Turmoil in Caucasus; Bloodshed: From Armenia to Chechnya and Georgia, violence engulfs strategic border region.


SUDDENLY, the strategic land bridge between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea is in flames. If the situation gets worse -- as is likely -- Russia's security concerns could prompt its greater involvement in the region.

In Armenia, gunmen invaded the parliament, killing the prime minister and seven other top politicians. In Georgia, tensions are palpable before today's parliamentary elections.

Next door in Chechnya, Russian troops are killing anything that moves as they retake the rebellious republic.

Already, Moscow is worried about the pro-Western tilt of Georgia's President Eduard A. Shevardnadze, who pledged this week to apply for NATO membership by 2005. The Shevardnadze announcement came about the same time as a Russian general was expelled for interfering with Georgia's elections.

Relations with Russia have gotten increasingly frosty during Georgia's eight years of independence. Moscow's involvement has been suspected not only in separatist fighting in Abkhazia but also in a recent plot to kill Mr. Shevardnadze. Tensions are expected to continue after today's balloting because Mr. Shevardnadze himself will face re-election in April.

Two main concerns -- Caspian oil and security of a strategic buffer along the Turkish and Iranian border -- drive Moscow's actions.

In deciding to reclaim Chechnya, President Boris N. Yeltsin concluded Russia could not take any further risks with a nominally independent Islamic border state that was spreading terrorism and drawing holy warriors and soldiers of fortune from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia.

While the Armenian violence seems unconnected with the wider strife, Russia lumps it with other forms of terrorism.

Moscow wasted no time this week in dispatching an anti-terrorism squad and special troops to Armenia, where they remain on standby.

As the extraordinarily brutal Chechnya campaign continues, Russia's preoccupation with its southern border is likely to intensify. Russia's parliamentary election in December as well as next June's presidential election will further escalate demands for toughness and resolute action.

Pub Date: 10/31/99

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