Regional Outlook : Ethnic Squabbles Pose New Threat to Soviet Union : * Georgia is just one of many republics starting to resemble Lebanon.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Each side has grisly accounts of how innocent civilians have been tortured and killed. Each vows never to forgive the other. And neither can envision peaceful coexistence.

The description might fit any of a number of intractable conflicts in the Middle East. But this time it refers to the strife-torn southern Soviet republic of Georgia, which increasingly seems to resemble Lebanon.

Armed combat between Georgians and the minority Ossetians over a mountainous region in the south of the republic has entered its fifth month, having already claimed several dozen lives on each side.

The pro-Moscow Ossetians, inheritors of a land awarded to their ancestors in appreciation for siding with the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution, are a majority in the region, which is known as Southern Ossetia.

They have declared their intention to secede from Georgia rather than be forced out of the union. But the Georgians, who proclaimed their independence from the Kremlin last week, say history gives them the right to the land and they won't give it up.

The political battles for independence from the Kremlin by several of the Soviet Union's 15 consitutent republics have received most of the world's attention, but the union is also threatened by ethnic conflicts within these republics. With more than 130 minority nationalities across the country--all trying to win greater autonomy, stake claims on territory and assert their unique cultures--there are plenty of chances for inter-ethnic strife.

Far from being an isolated incident, in fact, the struggle over Southern Ossetia is only one of more than a dozen recent ethnic explosions in the Soviet Union.

Sometimes, like here in the Georgian mountains, the spark is a land dispute that seems as old as the hills themselves. In other instances, the trigger has been economic competition between different Soviet nationalities, or--in one case--a rumor that one ethnic group was being favored in the allocation of apartments.

"A phenomenon of Lebanonization is taking place in several parts of the Soviet Union," Sergei V. Cheshko, a Soviet ethnologist, said. "In some areas blood is already being shed. In others, thank God, no blood has yet been shed but it could be spilled any time."

Ethnic conflicts across the Soviet Union killed more than 1,000 people in 1990 and the early part of 1991, Soviet Interior Minister Boris K. Pugo said recently. And the death toll keeps mounting.

The liberal Moscow News in a recent issue named 76 areas of the Soviet Union where two or more ethnic groups claim the same land or, for other reasons, are locked in disputes.

The two feuds that appear most difficult to resolve are the Ossetian-Georgian clash and ongoing strife between Azerbaijanis and Armenians, which is fueled by competing claims to Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan. Hundreds have died during more than three years of fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh.

"They have become intractable situations like Northern Ireland or Lebanon," Ronald Suny, a professor at the University of Michigan and specialist in Soviet ethnic problems, said of the conflicts. "We are in for a very violent period in the Soviet Union.

"For 70 years, the Soviet leaders forced order on the people," he added. "They weren't allowed to kill each other."

The more liberal climate of the Gorbachev era has allowed Soviet nationalities, finally, to vent their cultural, linguistic, political and economic demands--as well as latent resentment and enmities.

Many of the victims of ethnic strife have been innocent bystanders. In the Ossetian-Georgian conflict, countless atrocities have been committed against people just trying to protect their homes and families in a war zone.

Photographs and videotape show both Ossetian and Georgian corpses with eyes poked out and faces beaten beyond recognition.

At the end of last month, four Georgians were driving from their village to get groceries when about a dozen armed Ossetians approached them and opened fire, Dzhamal Maisuradze, 22, one of the Georgians, said. He was shot while trying to flee and left for dead in the dirt.

Maisuradze said he watched as two of his companions were hanged upside down from a tree, doused with gasoline and set on fire. He heard their screams as they were burned alive. His third companion was already dead, struck down by a barrage of bullets.

Sergo Kesanashvili, an 18-year-old Georgian, can't go home again. He and his father sleep in their car on the outskirts of Tskhinvali. All their belongings were left behind in their house, which they fled after a band of Ossetians tried to burn it down.

"We can never forgive the Ossetians after what they have done to us," Kesanashvili said as he sat in the car that now is his home. "Either we will have this city or they will have the city. We can never live there together because there would be constant war."

Both ethnic groups are well armed, although each says it is only protecting its homes and brethren. Every kind of weapon is available to the combatants through the Soviet black market, according to members of the Georgian national guard who requested anonymity.

One night earlier this month, a rocket-propelled grenade punched a huge hole through the first-floor stone wall of an Ossetian home in Tskhinvali. No one was hurt because the family was on the second floor, watching television.

But another rocket fired through a window of a similar house in the Georgian village of Nikozi hit a Georgian man who was also watching television. Officials and relatives said the man was killed instantly.

Many victims have been elderly men and women beaten with rifle butts--some until they died.

Manya Kudzieva, an Ossetian woman from the village of Khelcheva who claims to be 115 years old, was recovering in the regional hospital in Tskhinvali after being brutally beaten by Georgian-speaking men. Her assailants cut off her finger after trying unsuccessfully to remove her gold wedding band, she said.

Nina Khimsheshvili, a 75-year-old Georgian, pushed up her sleeves to reveal large purple bruises on her delicate arms. "They took their guns and hit me over and over and demanded my money," she said.

Ossetians and Georgians alike have been forced to flee the region, often leaving burned houses behind. At least 57 of the 250 Ossetian villages in the region have been razed by Georgians, according to Larissa A. Ostayeva, a spokeswoman for the Southern Ossetian regional government.

As of late last month, 23,000 people, almost equally divided between Ossetians and Georgians, had abandoned their homes in the region, according to Pugo.

