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Perspective
Volume XIII, Number 1 (September - October 2002)

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GEORGIA REACTS TO RUSSIAN PRESSURE
By JABA DEVDARIANI
UN Association of Georgia

Over the last month, Russia's campaign of pressure and intimidation against Georgia has backfired. By threatening Georgia and by bombing its territory, Russia's leadership has revived Western fears that the conflict in Chechnya may spill over into the South Caucasus. Moreover, the onslaught has bolstered Georgia's President Eduard Shevardnadze and enabled him to solidify his position inside the country. If present positive tendencies in Georgia's response to this crisis continue, it will have proven itself a cohesive state, giving the lie to some Western analysts who had rushed to label Georgia a "failed state."

UNPRECEDENTED MILITARY AGGRESSION At dawn of August 23, three Russian warplanes bombed Georgian territory adjacent to the Chechen sector of the Russian border, leaving one civilian dead and at least seven injured. Despite the statements of Georgian officials and the OSCE observers confirming this incident, Russia has denied that its military participated in the attacks. However, then Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov called the attack "a step in the right direction," suggesting Georgians have bombed the villages themselves to crack down on Chechen guerrillas.(1)

Mr. Ivanov's cynical remarks did not come as a surprise: He has been a leading contributor to the recent buildup of pressure from Moscow for Russian military involvement in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge. Since July, sources in the Kremlin and Ivanov have decried Georgia's purported inability to halt lawlessness in the gorge and have argued for direct Russian involvement to put an end to the "enclave of terrorism."(2)

The actions of the Russian military over the past month have shown that Ivanov was not bluffing. Clearly, the degree of military aggression Russia has been willing to use against Georgia in recent months is unprecedented. Although Russia has violated Georgia's air space and bombed villages repeatedly over the last three years, now the frequency and intensity of the attacks are escalating and leading to loss of life.

Since July 29 five cases of Georgian airspace violation were recorded of the Russo-Georgian borders adjacent to Chechnya and to Georgia's secessionist region of Abkhazia. On at least three occasions, Russian jets or gunship helicopters opened fire on Georgian territory.

On the ground, twice in the past two months Russian paratroopers of the Abkhazia "peacekeeping forces" moved against the Kodori Gorge, the only area of Abkhazia still under the control of Georgian authorities. Russian Major-General Vasily Prizemlyn, the commander of the joint "peacekeeping force" in yet another post-conflict region of Georgia, South Ossetia, expanded the borders of his mission on August 22 and moved his troops to build trenches and checkpoints on Georgian territory.(3)

In all of these cases, Russia's political leaders refused to justify or admit responsibility for this behavior despite Georgian protests. And although Russian ground troops returned to their original locations after official Georgian protests, on one occasion the sides were balanced on the brink of military engagement with a standoff in Kodori Gorge between the Georgian militias and Russian paratroopers.(4)

Although military activities led the way in pressuring all sensitive points of the troubled Georgian terrain, political and economic levers also were activated. On August 8, 2002, Russian negotiators failed to appear for a discussion of the framework agreement on friendship between the two countries. According to the official explanation, the Russian experts were "not ready" to discuss the details; however, Georgian officials hinted that the Russian denial may have been used as an additional device to convince official Tbilisi of the need for "joint" military action in Pankisi. Supporting this version is the fact that, as late as July 27, both sides were quoted to be optimistic about the outcome of the talks on the agreement.(5)

Reaching a settlement of the framework agreement has been one of the major foreign policy tasks for President Shevardnadze's leadership. The issue is closely tied to the (increasingly putative) withdrawal of the Russian military bases from Georgia, as well as improved protection of the rights of tens of thousands of Georgian citizens presently working in Russia.

Economically, Russian gas giant ITERA in August was close to gaining control of the Tbilisi gas distribution network in what some analysts described as a hostile takeover rooted in political pressures and corruption. The head of the budgetary office of the parliament, Roman Gotsiridze, and independent expert Sandro Tvaltchrelidze expressed fears that gaping loopholes in the ITERA draft contract might allow the company to acquire the title to the strategic energy distribution facilities in return for writing off government debts, as previously happened in neighboring Armenia.(6) ITERA, which at present is a major gas supplier to Georgia, became infamous for cutting off the gas supplies at critical points of Russo-Georgian relations.

