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Russia, Georgia in Accord, Urge Abkhazia Truce

May 15, 1993|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — The leaders of Russia and Georgia called Friday for an internationally supervised cease-fire in the breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia, raising hopes for ending one of the three ethnic wars now raging in the former Soviet Union.

In a separate accord to repair the damage of the Soviet empire's demise, Russia and eight other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States agreed to work toward an economic union that would coordinate their troubled transitions from communism to the free market.

The peace accord signed by Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin and Georgian leader Eduard A. Shevardnadze urges an unconditional halt by next Thursday to fighting between the Georgian army and Russian-backed Abkhazian insurgents that has killed more than 2,000 people in nine months.

It also requires the Russian army, as well as the Georgians and Abkhazians, to withdraw "heavy military hardware" from the embattled Black Sea province and to halt military flights overhead. The cease-fire, to be followed by peace talks, would be enforced by the United Nations and the Council for Security and Cooperation in Europe, probably with volunteer troops from Ukraine, Shevardnadze said.

Shevardnadze announced the agreement after meeting Yeltsin in the Kremlin. He called it the most promising step toward peace in a conflict that has brought Russia and Georgia to the brink of direct armed confrontation.

Like the year-old civil war in Tajikistan and fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Abkhazian conflict flared with the collapse of the Soviet regime that ruled all these lands until 1991 and held their seething ethnic rivalries in check.

Abkhazians, who do not speak Georgian, fought back last August when the Georgian army occupied the provincial capital of Sukhumi and crushed their autonomy movement. With the help of occasional air strikes by Russian pilots determined to keep strategic Black Sea air bases in Abkhazia, the insurgents have formed a 10,000-man army and fought the more numerous Georgians to a standoff.

"The peoples of Georgia, Abkhazia, Russia and other countries are tired of this fighting," Shevardnadze told reporters. "I think there are appropriate conditions for a settlement."

But at least two issues remain unresolved.

A cease-fire has yet to be accepted by the insurgents, who criticized Friday's agreement for ignoring their demand for an immediate Georgian troop pullout from Abkhazia. Artillery shelling by both sides was reported Friday, causing at least one death in Sukhumi.

And Shevardnadze admitted there are "problems" with the terms of Russia's scheduled withdrawal of its troops from Abkhazia and the handing over of former Soviet bases.

Both leaders appointed delegates to meet with Abkhazian leaders before the cease-fire deadline. Shevardnadze left his new defense minister, Georgy Karkarashvili, in Moscow to negotiate the status of Russian troops in Abkhazia with his Russian counterpart. Gen. Boris Gromov, Russia's deputy defense minister, said in an interview Friday that he opposes giving up bases in Georgia.

Speaking by telephone from the insurgent stronghold of Gudauta, Abkhazian spokeswoman Aida G. Ladariya welcomed the Moscow accord as "a positive event" and a "step toward settlement of the conflict."

"But why wasn't our president invited to this meeting?" she asked. "After all, Georgia is at war with Abkhazia and not with Russia. The aggressor must withdraw from our country, and only then will we be able to sit down and talk."

Shevardnadze rejected that logic.

"We have to proceed from the fact that there are two governments functioning in Abkhazia today--one in Gudauta, the other in Sukhumi. Our mission now is to set up contacts and promote a dialogue between the two groups. This is the hardest but most important process."

Both Yeltsin and Shevardnadze are viewed as peacemakers who have gained strength in recent showdowns with conservative, hawkish rivals. Yeltsin won a popular vote of confidence in an April 25 referendum, and Shevardnadze last week fired his defense minister, Tengiz Kitovani, a loose cannon who led the occupation of Sukhumi.

Yeltsin, who hosted a one-day Commonwealth summit after his talks with Shevardnadze, wants to boost his standing at home by leading the reunification of former Soviet lands into a superpower economy.

Nine of the 10 Commonwealth countries signed a declaration of intent to form an economic union at their next meeting in July. The union would allow differing degrees of cooperation in a customs union, a common currency and an inter-republic bank.

"This is a kind of turning point in the life of our Commonwealth," Yeltsin said, taking pains to stress that Russia has no plans to re-create a political empire. "These are serious questions which concern the sovereignty of all nations. But if you're serious about economic integration, all this is necessary."

If it works, the proposed union could reverse the sharp fall in trade and economic output suffered by nearly every former Soviet republic as they went their separate ways. But some leaders who fear domination by Russia downplayed the significance of Friday's agreement.

"To speak in terms of countries having joined or not joined the economic alliance is premature," said Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk. "We have only discussed the preparation of a document."

The Commonwealth is made up of all former Soviet republics except Georgia, Azerbaijan and the three Baltic states: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Turkmenistan, a Central Asian nation that is rich in natural gas and wary of cooperation with poorer neighbors, was alone in refusing to sign Friday's agreement.

Sergei Loiko of The Times' Moscow bureau contributed to this report.

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