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Regional Outlook : Ethnic Squabbles Pose New Threat to Soviet Union : * Georgia is just one of many republics starting to resemble Lebanon.


TSKHINVALI, Soviet Union — Each side has grisly accounts of how innocent civilians have been tortured and killed. Each vows never to forgive the other. And neither can envision peaceful coexistence.

The description might fit any of a number of intractable conflicts in the Middle East. But this time it refers to the strife-torn southern Soviet republic of Georgia, which increasingly seems to resemble Lebanon.

Armed combat between Georgians and the minority Ossetians over a mountainous region in the south of the republic has entered its fifth month, having already claimed several dozen lives on each side.

The pro-Moscow Ossetians, inheritors of a land awarded to their ancestors in appreciation for siding with the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution, are a majority in the region, which is known as Southern Ossetia.

They have declared their intention to secede from Georgia rather than be forced out of the union. But the Georgians, who proclaimed their independence from the Kremlin last week, say history gives them the right to the land and they won't give it up.

The political battles for independence from the Kremlin by several of the Soviet Union's 15 consitutent republics have received most of the world's attention, but the union is also threatened by ethnic conflicts within these republics. With more than 130 minority nationalities across the country--all trying to win greater autonomy, stake claims on territory and assert their unique cultures--there are plenty of chances for inter-ethnic strife.

Far from being an isolated incident, in fact, the struggle over Southern Ossetia is only one of more than a dozen recent ethnic explosions in the Soviet Union.

Sometimes, like here in the Georgian mountains, the spark is a land dispute that seems as old as the hills themselves. In other instances, the trigger has been economic competition between different Soviet nationalities, or--in one case--a rumor that one ethnic group was being favored in the allocation of apartments.

"A phenomenon of Lebanonization is taking place in several parts of the Soviet Union," Sergei V. Cheshko, a Soviet ethnologist, said. "In some areas blood is already being shed. In others, thank God, no blood has yet been shed but it could be spilled any time."

Ethnic conflicts across the Soviet Union killed more than 1,000 people in 1990 and the early part of 1991, Soviet Interior Minister Boris K. Pugo said recently. And the death toll keeps mounting.

The liberal Moscow News in a recent issue named 76 areas of the Soviet Union where two or more ethnic groups claim the same land or, for other reasons, are locked in disputes.

The two feuds that appear most difficult to resolve are the Ossetian-Georgian clash and ongoing strife between Azerbaijanis and Armenians, which is fueled by competing claims to Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan. Hundreds have died during more than three years of fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh.

"They have become intractable situations like Northern Ireland or Lebanon," Ronald Suny, a professor at the University of Michigan and specialist in Soviet ethnic problems, said of the conflicts. "We are in for a very violent period in the Soviet Union.

"For 70 years, the Soviet leaders forced order on the people," he added. "They weren't allowed to kill each other."

The more liberal climate of the Gorbachev era has allowed Soviet nationalities, finally, to vent their cultural, linguistic, political and economic demands--as well as latent resentment and enmities.

Many of the victims of ethnic strife have been innocent bystanders. In the Ossetian-Georgian conflict, countless atrocities have been committed against people just trying to protect their homes and families in a war zone.

Photographs and videotape show both Ossetian and Georgian corpses with eyes poked out and faces beaten beyond recognition.

At the end of last month, four Georgians were driving from their village to get groceries when about a dozen armed Ossetians approached them and opened fire, Dzhamal Maisuradze, 22, one of the Georgians, said. He was shot while trying to flee and left for dead in the dirt.

Maisuradze said he watched as two of his companions were hanged upside down from a tree, doused with gasoline and set on fire. He heard their screams as they were burned alive. His third companion was already dead, struck down by a barrage of bullets.

Sergo Kesanashvili, an 18-year-old Georgian, can't go home again. He and his father sleep in their car on the outskirts of Tskhinvali. All their belongings were left behind in their house, which they fled after a band of Ossetians tried to burn it down.

"We can never forgive the Ossetians after what they have done to us," Kesanashvili said as he sat in the car that now is his home. "Either we will have this city or they will have the city. We can never live there together because there would be constant war."

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