Leading Article: Russia's unstable frontiers

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THE AGREEMENT yesterday between Boris Yeltsin of Russia (population, 148 million) and Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia (population 5.5 million) is unlikely to have done much to resolve the rapidly escalating problems of the small and newly independent nation. But it signals that the two men recognise a grudging mutual interest.

President Yeltsin has a legitimate concern about the manner in which Mr Shevardnadze is running Georgia because of the effect that continued troubles could be expected to have on his own country. Mr Shevardnadze - who demonstrated considerable personal courage when he returned to Georgia and assumed the chairmanship of the state council after the welcome overthrow of the paranoid nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia - simply wants to hold his violent, unstable and ethnically diverse nation together. This is not an unreasonable aim, if only because it is hard to imagine a fragmented Georgia spawning viable mini-states.

Russia needs peace and stability in the area because a number of minority peoples straddle the frontier between Russia and Georgia. If, say, the Abkhazi autonomous region succeeds in breaking away from Georgia, or if the 100,000 Abkhazis (who, to add to the complexity of the situation, form only 18 per cent of the population of the autonomous region) are violently repressed, destabilising repercussions will be felt among related ethnic minorities on the Russian side of the frontier. Moreover, Russia has some moral obligation to the Abkhazi minority, whose nationalist fervour the Soviet Union encouraged in an effort to undermine Georgian aspirations. Finally, Russian soldiers stationed in Georgia have recently been killed in crossfire between government forces and rebel troops. Further shootings will play into the hands of Russian nationalists who wish to reverse what they regard as their country's humiliating imperial retreat.

In situations of such complexity there is a temptation for outsiders to attempt to simplify things by identifying local heroes and villains. Mr Shevardnadze has come to fill the role of Georgian hero in the West, in part because the former Soviet foreign minister is the only Georgian player to be recognised when he steps on to the world stage. Under Mikhail Gorbachev he was a liberal-minded and innovative figure who did much to put an end to the Cold War. He merited the close friendship of the former US Secretary of State James Baker and the former German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher.

But in a Georgian context, Mr Shevardnadze's liberal credentials are less impressive. Before moving to Moscow he was, for almost 13 years, a repressive party boss. The best that can be said is that his repression was even-handed. He held down Georgians and ethnic minorities with equal severity. Since his return, however, he has allied himself, opportunistically, to military men who seem obsessed with Georgian ethnic purity.

There can be no doubt that Mr Shevardnadze is a great improvement on the deposed President Gamsakhurdia, and that any successor would almost certainly be more chauvinistic. Even so, President Yeltsin was right to warn the Georgian leader to treat his minorities with greater consideration. 'Ethnic cleansing' would be as intolerable in the Caucasus as it is in the Balkans.