Moscow Juggles The Abkhazia Ball

As Georgia's breakaway province of Abkhazia continued fighting guerrillas in the Kodor Gorge on Tuesday, Russia has found itself increasingly drawn into the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict.

The pressure from both sides could force Moscow to modify its military presence in a region that has served as a dangerous stomping ground for Chechen rebels, while it simultaneously tries to tighten control over the porous Russian-Georgian border.

Tbilisi and Sukhumi both appealed to Russia in the past week to help solve the mounting crisis -- Georgia by calling on Russia to acknowledge Tbilisi's sovereignty over Abkhazia, and Abkhazia by asking Moscow to accept it as the 90th Russian region.

Russia's relationship with Georgia has been strained for years, especially after Moscow gave crucial military and political support to Abkhazia during its 1992-93 war with Georgia, which left the province with de facto independence.

This time around, Moscow has downplayed Abkhazia's advances, and observers say it may agree to decrease its presence in the area and accept a proposal by Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze to share responsibility for its peacekeeping operation with other governments, most likely from the Commonwealth of Independent States, or CIS. Ukraine volunteered Tuesday to join such a peacekeeping force if necessary, Interfax reported.

The latest crisis started 10 days ago when several hundred Chechen and Georgian fighters entered the Kodor Gorge on the border between Abkhazia and Georgia. They attacked a number of villages and are believed to be responsible for downing a UN helicopter, killing the nine people on board.

Several days later, unmarked planes reportedly bombed three villages in the gorge. Georgia said the planes were Russian and accused Moscow of violating its airspace. Russia denied the accusations and, together with Abkhazia, accused Georgia -- once again -- of allowing Chechen rebels to move freely throughout its territory.

President Vladimir Putin stressed that Russia's priority was to guard the poorly controlled mountainous border with Georgia and Abkhazia, which has become an important transit route for Chechen fighters.

"We must fortify our entire border," Itar-Tass quoted him as saying. "Special orders have already been given."

Tbilisi's displeasure with Moscow peaked last week when the Georgian parliament asked Russia to withdraw its 1,700 peacekeepers from Abkhazia.

To Tbilisi's surprise, Putin said he was ready to do so. He also reiterated that Russia would leave the Gudauta military base in Abkhazia by a 2002 deadline.

In a public letter to the Russian president, Shevardnadze warned Monday that Abkhazia and its status "will never be taken off the agenda of Russian-Georgian relations." He also reiterated the demand for a change in the Russian peacekeepers' "current mandate."

At a meeting Tuesday with a delegation from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Shevardnadze thanked the Russians for their efforts, but said that "over the course of seven years they have failed to fulfill their main function. ... They did not ensure the return of refugees."

More than 300,000 ethnic Georgian refugees fled separatist Abkhazia during the 1992-93 war. Although some 70,000 managed to return, the majority still live in Georgian regions bordering Abkhazia and occasionally pressure Tbilisi for more assertive actions. Some have organized into guerrilla groups, fighting the Abkhaz government.

Experts on the ground believe Tbilisi will continue to oppose Abkhaz independence, but might be ready to accept a broader contingent of peacekeepers.

"The Georgian government is ready to accept a peace force that would include representatives of all CIS countries or, alternatively, a trilateral peacekeeping force comprising Georgian, Abkhaz and Russian soldiers," according to Badri Nachkebiya, an expert on terrorism and political violence.

"The key issue is that the forces should be concentrated not only in the border area, as is the case now, but all over Abkhazia," Nachkebiya said.

The current contingent of peacekeepers is formally affiliated with the CIS, but consists solely of Russian soldiers. The Georgian government has often accused the peacekeepers of serving effectively as Abkhaz border guards and preventing the return of refugees.

The State Duma was to debate the nations' relationship Wednesday.