Georgia caught in the bear's embrace

THE Georgian leader, Eduard Shevardnadze, was holding forth on how Russia and the US must co-operate in the Caucasus. A loud bang cut him off in mid-sentence: a gust of wind had just slammed shut a door to his office, an eyrie in the Georgian parliament building. He laughed: 'Did you think someone was shooting at us?'

Two months later - with much of Georgia's Black Sea coast lost to Abkhazian separatists, a tide of 200,000 refugees sweeping across the country and Georgia's second city, Kutaisi, under threat from the former president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia - bangs in the night are no longer a cause for mirth in Tbilisi.

Nor does Mr Shevardnadze give lectures any more on how the end of the Cold War ought to have ended geo-political rivalry. The US did provide a few holsters and walkie-talkies and sent a group of Green Berets to Tbilisi to help train Mr Shevardnadze's security guards. James Baker, the former US secretary of state, and other influential Americans also greatly admire Mr Shevardnadze for his work as Mikhail Gorbachev's foreign minister.

The only real power in the Caucasus, though, is Russia. Only Moscow - in the form of more than 15,000 troops inherited from the Soviet Transcaucasian Military District - has the means to save Georgia from collapse.

Twice since September Mr Shevardnadze has had to make desperate, politically risky appeals to Moscow for military help - first to save Sukhumi, then again this week to save Kutaisi.

They mark a humiliating about-face from a year ago, when Georgia told Moscow to hand over all its bases in Georgia and quit the country forthwith.

Russia did nothing to save Sukhumi but, according to a Foreign Ministry statement yesterday, will detail troops to protect a railway running from the Black Sea port of Poti through Kutaisi to Tbilisi and then on to Azerbaijan and Armenia.

But Moscow is itself divided about how far to go. It says it does not want to get bogged down in a civil war. At the same time it refuses to give up its military bases in the region, tells Georgia it wants to strengthen them and asks for a Soviet-era treaty on conventional forces in Europe to be adjusted to give Russia a free hand in the Caucasus.

The contradiction is part muddle, part deception. The clearest statement on Russian policy towards former Soviet republics was made by President Yeltsin in February: 'The moment has arrived for authoritative international organisations, including the United Nations, to grant Russia special powers as the guarantor of peace and stability in the region.'

But different ministries disagree on what such 'powers' involve. The banning of extremist nationalist groups following the storming of the White House has silenced calls for the immediate revival of the Soviet Union. But the use of tanks in Moscow has strengthened the military at the expense of the Foreign Ministry, generally more sympathetic to Georgia's plight.

When Mr Shevardnadze asked for help in a dramatic televised address on Monday night, the Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, said bluntly that Georgia had no right to expect help because it was not yet a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States: 'Georgia is an independent state with which Russia does not have any agreement on mutual military co-operation.'

Such statements clash with solid evidence of Russian military meddling in Abkhazia and other areas of conflict in Russia's 'near abroad' - the former Soviet republics with a Russian diaspora of 25 million people.

(Photograph omitted)

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