Nationwide, ethnic strife over the last few years has created 600,000 refugees, Interior Ministry spokesman Yuri Gaisenok said.

The Georgian refugees and Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia all accuse President Mikhail S. Gorbachev of aggravating the conflict so he can use it as a pretext to declare martial law in Georgia and block its independence.

"It's not a conflict with the Ossetians," Gamsakhurdia said. "It is the result of our political conflict with Gorbachev."

Gamsakhurdia and other Georgian officials claim that Soviet Interior troops have been supplying the Ossetians with Kalashnikov automatic rifles, armored vehicles and other military items.

"Gorbachev is at fault," Badri Badriashvili, 24, a Georgian police officer who was wounded in Southern Ossetia, said. "His troops attack Georgians because Georgia wants freedom and they don't want to give it."

Gorbachev has also been blamed for allowing ethnic tensions to flare into violence in other regions. He was broadly criticized for waiting too long before sending in troops to stop pogroms against Armenians in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku last year.

Some contend that the Soviet leader has also contributed to ethnic warfare by policies leading to the country's economic collapse. In Central Asia, for instance, most of the outbursts of ethnic violence have been directly related to shortages of land and unemployment.

"If the economy was healthy," Vyacheslav A. Mikhailov, director of the Communist Party's ethnic problems department, said, "a lot of these ethnic problems would automatically disappear."

But so much blood has already been shed in some areas, and resentments go so deep, that forgiveness will not come easily. The roots of some of these conflicts go back to ancient times. Others stem from the policies of former dictator Josef V. Stalin, the fledgling Soviet government's purported specialist on ethnic affairs, who drew artificial boundaries that cut across ethnic groups and exacerbated long-smoldering tensions.

Another group of conflicts are the result of Stalin uprooting whole ethnic groups from their homelands--groups like the Crimean Tatars and the Meskhetian Turks who, like the Japanese in America, were seen here as potential World War II fifth columnists and were moved en masse from their ancestral homes in the western part of the country to Soviet Central Asia.

"Today you will not find a hot spot that did not exist 20 years ago as a potential conflict area," Mikhailov said. "But then there was a strong Soviet power that did not let emotions take control.

"There was also strong ideological propaganda about friendship of peoples and brotherhood of the republics," he added. "This had a strong influence on people. It lent stability."

Now fierce nationalism has taken the place of the proletarian "internationalism" which the Bolsheviks long proclaimed.

"The idea of nationalism has become a dominant way of seeing the world in the latter part of this century," said Suny, the University of Michigan professor. "This is true in the Middle East and the Soviet Union."

For Mamika Durglishvili, a Georgian who had been riddled with machine-gun fire and was lying in traction in a Tbilisi hospital, nationalism means devotion to the plot of land his forefathers cultivated in Southern Ossetia.

"Of course I'll return," the 20-year-old farmer said. "If they shoot we'll shoot. I will not give my land to anyone. My family has had this land for generations. I'll fight to the death for it.

"Life begins once and ends once. I will die on my own land."

Republics Feuding Over Land, Bloodlines

REPUBLIC: ESTONIA OPPONENTS: Russians vs. Estonians ISSUES: Secession

REPUBLIC: LITHUANIA OPPONENTS: Lithuanians vs. Russians ISSUES: Secession, language OPPONENTS: Lithuanians vs. Poles ISSUES: Poles against secession, want republic

REPUBLIC: LATVIA OPPONENTS: Latvians vs. Russians ISSUES: Secession, language

REPUBLIC: MOLDOVA * OPPONENTS: Moldovans vs. Russians ISSUES: Secession, resentment of Russians OPPONENTS: Moldovans vs. Gagauz ISSUES: Territorial, cultural dispute

REPUBLIC: GEORGIA * ** OPPONENTS: Georgians vs. Ossetians ISSUES: Relations with Moscow

OPPONENTS: Georgians vs. Abkhazians ISSUES: Territorial dispute OPPONENTS: Meskhetian Turks vs. Georgians ISSUES: Territorial issues REPUBLIC: AZERBAIJAN * ** OPPONENTS: Armenians vs. Azerbaijanis ISSUES: Territorial dispute

REPUBLIC: ARMENIA * ** OPPONENTS: Azerbaijanis vs. Armenians ISSUES: Territorial dispute

REPUBLIC: UZBEKISTAN * OPPONENTS: Meshkhetian Turks vs. Uzbeks ISSUES: Jobs, land OPPONENTS: Uzbeks vs. Tadzhiks ISSUES: Border disputes

REPUBLIC: KAZAKHSTAN * OPPONENTS: Kazakhs vs. Chechens ISSUES: Housing, jobs, food OPPONENTS: Kazakhs vs. Uzbeks ISSUES: Border dispute

REPUBLIC: KIRGHIZIA * OPPONENTS: Kirghiz vs. Uzbeks ISSUES: Land

REPUBLIC: TADZHIKISTAN * OPPONENTS: Tadzhiks-Armenians vs. other non-Tadzhiks ISSUES: Land, jobs, culture, religious revival

REPUBLIC: UKRAINE

OPPONENTS: Crimean Tatars vs. Ukrainians ISSUES: Territorial dispute

REPUBLIC: RUSSIA * OPPONENTS: Volga Germans vs. Russians ISSUES: Territorial dispute OPPONENTS: Tuvinians vs. Russians ISSUES: Tuvinian independence OPPONENTS: Tatars vs. Russians ISSUES: Tatar independence

Source: Los Angeles Times

* (indicates there have been deaths associated with the ethnic conflicts over the last few years)

** (indicates current violence)

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