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GEORGIA ON A FAULT LINE
By Jaba Devdariani (1)
UN Association of Georgia
After a period dominated by Russian security threats, Georgia enters a year in which Pankisi Gorge and Iraq, Abkhazia and Afghanistan, remote Georgian villages and the London ricin threat connect in a most surreal way. With the world security architecture in flux, Tbilisi finds itself on the fault line of a love-hate relationship between the US, Europe and Russia, while facing internal and external challenges to its national security. Whereas the security concerns dominate, the crucial elements of democratic transition suffer neglect. In an election year and as the race to succeed President Eduard Shevardnadze in 2005 looms, the current array of problems does not constitute the best possible scenario for Georgia.
Terrorism threat: Menace or bargaining chip?
In a recent speech, President George W. Bush listed Georgia among international terrorisms targets in Europe, alongside Russia, Germany, the UK and France. (2) Mentioning Georgia in the context of the war on terror has become habitual for the US administration and for international media as well. Georgia, and its Pankisi Gorge in particular, are seen both as a locus and as a victim of terrorism.
Addressing the UN Security Council on 5 February, US Secretary of State Colin Powell showed a picture of al-Qaeda operative Abu Apsi, allegedly cooperating with al Zawahiri, thereby providing a link between al Qaeda and Iraq. In turn, al Zarqawi and Abu Apsi allegedly were masterminding a ricin poison conspiracy, uncovered by the British special services in London. Georgian Minister of State Security Valeri Khaburdzania subsequently announced that his office had provided information on the ricin case to Western special services. (3) Earlier, the ministry had presented previously classified materials regarding Pankisi Gorge, confirming the presence of organized terrorist groups from Chechnya and Arab countries.
But a cloud of secrecy remains around specific terrorists and their plans. This allows skeptics to question a connection between Georgia, Pankisi and international terrorism networks. Georgia has made a rapid about-face, from denying the terrorist presence to admitting its existence. Currently, government officials synchronize their new statements on Pankisi with the Iraqi crisis, trying to show linkages but presenting no additional credible evidence. Thus, there is a perception that the new hype regarding Georgias Pankisi Gorge is a PR stunt aimed at getting some tangible security benefits. Some analysts argue that realpolitik is the name of the game.
Secession and rift with Russia:
Clear and present danger
Recently, Georgias primary security concern has been to avoid the flare-up of violence in its secessionist provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In Abkhazia, two issues closely linked with Russia have upset the fragile balance. Russia has provided eased citizenship to the holders of the old, Soviet, passports. Thus, de facto authorities of Abkhazia argue, more than 70 percent of the current Abkhazia residents are Russian citizens. This development heightens Georgian fears of Russian military interference on the pretext of assisting its citizens. At the same time, railway communication between the Russian city of Sochi and the Abkhaz capital of Sukhumi was resumed without prior notification to the Georgian authorities, in violation of Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) agreements calling for the restriction of trade and communications with Abkhazia.
These two developments have further strained Russo-Georgian relations. A meeting between Presidents Shevardnadze and Vladimir Putin in Kyiv during the informal CIS summit, as well as the visit of a Georgian parliamentary delegation to Moscow, helped to defuse the crisis somewhat. However, the level of confidence between the two countries is still at an all-time low.
In South Ossetia, local officials led by President Eduard Kokoev have expressed their fears of a possible Georgian military attack. According to the Georgian Minister of State Security, Valeri Khaburdzania, several T-55 tanks and armored vehicles recently have been shipped to the secessionist capital of Tskhinvali from North Ossetia. The Osset leadership also promotes Russian citizenship, creating the same problem Georgia faces with Abkhazia.