Specific cases of pressure were accompanied by a massive public relations campaign in most state-influenced Russian media outlets, which accused Georgia of sustaining Chechen resistance by allowing Chechen fighters to use fallback positions in Pankisi. In this light, the military involvement of the Russian side was presented as an inevitable and logical consequence, while Georgia's position was depicted as consistently and purposefully damaging to Russian interests. In a symptomatic statement in the wake of the August 23 bombardments, Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of the foundation Politika, called the Georgian president "a top-class provocateur."(7)

Not surprisingly, in express-polling by the radio station Ekho Moskvy on August 26, a stunning 58% of some 3,000 polled Russians said Moscow should not apologize for the bombing raids even if they were confirmed to be carried out by Russia. This is a particularly high proportion in view of the fact that the listeners of Ekho Moskvy are liberal Muscovites, the segment of the population that would be least susceptible to government propaganda.

ATTEMPT TO DRAG GEORGIA INTO CHECHEN WAR Although the intensity of Russian pressure has reached unprecedented levels in the last two months, neither the methods nor the rationale are new. Russian officials have persistently attempted to secure Georgian military and diplomatic support for the second Chechen campaign since late 1999. As early as August 1999, when the fighting was limited to Daghestan, then-President Boris Yel'tsin asked Shevardnadze for consent to fly missions against Chechnya from Russian bases in Georgia.

According to Radio Liberty military analyst Koba Liklikadze, there have been at least 25 cases of Georgian airspace violation since the launch of the second military campaign in Chechnya in 1999.(8) In all cases save one, Russia has denied its complicity.

Political and economic pressure also was applied, when Russia unilaterally introduced the visa regime with Georgia in December 2000. Russian officials' statements were far from friendly. In a telling example, President Vladimir Putin, commenting on Shevardnadze's protests against airspace violations at the CIS Summit in November 2001, said that if the Russian air force had opened fire, there would have been casualties.(9)

The logic of Russian accusations is simple. According to the mainstream argument, many (depending on the source from hundreds to thousands) Chechen terrorists purportedly entered Georgia with a wave of refugees, and now are maintaining training camps in or near Pankisi while periodically infiltrating Chechnya to revive the resistance. Since Georgian law enforcement agencies are incapable of restoring order in the Pankisi Gorge, the argument continues, Russian military involvement is needed.

Admittedly, weakness and negligence on the part of the Georgian government made it possible for Pankisi to become a comfortable refuge to all sorts of criminals, possibly including former combatants in Chechnya. However, the problem of Pankisi is rooted in the region's complex ethno-political history and defies simplistic assessments. Recipes for a military solution in Pankisi can be fatal to Georgia.(10)

Currently, even some Russian experts affirm the fallacy of the Russian argument: Pankisi is not a cause, but rather an effect, of Russia's failure to find a solution to the Chechen problem.(11)

It is possible to argue, however that the implicit main aim of the Russian pressures on Georgia was to prevent internationalization of the Chechen conflict. Russian strategy is aimed at rendering non-credible the statements or actions of Georgia, to isolate it from Western support and gain Southern-tier backup for its military actions in Chechnya. Georgia, for its part, sees the West, and the US in particular, as its only hope to protect the country from the spillover of the conflict.

Russian pressure in Georgia developed in noticeable waves, peaking immediately after arrival of Chechen refugees in 2000, in the beginning of 2001, in the Fall of 2001 and in Summer 2002.

The main substance of the first wave of pressure in 2000 was to silence Chechen journalists in Georgia who continued to provide Western news agencies with alternative coverage of the second Chechen war.(12) At that time, Russian security and military forces were starting to put a tight lid on information from Chechnya to avoid the negative coverage in the Russian news agencies that drained the first campaign of popular support and made it unsustainable.

