Fearing Russia, most ex-Soviet states' leaders backing Yeltsin

March 24, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

KIEV, Ukraine -- The talk in Kiev these days, as in othe outlying capitals of the former Soviet Union, is tinged with fear that Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's defeat in a power struggle with his hard-line, nationalist parliament might give free rein to Russia's ancient instinct to dominate its neighbors.

Leaders of nearly all the newly independent states -- including Ukraine and Georgia, whose relations with Moscow are most strained at the moment -- have sent messages of support for Mr. Yeltsin in the faint hope that their words will somehow help.

"We are praying day and night for Yeltsin to stay in power," said Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shikhmuradov of Turkmenistan. "Any of those who might come after him, all of them have an ax in their hand."

The 15 Soviet republics went their separate ways after an August 1991 coup attempt failed to reimpose hard-line Communist rule. Most of their leaders supported Mr. Yeltsin as he defied the coup and have worked with him in the loose alliance known as the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Now they are watching Moscow more closely than at any other time since the coup.

Under Mr. Yeltsin, Russia has managed, most of the time, to keep peace along its frontiers while adjusting painfully to the break-up of its empire. But as economic hardship pulls down Mr. Yeltsin's popularity, rising nationalism is pushing Moscow to become more aggressive in defense of Russian minorities and military installations beyond its borders. A revived Communist Party, meanwhile, is demanding restoration of the Soviet Union.

The most dramatic flare-up came last week when Russian warplanes joined a separatist offensive in the breakaway province of Abkhazia on Georgia's Black Sea coast, where the Russians are trying to hold onto air bases. Georgia shot down a Russian air force jet Friday, killing the pilot.

Yet two days later, when lawmakers in Moscow started the wheels of impeachment against Mr. Yeltsin, Georgian leader Eduard A. Shevardnadze spoke out in his defense.

Mr. Shevardnadze, loathed by hard-liners as the Soviet foreign minister who "lost" Eastern Europe, said only Mr. Yeltsin could protect him against the Russian army. The Russian leader is losing control of his military as it resists local pressure to withdraw bases from Georgia, Mr. Shevardnadze said.

"There is a smell of civil war in Moscow," said Mr. Shevardnadze, who warned prophetically against the 1991 coup there. "If there is an explosion in Russia, none of the former Soviet republics would escape the blast."

In the Baltic nations, the first to break with Soviet rule, many people say they would simply make themselves ungovernable if Moscow tried to take over again.

"I don't think they'd want us back," said Jaak Ahelit, 33, drummer for Compromise Blue, a popular Estonian rock band. "It would be more trouble than it would be worth."

Estonian officials aren't taking any chances, however. They recently drew up contingency plans to defend their tiny country in case turmoil spills over the border.

The presidents of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all have voiced support for Mr. Yeltsin, as have leaders of all but three other former Soviet republics: Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and Belarus, which remain neutral.

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