Georgia starts to choke on its dirty little war

THE HARSH realities of Eduard Shevardnadze's dirty little war against the breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia were on full display in the airport waiting- room. The Georgian leader had ordered reinforcements to Sukhumi, the Abkhazian capital, which remains in Georgian hands, but there was no plane. An irate army captain organising the flight was bellowing orders down two phones at once. He could not say when the plane would take off.

Fresh recruits with squeaky boots and brand new fatigues clutched shiny Kalashnikov rifles as they checked in for the flight. Their faces were blank with fear and astonishment at what they were doing. The day before, they had been ordinary civilians.

Battle-hardened veterans of the Georgian national guard were swaggering about, their chests festooned with rows of bullets. Some showed war wounds.

Refugees told stories of atrocities committed by the Muslim Abkhas and their supporters from the mountains against Georgian Christians. They said women and children had been lined up and massacred at Gagra, a town that had fallen to the Abkhazians. Doctors from the hospital had been killed and the wild Caucasian mountain men had drunk their blood from coffee tins, so the rumours said.

Mr Shevardnadze, who had sent in troops in August to restore order and put down Abkhazian rebels who want more autonomy for the province, had said that a holy war was about to break out.

Earlier, two ancient Antonov biplanes, once part of the Soviet air force, had been pressed into service to take journalists to Sukhumi to interview the refugees. But the planes, which had no modern navigational aids, were forced to turn back half way along the 200-mile route through the Caucasus mountains when a heavy fog rolled in from the Black Sea. Those of us on board were thankful for the intervention of bad weather; we had the feeling that, had they reached Sukhumi, these planes would not have made the flight back.

Such is the political and economic chaos in Georgia today that even the smallest event, such as the flight of a plane, is often beyond the government's meagre resources. In place of the proud march towards independence on which Georgians embarked as the Soviet Union broke up, there is permanent civil conflict.

Once a Georgia Communist Party boss, Mr Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister, returned last March hoping to reunite the 5 million Georgians and steer them to prosperity. He is now so filled with despair he talks of giving up. 'The most terrible thing is that for the first time in my life, I feel at a loss. Now, I don't see any way out,' he said.

He leads a provisional government formed after the elected president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was deposed in a bloody civil war in January. Today, Georgia goes to the polls to choose a new parliament, and Mr Shevardnadze, the only candidate for parliamentary leader on the ballot, is assured of victory.

The vote will almost certainly inflame the guerrilla war with the Abkhas, who make up only 18 per cent of the region's population. So far, Mr Shevardnadze's invasion has been an embarrassing and costly flop, and he has been widely criticised by Russian leaders. More than 200 people have been killed in the fighting and many thousands more have become refugees.

In Mr Shevardnadze's view, the Russians have played a treacherous game. On one hand, the Russian leader, Boris Yeltsin, has brokered a peace between the two sides. On the other, Russian MPs have passed a resolution calling for economic sanctions against Georgia for its part in the invasion.

But in the view of an increasing number of Georgians, Mr Shevardnadze has fallen into the trap that enveloped Mikhail Gorbachev as he tried to organise the devolution of Soviet power. Like Mr Gorbachev, Mr Shevardnadze is surrounded by ambitious military leaders, who, it could be argued, pushed him into invading Abkhazia, just as the KGB and Soviet defence chiefs pushed Mr Gorbachev into a military crackdown in the Baltic states.