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Shevardnadze’s Devils May Soon Haunt Yeltsin : Georgia: The forces aiding Abkhazian separatists are running rampant in the periphery of the former empire. Military warlords abound.

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<i> Alex Alexiev, a foreign-affairs analyst, writes frequently on Russian and East European affairs. He recently returned from a visit to Russia</i>

The fall of Sukhumi to Abkhazian separatists and Eduard A. Shevardnadze’s courageous actions in trying to prevent it, and thus the dismemberment of his country, have finally brought a modicum of international attention to one of the bloodiest ethnic conflicts of the post-Soviet era. Undoubtedly, most of the attention is due to the Georgian leader’s international stature rather than to an interest in or understanding of this obscure conflict. Yet, it behooves the West to pay attention to Shevardnadze’s anguished warning of greater turmoil ahead, since it comes from the man who left his lofty perch as the architect of Soviet foreign policy in early 1991 after rightly warning Mikhail S. Gorbachev against appeasing hard-liners.

The dramatic events in Sukhumi are pregnant with implications not only for Georgia and the Transcaucasus, but also for the political stability of the Russian periphery and the struggle between democracy and those who hope to turn the clock back in Russia itself.

The conflict between Christian Georgians and the predominantly Muslim Abkhazians predates the formation of the Soviet Union. Fearful of assimilation by the dominant Georgians, the Abkhazians have traditionally felt greater kinship with the Muslim peoples of the northern Caucasus and have looked to Moscow for protection. These latent antagonisms were exacerbated during the Soviet period, when Josef Stalin abolished the Abkhazian Soviet republic and incorporated it as an autonomous region into Georgia in 1931. In subsequent years, the Abkhazians were oppressed and subjected to “Georganization” campaigns.

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These policies were eventually reversed and, for the past 15 years, ethnic Abkhazians were given preferential treatment by Moscow, creating a situation where they came to be the dominant political factor--though they represent less than 20% of Abkhazia’s population.

Yet, since nearly 50% of Abkhazia’s citizens are ethnic Georgians, the Abkhazian separatists would hardly have been able to incite a conflict with Georgia of such magnitude and violence without the involvement of much larger external forces. And these same forces--the government of Boris N. Yeltsin, the anti-democratic opposition and the Russian military--are now facing off in Moscow. The difference in Georgia is that the local actors and ultimate victims of the conflict seem to be little more than a convenient pretext for the pursuit of the power plays and larger agendas of the big boys.

Among the external players, the position of the Russian government is perhaps the most ambivalent. Early on in the conflict, President Yeltsin categorically stated his country’s commitment to the territorial integrity of Georgia and urged a negotiated settlement based on Abkhazian autonomy within Georgia’s borders. Somewhat later, he offered to serve as a broker between the two sides and helped to arrange a cease-fire.

As the conflict dragged on, however, the Kremlin’s views began acquiring a more traditional geopolitical flavor--emphasizing the strategic importance of the region for Russia. In one remarkable speech, Yeltsin went so far as to state that Russia should be vested, by the United Nations, with the prerogatives of an exclusive peace gendarme in the region. On another occasion, he proposed the establishment of Russian military bases on the territories of Georgia, Armenia and other former Soviet republics.

This ambivalence has continued to this day. The Russian government did express its “bitterness and incomprehension” of the separatists’ takeover of Sukhumi. But it is also true, as Shevardnadze has charged, that Russia could have prevented it.

No such ambivalence marked the views of Yeltsin’s political foes in Parliament and elsewhere. From the beginning of the conflict, his anti-democratic opposition unconditionally supported the Abkhazians. Support for the separatists was not just propagandistic. It expressed itself in more practical ways, such as recruiting “volunteers” and helping to arrange military supplies. As a result, large numbers of Russian mercenaries, Afghan veterans, North Caucasian tribesmen and Cossacks are said to have joined the Abkhazian units and greatly strengthened them.

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This motley crew of die-hard communists, Russian chauvinists and assorted reactionaries have little genuine interest in the Abkhazian cause. Rather, they saw the conflict in Georgia as yet another convenient opportunity to exploit Russian nationalism and ethnic hatreds as their most promising weapons against the democrats. Whether presenting themselves as the true defenders of Russia’s national interests, or posturing as the patrons of the 2.5 million-strong Russian diaspora and various ethnic groups, their message is increasingly militant: All problems are caused by the treasonous Yeltsin clique and its overseas masters.

The solution, as Vice President Alexander V. Rutskoi recently argued, is simple: Overthrow Yeltsin and recreate the Soviet Union.

The role played by the Russian military in the Georgia conflict is harder to define, simply because it is difficult today to speak of the Russian army as a single, disciplined institution. While the top brass in Moscow and various elite units around the capital have backed the government in its struggle with Parliament, the picture on the periphery is far murkier. The military press and statements by various Russian generals in the region indicate that the military, as a whole, clearly sympathized with the Abkhazian rebels. This perhaps explains why there was no serious effort to interdict the flow of weapons and mercenaries across the Russian border into Abkhazia, despite a Yeltsin promise to do so. It may also partly account for Yeltsin’s ambivalent policies.

There are two other highly disturbing trends with large implications. The effective disintegration of many Russian army units and the parlous economic status of most others have led to unprecedented pilferage of military stocks. The result is a huge black market in all imaginable weapons systems and ammunition. Last year alone, some 50,000 tons of military hardware was reported to have disappeared in the Trans-Caucasian Military District.

Second, with normal military activities at a virtual standstill and insufficient funds for the most basic needs of units, more and more commanders appear to be taking things into their own hands. They increasingly pay little heed to higher-ups, who cannot even provide food for the troops. The prototype of this kind of independent military warlord is the commander of the 14th Army in Moldova, Gen. Alexander Lebed.

The picture emerging after the Abkhazian “victory” is not sanguine. For Georgia, its territorial dismemberment, and perhaps a civil war, are real possibilities. Continuing strife over Abkhazia is a certainty. Beyond that, it is likely that Yeltsin will win this round and neutralize his most vehement opponents for a while. But with ethnic conflict and nationalist turmoil pervasive in much of the former Soviet empire, with an army either incapable of or unwilling to do much and with little chance of international involvement, chances are that the bad news from Sukhumi is not the last of its kind.

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