Georgia: A New Yugoslavia?

September 29, 1993

The carnage that ended with the capture of Sukhumi by Abkhazian separatists is terrible news for the young Republic of Georgia and a personal disaster for its leader, Eduard A. Shevardnadze.

He not only personally led the effort to rout the secessionists but, at the last minute, appealed to Moscow in an effort to stop the Abkhazian juggernaut. Mr. Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister, failed on both counts. Whether he can now survive Georgia's brutal political battles is questionable.

The Abkhazian separatists' victory in Sukhumi, a Black Sea resort town once occupied by ancient Greeks and Romans, is an open invitation for other small minorities to rise against the fragile Georgian central government. A new Yugoslavia looms.

Like many other former Soviet republics, Georgia is a patch quilt of nationalities. While the number of ethnic Russians has been falling steadily there in recent years, the number of Armenians has been rising. Together, those two minorities account for nearly 20 percent of the republic's five million people.

However, most of the recent political trouble in Georgia has come from such smaller minorities as Abkhazians, Adzharis and Ossetians. They have been aided and abetted in their struggle against the central government by a strange coalition ranging from anti-Shevardnadze elements to those wanting Russia to retain its historic control of the region.

Georgians now feel bitterly betrayed by Moscow because it was clear the Abkhazian war effort was supported and supplied by Russians. Whether those Russians acted at the connivance of their government or simply as mercenaries is not important, according to the Georgian view. What is determining is that the Russian government acted as a guarantor of a cease-fire signed in July, which then was broken by the Abkhazians who started the siege of Sukhumi. Despite its guarantees, the Russian government failed to stop the onslaught.

It is widely speculated that Russia's non-intervention was motivated by its desire to force Georgia into the Commonwealth of Independent States. Russia has been reviving that moribund post-Soviet superstructure recently as an economic alliance that intends to re-establish Moscow's hegemony in much of the former Soviet Union.

As Sukhumi was about to fall, a desperate Mr. Shevardnadze signaled Georgia's willingness to join the CIS. Still Russians failed to act. Perhaps the power struggle in Moscow gave them no alternative. This hands-off attitude is causing both bitterness and jubilation in a highly unstable region.

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