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Analysis From Washington: Increased Tensions In Caucasus

Washington, 25 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - The two most serious territorial conflicts in the Transcaucasus -- Abkhazia and Karabakh -- each threatened to explode this week and send shock waves far beyond the region itself.

On Monday, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze said he would ask Moscow to cut off electric power to Abkhazia, a Georgian region that has been attempting to secede from that country since 1991.

Shevardnadze announced in his weekly radio address that such a step was necessary to force Abkhazia to "resume peace talks without delay."

But Moscow is unlikely to respond positively to the Georgian leader's proposal and the Abkhazians may respond by becoming even more recalcitrant.

On the one hand, Russia's relations with Georgia have deteriorated in recent weeks. Moscow has been angered by Tbilisi's efforts to expand its ties with Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and several Central Asian countries.

Further, on Tuesday, the Russian Federal Border Guard Service complained to Itar-Tass that Georgia had "crudely violated" its agreement with Moscow on the stationing of Russian border troops there.

Georgian customs officials had attempted to inspect a Russian helicopter that had landed in the Georgian capital, something the Russian officials said they had no right to do.

And on the other, the Abkhazians are unlikely to back down in response to any new pressure. Recently, Moscow agreed to a Georgian request to turn over to Tbilisi control over long-distance telephone lines leading out of Abkhazia.

The Abkhazians responded by cutting off electric power to portions of Georgia and announcing that they would not participate in any future peace talks until they and the Russians resumed control of the phone lines.

Consequently, the Abkhazians may respond by becoming even more intransigent and possibly may resort to violence as they have in the past.

At the same time, Armenian and Azerbaijani forces continued to trade sporadic gunfire along the cease-fire line around Nagorno-Karabakh, the region in Azerbaijan populated largely by ethnic Armenians.

On Thursday, the fourth such incident of gunfire took place, with each side blaming the other for the renewed fighting.

But the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that provides the monitors for the 1994 truce between the two sides clearly fears that the latest violence may be more serious than earlier violations, even though it has not yet claimed any lives.

In a sharply worded statement on Thursday, OSCE chairman Niels Peterson said that the current clashes are "a cause of serious concern as the personal safety of OSCE personnel has been put at risk."

And he warned that if the shooting continues, the OSCE would pull its monitors out of the region.

While the threat that the OSCE might do so will likely give both sides pause, the possibility that it in fact would take such a step could create a situation in which there would be a serious risk of a renewal of a conflict that has already claimed more than 25,000 dead.

The renewal of either or both of these conflicts would have serious consequences not only for the immediate region but on outside powers as well.

New violence could prompt Western oil companies to decide to delay their plans for investing in the region, a decision that could tip the balance of influence there away from the West and toward Russia or Iran.

Indeed, many observers inside the region and out have speculated that Moscow may be interested in provoking such conflicts precisely to achieve that end.

And Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati said in Baku on Tuesday that Azerbaijan and the other countries of the Caucasus should make sure that "the West, led by the United States, could not penetrate the region."

But any new fighting might also undercut Russia's influence in the region as well, undercutting Moscow's claims to be an honest broker in such disputes and calling attention to both Russian weakness and Russian interest in dominating its neighbors.

Because of these risks for everyone involved, the sides in each of these conflicts may refrain from further escalation.

But the developments this week show just how fragile peace is in both places and how easy it would be for everything to go very wrong indeed.