This wave of pressure was spearheaded by representatives of the Russian foreign ministry, and was rebuffed rather easily by their Georgian counterparts appealing to Georgia's international obligations under refugee conventions and the freedom of press in the country.

In the beginning of 2001, the protracted US presidential elections may have helped Russia to convince Georgian leadership that support from the US Department of State would not be forthcoming, thereby inducing Tbilisi to make strategic concessions to Moscow. Partly as a result of the popular perception that Eduard Shevardnadze might yield to these pressures, government popularity started to decline sharply that spring. At this stage, Georgia's official position was to deny any presence of Chechen militants on its territory.

In Fall 2001, Georgia's ruling party, the Citizens Union of Georgia (CUG), was on the brink of collapse, while Shevardnadze's popularity was at a record low of 6 percent. The events of September 11 seemed to present the Russian leadership with a clear chance to reaffirm its strategic influence over Georgia. In his very first reaction to the attacks, President Putin expressed his determination to crack down on "terrorist hideouts" near Russia's borders, implicitly asking for the US go-ahead in Pankisi.

POST-SEPTEMBER 11 REALITIES The fallout from the September 11 attacks has had a significant effect on the Pankisi issue, and, in many ways, an unexpected effect for the Russian leadership. Instead of gaining a carte blanche concerning activities within its former sphere of influence, Russia has had to acquiesce in direct US presence in that sphere, particularly in Central Asia and Georgia.

Since September 2001, Georgia has admitted to a minor presence of Chechen guerrillas on its territory, which it ascribes to the deteriorating criminal situation in Pankisi, an admission made in response to the new understanding between Russia and the US on zero tolerance towards terrorism. According to expert information, upon his visit to the United States in October 2001, Eduard Shevardnadze was strongly urged to take action against terrorism in Pankisi.(13)

However, rather than yielding to Russian pressures, Shevardnadze asked for US assistance, which was officially announced on February 28, 2002 in the form of the Georgia Train-and-Equip Program (GTEP). According to the plan, up to 200 US military instructors are to provide the Georgian defense ministry, border defense department and security services with anti-terrorist capabilities. The GTEP was launched officially in March 2002.

According to some sources, the US decision was not influenced by any new information about the presence of Arab-linked terrorists, but rather had to do with the need to prevent possible Russian military involvement in Pankisi.(14)

The announcement of the arrival of the US trainers to Georgia was met by fury in partisan political circles in Russia, but the official response from President Putin was in a lower key. Even today, many in Russia allege that the US has covert plans to push Russia out of the Caucasus. A military supplement to Nezavisimaya gazeta went as far as to suggest that Washington is planning its own military incursion into Chechnya.(15)

But the real barrier to Russian policy is the fact that Georgia feels more confident in its ability to tackle the Pankisi issue independently, while the United States consistently affirms the right of the Georgian government to deal with the gorge without Russian engagement.(16)

In recent months Georgian police and security forces have arrested several Chechen guerrillas, some of whom were charged with illegally crossing the Georgian borders. At least two were charged with terrorist crimes. Some of these persons were handed over to Russia under extradition agreements. If these trends continue, the main arguments Russia used to justify its pressure on Georgia would be vitiated.

TRYING TO WEAKEN GEORGIAN SECURITY

If this logic is correct, the recent Russian pressures could be interpreted as meant to expose weaknesses within the Georgian security establishment, thereby threatening the government's stability both domestically and internationally, as well as possibly undermining the US-led GTEP program.

It is possible to argue that the incidents of July-August 2002 were aimed at forcing the Georgian police, security and defense troops into action before the completion of GTEP, before their confidence and capabilities were built up with US assistance. Russia, by posing tactical threats in multiple directions ‹ Pankisi, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia ‹ would prevent the concentration of the limited Georgian capabilities and personnel.

In fact, external pressure (from both the US and Russia) as well as domestic intolerance of continued lawlessness in Pankisi induced Georgian decision-makers to launch the anti-criminal operation in Pankisi Gorge on August 25. Some 1,000 servicemen of the interior and state security ministries went into the gorge, while some 1,500 Ministry of Defense soldiers backed up the operation. Notably, the third, field-training phase of GTEP was launched simultaneously.

