RUSSIA, with its still formidable Army in the forefront, is taking an increasingly active role in resolving conflicts raging along its southern frontiers among the former Soviet republics.
Reinforcements of Russian troops were rushed to Tajikistan this week at the request of the Tajik government, which is unable to halt a growing and bloody civil war. Russian Army observers also arrived this week in the Transcaucasus to try to enforce a shaky cease-fire between warring Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The Russian role is by no means welcomed by everyone. Fears of a widening Russian military involvement and the restoration of Russian imperial-style rule are expressed by critics both in the republics and at home.
While the Azeri government of newly elected President Abulfaz Elchibey welcomes the Russian observers, others expressed concern about Russian Defense Minister Gen. Pavel Grachev's statement that Russian troops might follow as part of a broader peacekeeping force if the cease-fire fails to take hold.
"Russia never had peacekeeping forces," Azeri Interior Minister Iskander Hamidov said on television, according to the local Turan news agency. "Its Army has been used only for annexation of foreign territories."
The Azeri-Armenian cease-fire, aimed at stopping the war over the disputed Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan, was negotiated on Sept. 19 in the Russian resort town of Sochi between the Russian defense minister and his Armenian and Azeri counterparts. Observers from other former Soviet republics will also monitor the cease-fire.
The expanding Russian military intervention into Tajikistan similarly has met a mixed reaction. On Sept. 29, an additional 800 soldiers reinforced the Russian 201st infantry division stationed in the southern Kurgan-Tyube region. That region is the scene of fierce fighting between Islamic rebels and supporters of former President Rakhman Nabiyev, who was ousted last month by a coalition of Islamic and democratic groups.
The move was made partly in response to increased attacks on the Russian forces guarding the Afghan-Tajik border by fighters on both sides of the Tajik civil war.
On Sept. 30, acting president Akbarsho Iskanderov issued an appeal for help to the United Nations and to the Commonwealth of Independent States, the loose confederation of 11 former Soviet republics. He asked the commonwealth leadership to "take urgent measures" to assist his government in establishing peace.
Russian politicians have questioned the government's decision, saying that there is no clear policy on deployment of Russian troops outside its boundaries. "If there are reasons to keep our troops outside Russia, we must reinforce them with sufficient numbers of soldiers, but not hastily as was done in Tajikistan," Valery Shuikov, head of the Russian parliament committee on defense and security told the official Itar-Tass news agency. "If not, we must display courage and deploy them in our towns and terr itories."
Questions about the motivations behind the more aggressive Russian role will only be furthered by the provocative statements of commonwealth Commander-in-chief and former Soviet air force head Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov in an interview with the Russian military daily, Red Star, published on Sept. 30.
"We are now faced with a desire to build a new union on the basis of the Islamic factor in the south, which includes the Central Asian countries which are members of the [commonwealth]," Air Marshal Shaposhnikov said. "As a result of this, a line of new global confrontation may appear on the north-south axis."