboring Russian republic of North Ossetia. Saakashvili last week replaced the usual squads of border police in the area with US-trained Georgian troops. Violent incidents between them and Russian "peacekeeping" troops appear to be multiplying.
Russian news agencies reported that Georgian forces shelled the South Ossetian capital city of Tskhinvali with mortars on Tuesday. "The main purpose of these actions is to create an unbearable psychological climate and scare the population of South Ossetia," said Irina Gagloyeva, a spokesperson for the South Ossetian government.
Saakashvili accuses Moscow of meddling in South Ossetia, with the eventual aim of annexing it. On Tuesday he charged that Russian secret services have passed out 5,000 Russian passports to local people in the past week alone. "We are facing purposeful actions of very serious people which include elements of the misappropriation of the territory of another country," Saakashvili told journalists Tuesday.
Tensions are also rising in Abkhazia, a mainly Muslim republic of about 95,000, which, like South Ossetia, is ethnically and linguistically distinct from Georgia. Abkhazia also won its independence - with covert Russian aid - following a brutal civil war in the early '90s. The tiny republic is a subtropical Black Sea zone of beaches and snow-capped mountains, where about 700,000 Russians vacation each summer.
In early August Saakashvili ordered the Georgian navy to blockade the region and open fire on any "smugglers" trying to dock. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov lashed back, saying any attack on a Russian vessel would be tantamount to "piracy" and might draw a military response from Moscow.
Experts say that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who cooperated with Saakashvili's drive to reincorporate Adjaria into Georgia last May, may find himself hobbled by a myriad of ties that have developed between Russia and the two secessionist Georgian republics over the past decade. Most Abkhazians and South Ossetians have taken out Russian citizenship and earn their living by trading with Russia. Abkhazia draws its main income from Russian tourism.
"Russian policy under Putin is much more responsible than it was under (former President Boris) Yeltsin," says Irina Zvigelskaya, a professor at the official Institute of Foreign Relations in Moscow. "But we cannot walk away from these people and the interdependences that have built up between them and Russia, and Saakashvili is not making Putin's position easier by launching all these provocations."
But Saakashvili is doing what he must, says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. "Any chance for Georgia's future prosperity depends on the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline," which is slated to begin pumping Caspian oil to Western markets next year. If instability reigns in Georgia potential sabotage will remain a key concern.
"Security of the pipeline is a major reason the US is backing Saakashvili's efforts to restore state sovereignty over all of Georgia," Mr. Kremeniuk says. "Saakashvili has the support, he has the energy and he needs to accomplish reunification before he can work out an economic strategy to get his country back on track."