There has been no improvement in the deadlock between Georgia and Abkhazia and no visible solutions are on the horizon. One option for Abkhazia, proposed officially by Georgias government, calls for modification of (Russias) peacekeeping mandate to allow for the return of (ethnically Georgian) displaced persons, at least in Abkhazias easternmost Gali district. Russia so far remains deaf to these requests. Moreover, UN Resolution 1462 of 30 January 2003 offers little hope for ameliorating this situation. (4)
The only change that has been seen, in fact, concerns US reactions to these events. US Department of State spokesperson Richard Boucher stated that the United States wants to see rapid progress towards political negotiations to resolve the Abkhazia conflict as well as the return of displaced persons. (5) Douglas A. Davidson, a US diplomat at the OSCE Permanent Council, also expressed his "deep concern...over the treatment of ethnic Georgian residents of the Gali district." (6)
Through its OSCE delegation the US expressed its anxiety about any arms buildup in South Ossetia. (7) But Russian cooperation on most of the issues remains elusive. Georgias parliamentary chairman, Nino Burdjanadze, noted after her visit to Russia that Georgia does not rank high on Moscows priority list, thus there is little hope for cooperation concerning conflict-resolution proposals.
Facing the deadlock in conflict resolution, the Georgian government has renewed its attempts to link Abkhazia and South Ossetia to an anti-terrorism program. At a government session on 15 February, Khaburdzania said some of the terrorists who were driven from Pankisi Gorge in the course of 2002 found shelter in Abkhazia. According to Georgias Ministry of State Security, the eastern regions of Abkhazia (i.e., Gali and Ochamchire) are under the informal control of a Chechen-Abkhaz criminal group. Khaburdzania has also stated that, while they were in Pankisi, the terrorists received armaments and ammunition from the lawless areas of the secessionist provinces, as well as from Russian military bases in Georgia. (8)
Since clean-up operations last year in Pankisi, near the self-styled South Ossetian republic, the secessionist Ossetian leadership has claimed persistently that Georgia was poised to attack it. To be sure, real and perceived threats from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, along with increased military spending and US assistance, tempt the Georgian politicians to demonstrate the power to resist. At the same time, similar perceptions within Abkhazia and South Ossetia embolden the rebel officials militant rhetoric and reinforce a siege mentality among the population, making it even harder to seek a political solution to the conflicts, and increasing the likelihood of sporadic violence.
US military assistance: An irresistible offer
Georgia has drastically improved its military capabilities since the 2002 launch of the US-funded Georgia Train-and-Equip Program (GTEP). A $64-million effort is planned to build a corps of Georgias rapid reaction forces, drawing on the expertise of US military instructors. So far, the first command battalion has completed the training, in the process earning compliments from its instructors. Training of the second unit, the Sachkhere Mountain Batallion, began on 1 February.
Reacting to the overt military threat voiced by President Putin in September, the Georgian government has proposed nearly doubling its military spending for 2003. The lions share of these funds would be applied toward the salary arrears for newly trained units. Even with such an increase, Georgia still would have one of the lowest military budgets in the CIS and would be dependent on external support, especially from the US.
The role of the Georgian military has increased in several directions. First, plans were unveiled for the creation of joint Georgian-Azeri-Turkish special units to protect the future Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline from terrorist threats. A joint command-and-control headquarters is envisioned for these units.
Along with the need to improve Georgias defense capabilities for the oil markets, politicians in Tbilisi have attempted to remain relevant in terms of the international political and security crises. Recently, the government decided to increase the Georgian peacekeeping presence in KFOR (under German command) to battalion level in the next two years.
President Shevardnadze also was among the first to pledge full support to the US position in President Bushs extended showdown on Iraq. Even before Powells crucial Security Council speech, Shevardnadze charged that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction and should be countered by military force. (9)
Apart from the political support, Georgia has expressed its willingness to allow the use of its military facilities by US troops in case of war with Iraq. Following a meeting between Stephen G. Rademaker, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, and Shevardnadze on 10 February, rumors abounded of ongoing negotiations to use Vaziani the former Soviet air base recently vacated by Russian troops as one of the backup positions for the US air force. President Shevardnadze dismissed these rumors on 14 February, but indicated Georgias willingness to offer assistance should the US make such a request. (10) Sources in the defense ministry also have spoken privately regarding a possible offer of Georgian troops mainly US-trained commandos for military operations in Iraq or for the post-war peacekeeping phase.
