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Russian, Georgian Confrontation Looming

As the war against terrorism proceeds in Afghanistan, there are growing fears of another war in the south Caucasus. Moscow is issuing increasing threats against Georgia, which is replying in kind. At issue is the breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia now under Russian control. Chechen rebels crossing the Georgian border add to the tensions.

On his recent visit to Washington, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze reportedly warned President Bush that Russia is increasing its pressure on Georgia now that the United States is preoccupied with Afghanistan. Moscow's ultimate aim, said Shevardnadze, may be to destabilize Georgia and stop the oil and gas pipelines planned for the country - a severe blow to western interests.

By way of answer, U.S. officials heaped praise on the visiting President, who is credited with a major role in ending the Cold War. At a Washington gathering, Senator Chuck Hagel offered his support. "If there has been a towering leader over the last ten years that the world has looked to for inspiration, for commitment to a cause greater than his own self-interest, it resides in the person of President Shevardnadze," he said.

But that ringing endorsement may not be enough to deter Moscow, say analysts. Too much is at stake. At a recent Congressional hearing, Zeyno Baran of the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted the danger. "Russia wants to maintain its monopoly in this region and has been putting enormous political and economic pressure on Georgia," she said. "One thing is clear: if Georgia fails, then Russia will effectively reassert its influence over the whole corridor, and the pipelines will no longer be non-Russian alternatives."

Ms. Baran said if war breaks out, it could encompass the region, already inflamed by various connected marauding groups that are almost impossible to separate. The main point of controversy is the Georgian separatist region Abkhazia, now controlled by Moscow, which is adding to its troops there. In turn, Georgian forces have moved closer to the Abkhaz border. Complicating matters are Chechen rebels moving through the area and split among themselves. Violence is increasing in Abkhazia.

Ms. Baran told members of the U.S. Congress that Georgia's ability to withstand outside pressure is hampered by internal weakness. "There is now a clear understanding that widespread corruption at all levels of the government has left Georgia vulnerable to internal and external pressures," she said. "Corruption has discouraged international investors and hindered successful implementation of economic reforms."

In a speech he gave in Washington, President Shevardnadze said Georgia has made considerable economic and political progress that is undermined by corruption. "In recent times, among the problems we face in Georgia is corruption, which is the most important problem," he said. "Whenever I go to a meeting of the World Bank or the IMF, they always bring the matter up. It is stymying our progress."

President Shevardnadze went on to say that corruption is an unfortunate legacy of Communist rule. "Personally, I think the most difficult aspect of this struggle is the mental state of our people, as inherited from the Soviet period of governance," he said. "There is a belief that injustice rules. The state is considered not a partner but an enemy."

Close observers say the President is partly right. But he, too, must be held accountable for corruption since it starts at the top in Georgia.