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Analysis From Washington -- New Moves on an Old Board

Washington, 27 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Three events in the Transcaucasus this week highlight both the continuing instability in that region and the possibility that there may soon be one or more dramatic shifts in political arrangements there.

In Armenia, demonstrators and the authorities have clashed all week over the results of last Sunday's presidential vote. The protesters argue that President Levon Ter-Petrosyan won reelection through fraud; his government, in justifying the use of violence against the demonstrators, has responded that their actions represent a kind of "attempted coup."

Since coming to power in 1991, Ter-Petrosyan has hewed closely to Moscow's demands for tighter integration of the region with the Russian Federation and has sought to contain those Armenians who have sought a more independent line.

The narrowness of his apparent victory at the polls -- he won only a reported 52% -- and the actions of the demonstrators have weakened both his hand and that of Moscow in Armenia and throughout the region, thus shifting two important pieces on the Caucasian chessboard.

Less dramatic but may have equally fateful consequences for both the region and each of its countries. On Thursday, United Nations observers in Georgia issued a sharp protest to Tbilisi's decision to stage a military exercise near Abkhazia, a region that has long sought independence from Georgia.

The protest came even though the Georgians had announced the exercise well in advance and not received any rebuff at the time. It reflects the obvious fear of the international body that increased Georgian military preparedness could trigger new violence in Abkhazia, where Russian troops and U.N. observers now supervise an unstable cease-fire.

Were the violence to be renewed, it might draw in not only Russia but also neighboring regions in the North Caucasus, developments that could threaten the territorial integrity of all states in the region and likely force international organizations to take a tougher line in imposing a solution in the Abkhaz dispute.

Such actions, of course, could work either to the benefit of Russia at the likely expense of Georgia and the other countries of the region or to that of Georgia at a cost to Russia itself. But neither would likely please many in the international community.

Development in the Transcaucasus this week is more hopeful, reflecting both how many forces are now in play and how the addition or subtraction of relatively small forces on one side or another may dramatically change the likely political outcomes.

On Thursday, Yuri Yukalov, the new Russian Presidential envoy for resolution of the Karabakh conflict, told journalists in Moscow that he was relatively optimistic about the possibility of progress at OSCE-sponsored talks on that issue yesterday and today. And he added that the meeting would take a hard line against the demands of Armenian radicals in Karabakh itself.

Such optimistic assessments by diplomats involved in this process are nothing new, but none of them has proved to be true in the past. Yukalov's suggestion, however, that Moscow would try to force the Karabakh authorities to accept a solution soon may mean that his optimism has greater justification.

This shift in Moscow's position appears to reflect both a growing Russian concern that the situation throughout the Transcaucasus may soon get out of hand thereby threatening Russian influence there and a sense in Moscow that Russia must move quickly lest its chief ally in the region -- Armenian President Ter-Petrosyan -- lose the influence on which Russian policy has relied.

Consequently, because of these shifts in Moscow, the current upsurge of conflict in the Caucasus may be for the first time since the end of the Soviet Union an occasion for hope as well as despair.