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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Along Russia's southern border, new alliances

VLADIKAVKAZ, North Ossetia - There should be nothing threatening about the Russian flag that has fluttered above the tent hospital at Vladikavkaz airport for the last 10 days. The government in Moscow sent the superbly equipped mobile M. A. S. H. to North Ossetia as humanitarian aid, to help it cope with the stream of homeless and wounded that arrive daily here from the besieged town of Tskhinvali in neighboring Georgia.

But the flag, the hospital and the Russian Army units in armored vehicles and flak jackets which now monitor Ossetia's roads are symbols of traditional Russian influence here, staking out strategic alliances along Russia's southern border.

After the weekend's hardline statements from the Russian government, threatening to engage the Russian

Army in ethnic conflicts from Moldova to the Caucasus, that influence has promised to grow teeth.

"If one more shell falls on the territory of a military unit or civilian headquarters, the side that launched it will get 10 times as much in return", Vice President Alexander Rutskoi warned.

President Boris Yeltsin and the leaders of Georgia and North and South Ossetia will meet in the Black Sea resort of Dagomys on Wednesday to try to arrange a cease-fire for South Ossetia, Itar-Tass reported Monday.

Aksarbek Galazov, North Ossetia's parliament speaker, said that the four leaders would try to come up with a proposal for a "third force", most likely Russian troops, to halt the fighting.

On Sunday, Russia's 14th Army for the first time went openly into action against Moldovan troops in the breakaway territory of Trans-Dniester. On Saturday night, the parliament in Moscow gave all Russian units carte blanche to retaliate when attacked. If they choose, Russian helicopter units stationed inside Tskhinvali - the ethnically Ossetian town in Georgia which has now been under siege for 20 months - can follow the 14th Army's example.

The new rules give special cause for concern in the Caucasus, because it seems here that time is scurrying backwards to break the ring of small nations which lie along the northern slopes of the Caucasus mountains into traditional camps of pro- and anti-Russian, Christian and Muslim. Pre-Soviet history in the Caucasus was unremittingly bloody.

The mountain peoples west of Ossetia - in Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachayevo-Cherkessia and the Georgian province of Abkhazia - are mainly Christians. To the east, the Ingush, Chechen and Daghestani peoples are Muslim.

For 50 years during the 19th century, Daghestan and Chechenya engaged Tsarist Russia in a brutal war which never completely ended until the Balkars, Ingush and Chechens were deported by Stalin in 1944, on charges of collaboration with Germany.

Imperial Russia found its allies in the Caucasus among the Christians to the east and Cossacks, who claim to, be still 176, 000 strong in the region today. The Cossacks are already at loggerheads with the Ingush again and have demanded their own territory of Sunj in Chechenya. They want Sunj to remain part of Russia but the Chechen president, General Jokhar Dudayev, has refused.

"All the Muslims are trying to leave Russia now, but we are not going with them", said Mikhail Shatalov, deputy ataman of the Terek Cossacks. "We want to resolve this in a peaceful way, but because of the attitude on the other side, I am not sure we will be able to".

Chechenya has already declared independence from Russia and returned to an age of raw freedom where the writ of law means nothing and only the threat of blood feuds prevents mayhem.

"Our society has returned to chaos, where families rather than laws punish criminals - just as in ancient times", said Vihad Itayev, a prominent member of the political opposition to Dudayev.

Guns are freely toted on the streets of the capital, Grozny, and the armed chaos may be one reason why Chechen has become the first territory in the former Warsaw Pact from which all Soviet troops have been withdrawn.

What makes the region such a hornet's nest is that even with the best of intentions on Russia's part, peace is unlikely. The Chechens and Ingush were allowed to return in 1957, but the borders of their republics were redrawn. The losses have not been forgotten.

The web of grievances seems unending. The Ingush lost the Prigorodny region of North Ossetia. Now they want it back and their agitation has caused the North Ossetian government in Vladikavkaz to impose a state of emergency.

Chechenya, for its part, has refused to accept Moscow's declaration of a separate Ingush republic remaining inside Russia, now that the Chechens have declared independence. They want to take Ingushetia with them, and also have a claim to part of Daghestan.

In the northeastern section of Georgia, the 40 percent Abkhazian population claims autonomy from the rest of Georgia.

All of these raw nerves leave scope for Russian policy, of which even many Ossetians, who for now are in desperate need of Russia's help, are wary.

"I think there are still some forces inside the Russian leadership that are not prepared to give up the empire, and they are using us to reach their goals", said Vakhar Bestayev, a Tskhinvali resident.