Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Russia's `Peacekeeping' Raises Issue of Neutrality

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Russia's `Peacekeeping' Raises Issue of Neutrality

Article excerpt

RUSSIAN paratroopers and armored cars now patrol the streets and valleys of two regions of the Caucasus nation of Georgia, enforcing a shaky peace between the Georgian Army and rebel separatists. To the west, in Moldova, the Russian 14th Army patrols the banks of a river separating the Moldovan Army from the gun-toting militia of the Trans-Dniester region, which is populated by Russians and Ukrainians.

In Central Asia, Russian troops battle Tajik guerrillas from neighboring Afghanistan who are trying to cross the border to aide their Islamic brethren in a deepening civil war in Tajikistan.

With a mixture of diplomacy and force, the Russian government of President Boris Yeltsin has emerged in a new role among the many states of what once constituted the Soviet Union - as a peacekeeper. Russian-mediated cease-fires have brought a temporary peace to Georgia's battles with its Ossetian and Abkhazian minorities, as well as in Moldova.

But the idea of Russia as a peacekeeper is hard for many to swallow, coming so soon after the collapse of the Soviet empire. Many are suspicious of Russia as a "neutral" force, fearful that its peacekeeping is an attempt to reassume an old Russian role - that of an imperial arbiter of the fate of the many nationalities that lie along and even within its vast borders.

But Russian officials insist they are only doing what the world wants them to do - preventing the disintegration of the Soviet Union from leading to an endless and dangerous chain of ethnic conflicts similar to those taking place in Yugoslavia.

"Our new neighbors in the independent states of the former Soviet Union belong to our sphere of responsibility," says Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Fyodor Shelov-Kovedayev, the senior official in charge of relations with the former Soviet states.

"The fact is - and this is no secret - following the disintegration of the Soviet Union many countries of the world feared that this would destabilize the situation on its territory," he said in a Monitor interview. "In some measure, this is what actually happened, especially if we talk about our immediate neighbors. In order to prevent this destabilizing situation from escalating into a catastrophe, we must face this responsibility."

The Russian official contends that mediation efforts are not an attempt to interfere in internal conflicts. Moreover the use of military force is a last resort, with diplomacy and political negotiation taking priority, he says.

But critics warn that the Russian Army increasingly acts on its own in such conflicts, often under the influence of the growing radical nationalist movement in Russia.

"I am very much concerned by the Army's participation in all these conflicts as an independent political force," says human rights activist Yelena Bonner, widow of dissident Andrei Sakharov. …

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