Warring Russia keeps close eye on its small neighbor Georgia; Leader of pro-West nation wants to break free of grasp, join NATO


MOSCOW -- At war in Chechnya, Russia has spent the last month ratcheting up the pressure on Georgia, just across the border, with not very subtle hints that the time has come for the little mountain nation to curb its independent streak and fall into line.

Georgia better be sure not to provide a haven to militants, Moscow warned, or to let arms pass through to Chechnya. And Georgia's voters were told they ought to think twice about their flirtation with the West -- the election of a new parliament was portrayed in the Russian press as nothing less than a choice between NATO and Moscow.

A Russian general said a victory by the foes of President Eduard A. Shevardnadze would be good for Russia and ensure a Russian military presence in Georgia for the next 25 to 30 years.

So it was with some pleasure that Shevardnadze, the "white fox" of Tbilisi, went on the air yesterday to announce that results from Sunday's balloting showed his Citizens Union of Georgia winning an overwhelming victory and a solid majority in the new parliament. And, as if to take up Moscow on its dare, he said he hopes to usher Georgia into the Western military alliance before his second term would end in 2005.

Shevardnadze, the former foreign minister of the Soviet Union, hasn't been elected to a second term yet -- the vote is scheduled for April -- but he expects to be around when "we will knock on NATO's doors."

Declaring a Western orientation and maneuvering free of Russia's grasp, however, are two very different things.

Georgia has been trying to squirm out from under Russia's thumb since the Soviet Union fell apart eight years ago. It has looked east, to the hoped-for oil riches of the Caspian, and west, where the oil markets are, in its efforts to break free of its huge neighbor to the north. Essentially, Georgia wants to sell itself as one big pipeline between the Caspian and Europe -- an idea that the Russians don't care for at all.

Defiant, proud, maybe reckless, Georgia's voters overlooked the country's stalled economy, iffy electric supply, and stubborn corruption to keep Shevardnadze's allies in power.

"I congratulate everybody with the victory of Georgian democracy -- without exaggeration, it is a national victory," the president said.

"It's not democracy in full swing," Alexander Rondeli, director of research and analysis for the foreign ministry, said in a telephone interview from Tbilisi yesterday, "but it's at work."

Opposition group

The Citizens Union's chief opposition was a group called Revival, under the leadership of Aslan Abashidze, the strongman of the southwestern region of Ajaria. Abashidze, known to some of his subjects as Pasha Aslan, brooks no dissent in his fiefdom and it therefore enjoys an enviable stability, not to mention a steady electric supply. As much as 70 percent of Georgia's foreign trade moves through the Ajarian port of Batumi, on the Black Sea, and it has been regularly reported that Abashidze sends none of the customs duties back to Tbilisi.

A sizable Russian military base is located in Batumi to guard the borders of the moribund Commonwealth of Independent States against an incursion by Turkey. Abashidze has called the Russian troops "a guarantee of stability and peace," and when Moscow fell behind in paying soldiers' salaries Ajaria made up the difference.

David Dzhincharadze, an aide to Abashidze, said yesterday that it was "ridiculous" to accuse Revival of being pro-Russian, "because it's clear that there is no longer such a thing as a Russian empire."

Abashidze has declared that he will be a candidate for president in April, so in many ways Sunday's vote was seen as a warm-up to the presidential election.

Yuri Lysenko, who teaches at the diplomatic academy of the Russian Foreign Ministry, warned yesterday that Shevardnadze's ambition to remove the Russian military presence from Georgia would spell more trouble. Russian peacekeepers were sent in four years ago to supervise a cease-fire with the secessionist region of Abkhazia, and if they are sent home the war will be sure to break out again, Lysenko said.

And if the border guards should leave, he argued, it would clear the way for Chechen fighters to open a corridor to the Black Sea.

Uneasy mood

It is over Chechnya that relations between Russia and Georgia have recently started to turn spectacularly sour. Russian newspapers, apparently with sources inside the military, have reported that Chechen fighters are operating bases in northern Georgia while Tbilisi looks the other way.

"It's a complete lie, an absolute lie," Rondeli said, but there would seem to be a threat that the Russian military could move forces into Georgia as a result of such allegations.

The Georgian government says it refuses access to Chechen fighters -- who, after all, fought on the side of the Abkhazians against Tbilisi. But overcoming what Rondeli called Moscow's "paranoidal vision of everyone around" could prove a formidable task.

The mood in Tbilisi is uneasy. The assassination last week of the prime minister of neighboring Armenia and seven other politicians made a strong impression on Georgia, which has its own inclination toward conspiracy theories. Armenia is closely allied with Russia and Iran. The Georgians feel squeezed between them.

For hope, they look to the "international community," which means the West. But doubts are being raised about the extent of the untapped Caspian oil fields. Without oil, Western interest in what is, after all, Russia's back yard may evaporate.

Georgians, though, aren't the sort of people to be cowed by threats, and for now Russian bullying has had the result of keeping the country firmly in Shevardnadze's camp.

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