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While most of the world's attention has been focused on the tragic fighting and suffering in Yugoslavia, equally bitter ethnic and political combat has been killing hundreds of people deep inside the former Soviet Union. The conflict has the potential for erupting into full-blown disaster, including the end of democratic reforms in Russia.

Tensions escalated this week when Russian troops took control of the railway and coastal ports in an adjoining region of the republic of Georgia, where a civil war has been raging for the past six weeks.The railway is Russia's main land link with Georgia and Armenia. President Boris Yeltsin said the move was only to protect the vital rail line and ports and was not a seizure of territory. But that's not the way officials in Georgia see it, and words between the two republics have been sharp in recent days.

Open conflict between Russia and Georgia would be one of the most dangerous confrontations since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Many Russian troops are in other parts of Georgia, because that was a major military center for the Soviet Union. The soldiers were left there after the disintegration of the USSR. Georgian officials said such troops must leave the country by Oct. 15 or be considered "occupying troops." If they don't go, they will be removed by force, officials warned.

In the meantime, Georgia has ordered its forces to confiscate all former Soviet military equipment - a move that might be resisted by Russian troops. Rash moves by either side could cause major fighting.

Georgia's problems are compounded by the civil war in Abkhazia, one of the richest regions in the republic of Georgia. Separatist rebels, followers of ousted Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia who was toppled in fighting last January, have begun to score some successes. Georgian troops have been trying to crush the rebels since Aug. 13.

Cossacks and volunteer mountain tribesmen from autonomous regions inside Russia are fighting with Abkhazian rebels against Georgian troops. This sounds like some of the same cast of characters fighting each other clear back in the 17th century.

Caught between the Abkhazian rebels on the one hand and suspicious of Russia's actions on the other, officials in Georgia could panic and start a war with Russia.

Georgia is not the only place where Russian troops are caught in the middle and seen as potential foes. In the central Asian republic of Tajikistan, communist-backed rebels seem to be winning a war that also involves various other ethnic military forces in a Lebanon-like scenario. No one seems to know for sure who or what represents the government. Russian garrisons are hunkered down and are liable to be attacked by just about anybody.

While all this is going on, Russian President Boris Yeltsin is trying to cope with an increasingly hostile legislature in Moscow and attempts to strip him of some of his powers. A deteriorating economy has caused Russia's citizens to be increasingly unhappy with Yeltsin, as they were with former USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev before him.

If fighting between republics breaks out, Yeltsin may be swept aside in favor of more hard-line rulers who already are putting pressure on him to abandon some of his free market reforms. If that happens, it would be a serious defeat for the democratic movement.

One thing seems plain - conflict, uncertainty and even chaos may be the prevailing background for the former Soviet Union for years, perhaps even decades, to come.