Shevardnadze sees US role in Caucasus: Georgia's President tells Andrew Higgins in Tbilisi that co-operation is the key to averting a 'big fire'

AS Mikhail Gorbachev's Foreign Minister, Eduard Shevardnadze enraged many Moscow military men by negotiating away their bases in Eastern Europe and closing down the Soviet Union as a superpower.

Back home in Georgia, the region that he once ruled as Communist Party boss and is now struggling to hold together as an independent state, Mr Shevardnadze is again disturbing Russian generals: he sees a role, albeit modest, for the United States as a military force in the Caucasus, perhaps the most turbulent and strategically vital fragment of the shattered Soviet empire.

'I think a lot of things might be done in fields of training of military staff,' he told the Independent. 'This is a legitimate sphere for co-operation. It is absolutely acceptable that the US help Georgia the way it helps other countries in this field.'

A group of Green Berets from the US Army's Special Forces is reported to have visited Georgia to help train security guards for Mr Shevardnadze and other senior officials. Mr Shev ardnadze declined to comment. Official sources, however, said American security experts had been in Georgia and that some 40 Georgians are now in the US for training. This shatters what, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has been a Russian, largely KGB, monopoly of security techniques and training. Highlighting growing US involvement was the murder two weeks ago of the CIA station chief, Fred Woodruff, shot in the head on a country road outside Tbilisi. Mr Shevardnadze said he believed the shooting was an accident.

Despite strong pressure from more emotional and often aggressively nationalistic countrymen, Mr Shevard nadze remains a consummate diplomat and takes pains to assure Moscow that it is not being squeezed out of the Caucasus. He suggested Russia will be allowed to keep troops - now around 14,000 in number - longer than originally planned on Georgian territory.

'Russia has many more interests in the region than the United States but I don't see any competition between the US and Russia. Competition is absolutely excluded. Both Russia and the United States have to study the art of co-operating.'

But it is in terms of competition that many in Moscow, particularly in the military, see Western inroads on Russia's southern flank, even though Washington has neither the resources nor the will to challenge Moscow head-on. Even the Foreign Ministry, probably the most pro-Western wing of the Russian government, last week reacted huffily to reports that Washington was trying to carve out a role as peacemaker in Georgia and other former Soviet republics. Washington, it said, would act only 'in close co-operation with Russia'.

Much of the US interest in Georgia is personal: it owes a debt to Mr Shevardnadze. It has taken a close interest in his safety since he returned to Tbilisi in March last year after the ousting of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia's dangerously unpredictable president. When James Baker, US Secretary of State during the unravelling of the Soviet Union, visited Tbilisi, he took gifts of walkie-talkies, holsters and other equipment for Mr Shevardnadze's security force. President Clinton is expected to do more.

'I think the new administration of the United States has a more realistic picture of what is going on in this region,' Mr Shevardnadze said, speaking in his office in the Georgian parliament building, formerly the Marxist-Leninism Institute. 'They see the important role that the Caucasus plays for peace in the world and they realise that if the Caucasus are not peaceful and conflict rages, many countries might get involved and a big fire could start here.'

Little fires are everywhere, particularly in the Black Sea region of Abkhazia, where Georgia has spent a year battling separatist forces encouraged and armed by Russia, if not by the Defence Ministry then by rogue elements of the Russian military. In February the Russian Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, said Moscow would 'take every measure' to ensure that Russian troops remain at former Soviet bases in the Abkhazian town of Gudauta and other sites along Georgia's Black Sea coast. This prompted Mr Shevardnadze to accuse Moscow of fighting a proxy war with Georgia.

Today, he sees a less belligerent Russia. 'Russian policy has been changing . . . We think Russia is willing to help resolve the conflict.' Mr Shevardnaze believes the change is due in part to Western pressure, saying that both President Clinton and Chancellor Helmut Kohl had urged Russia to stay out of Abkhazia. 'This had an impact and was very important . . . You cannot frighten Russia but, of course, Russia considers the wishes and will of the US and Germany.'

Radical Georgian nationalists say Mr Shevardnadze is too soft on Moscow. They want all Russian troops out and condemn the withdrawal of Georgian troops from Abkhazia as part of the peace plan as a sell-out. Mr Shev ardnadze is to visit Moscow later today to try to fix final terms.

'Of course Russia has some ambitions in the region and different circles interpret these ambitions in different ways. Some of Russia's military people think they have strategic military interests. President Yeltsin's perspective is that Russia's strategic interest is to have a strong, united Georgia with goodwill towards Russia. Others will be very happy if Abkhazia secedes and joins Russia.' Georgia's problem - and the West's too - is deciding which side will prevail in Moscow.

Tomorrow: Mystery of the CIA man's death

Leading article, page 17

(Photograph omitted)

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