Good Guys and Bad in 'Central Eurasia'

April 12, 1992|By SCOTT SHANE | SCOTT SHANE,Scott Shane, The Sun's Moscow correspondent from 1988 until last year, is currently working on a book about the end of the Soviet Union.

A former Sovietologist trying to untangle the players in the former Soviet Union -- "Central Eurasia," some U.S. government agencies have taken to calling it -- may feel nostalgia for the Manichaean clarity of earlier times.

Pre-1985, the standoff of dissidents vs. apparatchiks looked something like good guys vs. bad guys. Then the dissident apparatchik Mikhail Gorbachev muddied the waters, but the battles of "reformers" and "hardliners" over perestroika still sufficed for a convenient dichotomy.

No more. Consider this political riddle for the new world disorder:

Imagine two politicians struggling for power in a former Soviet republic. On one side is A, who was the republic's Communist Party boss for 13 years and head of its police ministry for seven years before that. In his day A oversaw the harassment and imprisonment of many a human-rights activist.

In a 1983 speech, kowtowing to his Kremlin overlords, A unabashedly praised the 200-year Russian domination of his republic: "We must show the whole world that thanks to brotherhood with great Russia, our ancient people was reborn, flourished and regained its youth after being on the brink of catastrophe." He bitterly denounced the broadcasts of Voice of America and Radio Liberty as "the enemy" for offering a less rosy view of Russian imperialism.

Though A has remained prominent in public life throughout the years of Soviet political reform, he has never run in a contested election.

A's opponent, B, is a generation younger and incomparably better educated, speaking fluent English, French and German, and having translated as a young man Western classics from Goethe to Emily Dickinson into his native language. B has devoted his life to the fight for freedom and against Communist rule, paying for his convictions with imprisonment and exile.

As the republic moved toward independence, B organized the splintered anti-Communist opposition into a coalition that won power in the first contested elections. Then he stood for election to the newly created presidency, winning a stunning 87 percent of the vote despite a hard-fought campaign.

Now events took a dramatic turn. The political opposition to President B, whose leaders included several ex-convicts, organized a ragtag army that managed to drive the elected president from power and into hiding. At this point, who should appear on the scene but the republic's old party boss, A -- returning to the republic after having missed the entire independence struggle. Without ado, A was installed by the ruling military junta as head of the unelected government, and his first move has been to launch a military operation aimed at finishing off, politically and perhaps physically, the elected president B and his loyalists.

So here's the question: Which of these leaders -- the elected anti-Communist or the unelected old-guard policeman and party boss -- does the United States support? Hint: It's the one who speaks no English.

The reader by now has likely recognized the republic of Georgia, a West Virginia-sized gem with one of the Earth's oldest cultures and snowcapped Caucasus peaks, lovely Black Sea beaches and world-class vineyards that give it the tourism potential of Switzerland. It also has such a volatile ethnic and political brew that Lebanon may be a more probably analogy.

A is, of course, Eduard Shevardnadze, whose absence from his native Georgia was required by his service as Mikhail Gorbachev's foreign minister. B is Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who is now believed to be hiding out in the western Georgia town of Zugdidi, awaiting a final showdown with what is now Mr. Shevardnadze's army. Shortly after Mr. Shevardnadze's return to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, in early March, the United States announced that it would grant the diplomatic recognition it had denied as long as Mr. Gamsakhurdia was in power. A far-sighted Sovietologist proposing this scenario just a couple of years ago might have been offered a long rest in a quiet place.

But U.S. policy toward Georgia is hard to fault. Mr. Shevardnadze redeemed his past through his contribution to the dismantling of the Cold War, the reversal of the arms race and the liberation of Eastern Europe. He clinched his reputation in December, 1990, with his dramatic resignation and prescient warning to his old friend Mr. Gorbachev about party-army-KGB plotting of dictatorship.

In power, by contrast, Mr. Gamsakhurdia quickly disillusioned many of his supporters by alienating Georgia's ethic minorities with Georgia-for-the-Georgians rhetoric, crushing press freedom, harassing entrepreneurs and arresting his political opponents. When I interviewed him early in 1991 he called the ethnic Ossetians, then in a tense standoff with his government, "direct agents of the Kremlin, tools and terrorists." When the story ran, he denied the quote, which was recorded on tape, and vowed to file suit against The Baltimore Sun in World Court.

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