Prague, 11 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze's mixed response to the plea last week by his Chechen counterpart Aslan Maskhadov to act as mediator between Grozny and Moscow has highlighted the limitations in a relationship which, two years ago, was acclaimed as a strategic partnership.
Shevardnadze responded to Maskhadov's request by saying he would act as mediator if Moscow agreed. Russia has yet to agree. The Georgian president's response is consistent with Tbilisi's cautious approach to Chechen relations.
Grozny and Tbilisi had tried to set up a modus vivendi following Maskhadov's election as Chechen president in January 1997. Chechnya's motives in doing so were geostrategic and economic: its 80-kilometer frontier with Georgia constitutes its only gateway to the outside world that is not controlled by Moscow.
Georgia's position was more complex. Georgians have neither forgotten nor forgiven the participation of Chechen detachments in the 1992-1993 fighting in Abkhazia on the Abkhaz side. One of those detachments was led by Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev.
Some Georgian politicians advocated forging a strategic partnership with Grozny on the principle "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." But others were aware that too close an alignment with Chechnya would only anger Moscow, with which Georgia's relations are strained.
Tbilisi initially opted for caution. Rather than risk offending Moscow by an overt demonstration of support for the new Chechen leadership, Shevardnadze chose not to attend Maskhadov's inauguration as president in February 1997. Then Minister of State Niko Lekishvili affirmed that in pursuing relations with Chechnya, Tbilisi would be guided by the principle that the republic is part of the Russian Federation.
A series of low-level visits were made in the spring of 1997, and a surprise meeting took place in Nazran between President Maskhadov, his Ingushetian counterpart Ruslan Aushev, and Georgian Defense Minister Vardiko Nadibaidze. In August 1997, Maskhadov visited both Tbilisi, where he held talks with Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, and Georgia's northern Akhmeta Raion, which is home to an estimated 7,000 Chechens.
The two presidents discussed both how to resolve conflicts throughout the Caucasus, and economic issues, in particular the feasibility of building an oil pipeline from Baku via Grozny to a Georgian Black Sea port.
Specifically, Maskhadov and Shevardnadze reached agreement on building an asphalt road connecting Grozny and Tbilisi that would give Chechnya an outlet to the sea. But Georgia made it clear at that time that it would not open its airspace to Chechnya. Within two months of the Shevardnadze-Maskhadov meeting, a Chechen highways official said that 19 kilometers of highway on the Chechen side of the border had already been built.
By April 1998, the Chechens had completed most of their section, but work on the Georgian section has still barely begun.
That failure on Georgia's part can be attributed to the desire not to worsen relations with Moscow and to retain some degree of leverage over an unpredictable neighbor whose actions could indirectly pose a threat to Georgia's interests. But it also reflects many Georgians' animosity towards the Muslim Chechens in general, and the putative Wahhabi threat in particular.
That animosity has been compounded over the past year by the abduction of a number of Georgian citizens by Chechen armed groups, and by reports, which it is impossible to verify, that the Chechen community in Akhmeta is actively engaged in the smuggling and sale in Georgia of narcotics.
It would be wrong, however, to conclude that the Georgian leadership had no interest in maintaining high-level contacts with Grozny. Chechen Vice President Vakha Arsanov has spent most of the past few months in Tbilisi, undergoing and convalescing from back surgery.
In early September, at the height of the fighting in Dagestan between Russian forces and Chechen-led militants, he met with both Shevardnadze and Minister of State Vazha Lortkipanidze. Interfax at that time quoted Lortkipanidze as saying that "we will support each other."
The repeated claims by senior Russian politicians, most recently by Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, that both Georgia and Azerbaijan are allowing arms and Islamic mercenaries to transit their territory en route for Chechnya demonstrate that Georgia's border with Chechnya constitutes both a dangerous liability and, for Moscow, a convenient pretext for exerting pressure on Tbilisi.
What concrete form that pressure will take remains to be seen. The Chechen vice president, Arsanov, claimed in Tbilisi last Saturday that the Chechen leadership has grounds to believe that Moscow intends to occupy both Georgia and Azerbaijan once it has pacified Chechnya.