Russia, Georgia face war over separatist provinces
Areas of ex-Soviet Caucasus have close ties to Russia
MOSCOW (CP) — War clouds are gathering over the former Soviet Caucasus region as Georgia's U.S.-backed President Mikheil Saakashvili moves to re-unite his fractured nation by pressuring two separatist provinces that have close ties to Russia.
Daily battles between Georgian troops and local separatist fighters have been reported from South Ossetia, a mountainous region of about 100,000 which straddles the most important pass through the Caucasus Mountains and enjoys close relations with the neighbouring Russian republic of North Ossetia.
Map of the area
Last Friday, Georgian troops withdrew from strategic heights they claimed to have seized in fighting the day before, but experts say the conflict is drifting toward fullscale war.
"Unless Russia and the U.S. manage this situation very carefully, it can fly completely out of control," says Vitaly Naumkin, director of the independent Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Moscow.
"There is no sign that enough attention is being paid to it in Moscow or Washington."
Unlike a previous cycle of civil wars in the early 1990s, when the pro-Moscow republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia won de facto independence from Georgia, the current tensions threaten to draw Russia directly into any fresh conflict.
The United States, nervous over the security of the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline across Georgia which is slated to begin pumping Caspian crude to western markets next year, backs Saakashvili's bid to restore central authority — as long as it doesn't erupt into open warfare.
Saakashvili, a youthful, U.S.-educated lawyer, led a revolt to overthrow former Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze last year and was subsequently elected on pledges to end official corruption, rebuild the economy and reunify the country.
He scored a major success in May by peacefully driving out the strongman of another wayward Georgian region, Adjaria, and bringing it back under central government control.
Saakashvili insists his goal is to extend his democratic "Rose Revolution" and rule of law to all of Georgia.
"These current tensions in South Ossetia began as a result of our successful and resolute efforts to put an end to the criminality and illegality that for too long was the norm in the South Caucasus," Saakashvili said last week.
Saakashvili has replaced the regular border police with U.S.-trained Georgian troops. Violent incidents between them and Russian "peacekeeping" troops stationed in the area for the past decade appear to be multiplying.
Saakashvili accuses Moscow of meddling in South Ossetia, with the eventual aim of annexing it to Russia.
Once a single ethnic space, Ossetia was divided between Russia and Georgia by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in the 1930s, a symbolic move that carried few consequences within the monolithic U.S.S.R.
But as the Soviet Union broke up, South Ossetia declared independence, defeated an invading Georgian army, and petitioned Moscow — so far unsuccessfully — for reunification with Russian North Ossetia.
Tensions are also on the rise in Abkhazia, a mainly Muslim republic of about 95,000 which, like South Ossetia, is ethnically and linguistically distinct from Georgia.
Abkhazia won its independence, with covert Russian aid, following a civil war in the early '90s.
The tiny republic is a sub-tropical Black Sea zone of beautiful beaches and soaring snow-capped mountains, where about 700,000 Russians vacation each summer.
In early August, Saakashvili ordered the Georgian navy to blockade the region and open fire on any "smugglers" trying to dock.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov lashed back, saying any attack on a Russian vessel would be tantamount to "piracy" and could draw a military response from Moscow.
Experts say Russian President Vladimir Putin, who co-operated with Saakashvili's drive to re-incorporate Ajaria into Georgia last May, may find himself hobbled by a myriad of ties that have developed between Russia and the two secessionist Georgian republics over the past decade.
Most Abkhazians and South Ossetians have taken out Russian citizenship and earn their living by trading with Russia.
"Russian policy under Putin is much more responsible than it was under (former president Boris) Yeltsin," says Irina Zvigelskaya, a professor at the official Institute of Foreign Relations in Moscow, which trains Russian diplomats.
"But we cannot walk away from these people and the interdependence that have built up between them and Russia, and Saakashvili is not making Putin's position easier by launching all these provocations," she says.
"Certain forces in the Russian government believe Russia must not allow itself to show weakness again, especially not in the Caucasus," where Russia faces an ongoing revolt by its own Chechen minority, she says.
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