Dare the Russians seize the chance for peace in their backyard?

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The Independent Online
THE Moscow melodrama has a big audience. Perhaps melodrama is too snide a word. There is something Shakespearean in this spectacle of a brooding monarch who suddenly, given the chance, smashes down mighty courtiers who had fancied themselves his favourites and even his masters.

General Pavel Grachev falls; General Alexander Lebed, scowling importantly, takes his place. The two dark eminences from the old KGB, Alexander Korzhakov who commanded a presidential "bodyguard" larger than some European armies and his crony Mikhail Barsukov who ran the KGB's successor, are overthrown and must now tremble at the thought of further punishment. Act One, Scene One, of King Boris the First, Part Two is over. What will unfold in the next scene?

No audience understands this sort of Shakespeare better than the peoples of the Caucasus. Anybody who has seen the terrifying productions of the Rustaveli Theatre from Tbilisi feels that the man who wrote Richard III must have had Georgian blood. Long before the war in Chechnya, politics in the Caucasus felt like that.

Many fates hang on what the convulsion in the Kremlin may lead to. Immediately, there is the Chechen crisis. The three fallen men were all, in their different ways, to blame for that appalling and futile slaughter. Lebed's rise to power could, just possibly, produce a settlement giving the Chechens the degree of independence within the Russian Republic which could persuade them to lay down their arms. This in turn could begin to relax the stalemate of violence, foreign occupation and abject poverty which has overtaken the Caucasian region since 1991.

A tiny news item on Friday caught my attention. There has been a settlement in the independent Republic of Moldova. The so-called "Dniester Republic", the Russian minority in Moldova which broke away in a bloody war in 1992, has agreed to accept the status of "a state entity in the form of a republic within the frontiers of Moldova". Two things are significant about this. One is that the "Dniester Republic" (or Transdniestria) is Alexander Lebed's baby. As commander of the Russian 14th Army stationed there, he turned a deaf ear to orders from Moscow and used the army to stop the war and keep the Moldovans out. The second point is that this compromise could be a model for other and bigger ones.

General Lebed, the "hero of Tiraspol" (capital of Transdniestria), is the right man in the right place to develop a similar plan for Chechnya. There is no reason, save Russian bloody-mindedness and the tendency of Russian commanders in the field to ignore orders, why it should not work. "Sovereignty" is a highly elastic concept in that part of the world. Chechen independence within Russia's frontiers could be almost complete, limited by formal agreements with Moscow on foreign policy (including the crucial oil pipelines running through Chechnya to the Black Sea) and on defence.

Not far away, another small Caucasian people is alert for signs of change. Abkhazia is under siege. This is the tiny country on the north-eastern shore of the Black Sea which broke away from Georgia after a brutal and devastating war in 1992-3. Russian logistic support helped the Abkhazians to victory, at a time when Russia wanted to weaken and humiliate newly independent Georgia. But since then Abkhazia has existed in limbo. Nobody recognises its independence, apart from the unofficial "Federation of the North Caucasus" which includes the Chechens. Nobody helps to reconstruct the war damage. A Russian "peace-keeping force" has its headquarters in Sukhum, the capital, and controls the southern frontier with Georgia. And now, since February, the country is being squeezed by a tightening blockade of sanctions - imposed by the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), but in effect, Russian.

Communications have been cut off. The Russians closed the frontier near Sochi in December 1994, and no trains or buses are allowed to cross. The telephone lines have been severed, apart from calls to Moscow, and mail is now routed through Georgia - which means that it does not get through. Russian naval patrols seize any Abkhazian vessel which strays beyond coastal waters. Turkish ships bringing vital supplies - fuel, flour, medicines - are allowed to call at Sukhum once or twice a week. But passengers are forbidden, and the other day Russian marines seized one of the Turkish boats. The Russians prevent all Abkhazian men between the ages of 18 and 50 from leaving the country, ostensibly to stop them joining the Chechen rebels (Chechen volunteers were among many from the northern Caucasus who fought against Georgia in 1992-3, and the Abkhazians are grateful).

Nobody is in a hurry to pull Abkhazia out of this memory hole into which it has been pushed. Its present population is only about 250,000; some 200,000 Georgians and Mingrelians who lived there fled during the war, and now live a miserable life as refugees in Georgia. The "peace talks" are more or less stalled, with the Abkhazians ready to settle for "confederal" status in association with Georgia while the Georgians are unwilling to offer anything better than a "federal" relationship under Georgian sovereignty. Some Mingrelian refugees have returned to the south of the country, but the Abkhazian government is still unwilling to let the main body of Georgians return unless they can screen them against a list of "war criminals".

Meanwhile, Abkhazia is a helpless pawn in the obscure power game being played out between Russia and Georgia. One option is that the Russians should withdraw their troops and leave the Abkhazians to the mercies of President Edward Shevardnadze of Georgia. But this would almost certainly mean renewed war, if not genocidal massacres, and would probably drag the whole northern Caucasus into the conflict - something Russia dreads, after its Chechen experience. As things are, the Russian presence in Abkhazia does give Moscow a powerful lever with which to apply pressure to Georgia.

And, despite the sanctions, Russians have a soft spot for Abkhazia. Many have spent holidays there, in the days when Sukhum or Gagra were exquisite sub-tropical resorts rather than ghost towns where the hotels are gutted and people queue up at soup kitchens. The soldiers would rather be there guarding the border than unemployed in some frosty Russian city. And Moscow politicians nurse the illusion that Abkhazians - unlike the ungrateful Georgians - still have respect and affection for Russia and might want some day to return to the fold.

There are chinks of hope for the besieged Abkhazians. If the Moldova compromise was applied to Chechnya, the Russians might fall in love with these "state within state" schemes and push the Georgians to grant Abkhazia a similar confederal status. And even Georgian passions about Abkhazia may be cooling.

There have been Shakespearean events there too. The two wild warlords who raged for more blood, Tengis Kitovani and Dzhuba Ioseliani, are now both safely in jail, giving President Shevardnadze - whose folly brought about the Abkhazian war in the first place - the space to end this quarrel if he wants to. The Georgians and the Abkhazians are two of the oldest peoples in the world, and among the most lovable and generous. When they kill each other, only Russia benefits. The new chance for peace in Chechnya is also a chance for peace in the whole tormented Caucasus. Perhaps somebody will take it.