Committing the major part of its capable operational force to one tactical direction certainly is a risky decision. However, in case of success Georgia would take a major step toward deflecting future Russian pressures. At the same time, President Shevardnadze can seriously improve his shaken credibility among the public, which is crucial before the parliamentary elections of 2003.

Several recent developments constitute a bad omen for Russian interests. Importantly, Moscow's aggressive stance and the dreaded possibility of direct Russian military involvement seem to have made the ethnic Kists (who are Georgian citizens) and Chechens more accommodating to the Georgian military presence in Pankisi Gorge. Thus the scenario of ethnic confrontation most feared in Georgia likely will be avoided, at least in the short term.

Secondly, there has been generally unequivocal support for the government actions from usually fragmented partisan quarters in Georgia. Most of the political parties sought an even tougher stance toward Russia while parliamentary decrees called for secession from the Commonwealth of Independent States and the withdrawal of all Russian troops from Georgia. Even groups that usually support Russia, such as the Socialist Party, have backed current governmental actions and called for joint investigation of the bombing incident. At present a pro-Russian position can throw any Georgian politician into oblivion.

Certainly, Georgia remains fragile. And the main threat may, paradoxically, come from the United States, which is impatient to see specific results from the antiterrorist operation. In a telling example of this logic, STRATFOR, an influential US thinktank, claimed recently that the "current toothless" anti-terrorism crackdown by Georgian forces in the gorge "will benefit only al Qaeda and its local Islamist allies."(17) In fact, the only realistic aim of the Georgian police forces has to be preserving relative stability in the gorge, avoiding major bloodshed and maintaining at least the passive support of the local population.

Establishment of interior troop checkpoints deep inside the gorge constitutes a definite success for the Georgian government. If the current situation is maintained through September, snow will block the mountain passes to Chechnya, rendering groundless any Russian claims about guerrillas crossing the border and providing crucial time to improve border control and crack down on guerrilla groups, should any remain.

Hence the coming months will be critical for testing the self-preservation abilities of the Georgian army, Shevardnadze's leadership, and perhaps Georgian statehood itself, as well as Western comprehension that preservation of Georgian independence constitutes a major international interest.

Notes:

1 www.civil.ge, 23 August 2002.

2RIA novosti, 24 August 2002.

3www.civil.ge, 22 August 2002.

4www.civil.ge, 12 April 2002.

5 www.civil.ge, 8 August 2002.

6 Rustavi-2 TV, "Night Courier" talk show, 28 August 2002.

7 www.strana.ru, 27 August 2002.

8 Interview with Rustavi-2 TV, 29 August 2002.

9 www.civil.ge , 30 November 2001.

10 Jaba Devdariani and Blanka Hancilova, "Georgia's Pankisi Gorge: Russian, US and European Connections," CEPS Policy Brief No. 23, June 2002, Centre for European Policy Studies.

11 Oleg Kusov, Radio Liberty observer, in interview with Ekho Moskvy, 26 August 2002; http://www.echo.msk.ru/interview/interview/9466.html.

12 Author's interview with a confidential source at the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, February 2000.

13 Zeyno Baran,Georgia Update, 4 March 2002 (Washington, DC: CSIS), p. 3.

14 Jürgen Schmid, "Krieg gegen den Terrorismus im Südkaukasus? Die USA entsenden Militärberater nach Georgien," SWP Brennpunkte; http://www.swp-berlin.org/produkte/brennpunkte/milgeorgien1.htm.

15 Vadim Soloviov, "GI's Go To Caucasus," Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, 30 August 2002.

16 Statement of The White House Press Secretary, 24 August 2002, Washington, DC.

17 Weak Georgian "Crackdown" Will Hurt Everyone but Militants,"The Global Intelligence Report, 29 August 2002; www.stratfor.com/standard/analysis_view .php?ID=205965.


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