Even if some of these statements are viewed with a grain of salt, the aspiration of Georgian politicians and military leaders to seek closer ties with the US is apparent. President Shevardnadze recently went as far as to decrease his estimate of Georgias possible admission to NATO from five to three years.
Still, most of this drive is political. Some fear that it might damage the countrys security situation. Certain military analysts argue that Georgias repeated portrayal as a staunch US partner might induce smaller terrorist or revenge groups, fearful of attacking their primary enemy, to deliver instead a deadly strike against its ally, Georgia.
Such a development could prove disastrous for the countrys weak economy and virtually nonexistent defense infrastructure.
Nevertheless, the current US military assistance represents an offer that Georgia cant refuse. The uncertain risks of terrorism or worsened relations with EU powers fade against the clear and present danger presented by secessionist provinces and its own military weakness in the face of Russian encroachment.
Democracy and the rule of law: A secondary issue?
While external security crises frequently challenge the Georgian leadership, maintenance of domestic stability during and beyond the parliamentary elections scheduled for Fall 2003 should remain a priority. Unfortunately, recent events have fostered doubts that this issue is accorded proper weight.
Among the most worrisome events were an armed attack at the opposition New Rights Partys headquarters on 3 February and a 24 January assault on a gathering of minority religious congregations. Both events reflected the inability of officials to prevent violence, but also demonstrated the propensity for violent scenarios that exists on the eve of elections.
These fears were heightened after opposition leaders warned of the existence of paramilitary groups aiming to thwart the elections and targeting the opposition. A statement from 12 opposition parties charged that the government was responsible for instigating the violence.
While this statement can be contested, it is apparent that the likelihood of an unstable election season does exist. The local elections of June 2002 saw the re-emergence of armed groups that threatened and pressured the precinct commissions, resulting in the cancellation of elections in Zugdidi (West Georgia) and Rustavi (East Georgia). According to the opposition, some of the pro-government provincial executives may use the same tactics to maintain their positions beyond the elections. Given the sluggish economy and acute political problems, the government should expect a major electoral failure.
Under these circumstances, analysts see troubling signs particularly the increased rates of petty crime (including robbery, muggings and assaults) in the capital and other urban areas. Such increases usually indicate that governmental control over the situation is slipping.
Currently the country possesses only limited law enforcement resources to address both wider security concerns and the domestic criminal situation, while protecting its citizens basic rights. However, it may well be that the governments capacity to ensure the democratic transition of power would decisively demonstrate the viability of Georgias political system.
The debate about a war with Iraq has strained the existing international security architecture. Since 11 September 2001 there have been shifts in the alignments among world powers, but the new system has not fully emerged. Unfortunately, Georgia which still struggles to establish its statehood finds itself along the fault lines of the current debate. It is situated only 400 kilometers away from Iraqs northern border, and is alleged to be simultaneously a base and a target of terrorist groups.
In addition, unfinished separation business with its northern neighbor, Russia, heightens the perceptions of external security threats, especially as Russia is believed to have had a heavy hand in the secessionist activities of Georgias provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Under these circumstances, the temptation to tread the path of increased militarization is very real, especially since US assistance seems to be available under the shared anti-terrorism agenda.
However, it is crucial for the Georgian government to strike a balance between the credible buildup of its defense capabilities and the continuation of democratic change. Georgias Western allies should consider whether they would like to see the country as a front line partner, or as a beachhead of democracy in a troubled region.
(1) Jaba Devdariani coordinates the Information and Analysis direction of the UN Association of Georgia and edits Civil Georgia, an Internet magazine on Georgian affairs.
(2) Miami Herald, 13 February 2003; via <www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/5174853.htm>.
(3) National Television of Georgia, 15 February 2003.
(4) Available at UN webpage: <ods-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/N03/231/34/PDF/N0323134.pdf?OpenElement>.
(5) US Department of State press release, 13 February 2003; via <www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2003/17671.htm>.
(8) National Television of Georgia, 15 February 2003.
(9) Civil Georgia <www.civil.ge>, 4 February 2003.
(10) <www.civil.ge>, 14 February 2003.