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RUSSIA IN CENTER OF ETHNIC STORMS Rifts in republics overpower pacts gained by Yeltsin


MOSCOW -- Boris N. Yeltsin scored a hat trick last week. In three days, in three different Black Sea locales, he reached peace-making agreements with would-be opponents.

Tuesday, it was Ukraine. Wednesday, Georgia. Thursday, Moldova.

On paper, it looked pretty good.

But by Friday, the killing had started again in Moldova, the fighters were gearing up in Georgia, and skeptics were pointing out just how big the chasm still is between Russia and Ukraine.

The week helped illuminate the depths of Russia's involvement in the affairs of its neighbors (all former vassals of Moscow, touchy about Russian ambition), and at the same time the limits of Moscow's power.

Mr. Yeltsin displayed his increasingly effective political skills in reaching the three agreements, but they cover conflicts that may be falling beyond the ability of politics to solve.

In Moldova, the Slavic population on the east bank of the Dniester River is trying to break free from the Moldovans on the west bank, who are essentially of Romanian stock.

Russia and Ukraine are both keenly interested in the struggle, egged on to some extent by hard-line Slavic nationalists in both countries. Sitting in the midst of the fighting is the 14th Army, a Russian force that was marooned by the breakup of the Soviet Union. The Moldovans say the army has taken part in the fighting on the side of the separatists.

The shelling and killing in Moldova have started to take on the randomly murderous complexion of the war in Yugoslavia. Moldova differs, though, in the direct links the combatants have to Russia, Ukraine and Romania.

While at a meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, about the Black Sea region, Mr. Yeltsin, Leonid Kravchuk, the Ukrainian president, and Mircea Snegur, president of Moldova, announced plans for a cease-fire and the eventual withdrawal of the 14th Army.

Within hours, a police station was under assault in Bendery, scene of some of the worst fighting earlier, and Moldovan shelling of Grigoriopol had killed two, according to the press center of the Dniester republic.

Moldovan planes attempting to bomb oil storage tanks adjacent to the 14th Army's air defenses were fired on, an army spokesman said.

Moreover, a Moldovan parliamentary spokesman accused Mr. Kravchuk Friday of interfering in Moldovan affairs, and in Moscow an air force general, Nikolai Stolyarov, virtually accused the Moldovans of committing genocide against the Slavic population and called for recognition of the break-away republic.

Yesterday morning, Moldovan shelling put a power plant that supplies electricity to Ukraine out of action, and this brought stern warning from Kiev. The Ukrainian government also demanded that Moldova pay for housing the thousands of refugees who have fled across the border.

In Tiraspol, the capital of the breakaway Dniester republic, leaders ordered a partial mobilization of the male population yesterday as prospects for increased fighting grew.

Mr. Yeltsin sought a solution to the Moldovan problem because it bears directly on the political stability of Russia. But the ethnic Russians of the Dniester republic are not under his command, and sources in Moscow say it's an open question whether the 14th Army will pay him any mind.

The conflict in Georgia is similar in some ways. There, the people of South Ossetia want to break free and join Russia, although they are not ethnic Russians. Wednesday, at the Russian resort of Sochi, Mr. Yeltsin and Eduard A. Shevardnadze, the Georgian leader, reached an agreement to cool things down.

The problem was that no one spoke for the South Ossetians. They denounced the agreement, and the fighting raged again Friday, although it was less deadly than in Moldova.

It was Tuesday's agreement with Ukraine, reached in the town of Dagomys, that may have the longest-lasting impact.

That is because it dealt not with ethnic warfare but with government-to-government dealings, issues over which Moscow can speak for Russia with some confidence.

The same holds true for Mr. Kravchuk in Kiev.

The fighting in Moldova probably helped push Mr. Kravchuk toward the agreement with Russia, which cleared the way for free trading, at world prices, between the countries, and brought a commitment from Ukraine to stay within the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Ukraine, analysts suggest, needs to maintain a united front with Russia to keep the Moldovan fighting from getting even more out of hand. If the Moldovans were to crush the Dniester republic, it would stir potentially dangerous nationalist passions in Ukraine just as much as it would in Russia.

Moreover, it could give added strength to Romania's unwelcome claim on Ukrainian territory, land that had been taken from Romania by the Soviets in 1945.

A second factor in the Russian-Ukrainian agreement appears to have been the recognition that the industrial bases of the two countries are so intertwined that they would be dealt a virtual death blow by a rupture between Moscow and Kiev.

The two presidents left a few disputes outstanding -- in particular, the fate of the Crimea and the fate of the Black Sea fleet.

Nevertheless, it's a start, and -- as Mr. Kravchuk noted -- it's a step toward fending off the first rumblings of war talk in the two capitals. A war between Russia and Ukraine, he could have pointed out, with two of the largest populations and the two largest armies in Europe, would not be just another ugly little ethnic conflict.

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