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Georgia: Analysis From Washington--Georgia's Search For Security

  • Paul Goble

Prague, 30 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze argued on Wednesday that Russia had a vested interest in the stability of his country but suggested that Moscow had regularly exploited Georgia's difficulties to promote its own interests rather than those of Tbilisi.

Speaking to French journalists prior to his visit to Paris next week, the Georgian leader said that Russia had failed to take "concrete actions" to end secessionist challenges in his country by the Abkhazians and Ossetians.

Instead, he implied, Moscow was using its peace-keeping mandate in those two regions to cover the projection of Russian power into his country.

And he said that Moscow earlier had taken advantage of Georgia during its civil war by forcing the latter to accept some 18,000 troops on its borders. Because "we were unable to protect our borders," Shevardnadze added, "we had no choice" but to give in to Russian demands.

Shevardnadze's frustrations reflect the fact that three of his recent initiatives have been undercut by Russian actions.

First, the Georgian president has sought to end Georgia's economic isolation by promoting a pipeline to carry oil from Central Asia and Azerbaijan to the West and by agreeing this week to open a long-discussed rail link with Turkey.

With regard to the pipeline, Moscow has used its economic muscle to try to force the oil companies involved to choose a pipeline through Russia, and Russian commentators have regularly and sharply attacked Georgian efforts on this score.

With regard to the rail line, Moscow has taken a different and potentially more dangerous tack.

Just as they are convinced Moscow is behind Abkhaz and Ossetian secessionism, so too many Georgian officials are now convinced that the Russians are responsible for the increased activism by the Ajars, an ethnic grouping lying across the proposed route of the new rail line.

Second, the Georgian government is taking an ever tougher line against extending the Russian peacekeeping mandates in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. On Tuesday, Georgian State Minister Niko Lakishvili said that Tbilisi will seek new guarantees from Moscow before agreeing to any new extension of mandates that run out on January 31.

But Russia has already lined up support from other countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States and even publicly announced this week the name of the new commander for these peacekeeping forces.

And third, Shevardnadze's effort to use his undoubted diplomatic skills to enhance his country's standing in the world as in his upcoming visit to France has also run into difficulties, often with a Russian origin.

On Wednesday, he specifically claimed that Russian President Boris Yeltsin's continuing illness had damaged relations between their two countries and suggested somewhat impolitically that Yeltsin should consider stepping aside if he does not return to work soon.

Moreover, as Shevardnadze has said on other occasions, virtually every time the Georgian president has sought the support of Western governments or even those of his neighbors, Russian commentators and officials have been almost unanimous in warning that any hand of friendship extended to Georgia will be viewed in Moscow as an unfriendly act.

A month ago, for example, a leading Moscow newspaper denounced Georgia's efforts to expand ties with Azerbaijan, Ukraine and the United States as an unfriendly act, one intended to destroy the Commonwealth of Independent States and undermine Russia's role in the Caucasus.

In each of these three cases, of course, Moscow was not the only cause of Georgia's difficulties. With regard to Shevardnadze's economic moves, there would be problems with a pipeline and a rail line even if Moscow did not object.

With regard to his efforts to limit Russian peacekeeping activities, Shevardnadze faces as he himself admits an unpleasant choice between Russian peacekeepers on his territory and renewed fighting.

And with regard to his diplomatic offensive, Shevardnadze faces some obstacles not caused by Moscow. To take but one example, the case of the Georgian diplomat charged with killing a pedestrian in Washington has highlighted Tbilisi's weakness.

But it is a measure of Georgia's security problems that the Georgian president has decided to criticize Moscow despite his country's dependence on it.