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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Moscow Steps Up Pressure On Georgia

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 26 June 2000 (RFE/RL) - An article in a Russian government newspaper suggests that Moscow may be preparing to launch a new campaign to force Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze to become more cooperative with the Russian Federation.

The Russian military newspaper "Krasnaya Zvezda" on Tuesday sharply criticized the Georgian government for allowing a Chechen information center to operate in Tbilisi, a story picked up and given broader circulation by the ITAR-Tass news agency. The paper noted that Moscow had officially protested the existence of this center but that Georgia had ignored Russia's demand that the Chechen center be closed.

This Russian complaint is part of a broader effort by Moscow to seek the closure of pro-Chechen organizations around the world. In the last few weeks alone, the Russian authorities have criticized Ukraine, the United States and other countries for allowing unofficial Chechen representations to operate in their capitals.

Russian criticism of Tbilisi on this point appears to be part of a larger campaign, some of it in public like the latest Moscow article and some of it through diplomatic channels, against the independent approach Georgia's Shevardnadze has shown in his dealings with Moscow and the Russian-sponsored Commonwealth of Independent States.

Since becoming Georgia's president, Shevardnadze has sought closer relations with the West, something many in Moscow view as an effort to distance his country from Russia. And he has promoted pipeline routes like Baku-Ceyhan and organizations like GUUAM -- a trade and security grouping which includes Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova -- both of which Moscow opposes and has tried to disrupt.

Diplomats who have met with Shevardnadze since the last CIS summit in Moscow report that he has sometimes appeared shaken by the new harder line taken by Russian President Vladimir Putin. An apparent confirmation of that may be the apparent rush of the Georgian president to appear more agreeable with Moscow.

On Monday, for example, Shevardnadze categorically rejected Russian media reports that $34 million had passed through Chechen missions in Georgia and elsewhere to anti-Moscow Chechen fighters. He went out of his way to say that Russia is acting "absolutely correctly and without delay" in its efforts "to strengthen the border," noting that Georgia too is working to strengthen security along that frontier.

Shevardnadze's remarks come on the heels of three other developments which appear to be part of a new Russian campaign against him. First and perhaps most dramatic, an extraordinary congress of the People's Patriotic Union of Georgia last Saturday called for the creation of "a fraternal and equal union between Georgia and Russia."

This group, which unites 18 left-wing parties and groups in Georgia, issued an appeal to Putin saying that "in the fraternal constellation of a new union, Georgia will be able to restore its virtually lost independence and territorial integrity and revive the country's economy."

Such appeals parallel those already made by Armenian groups who seek to pressure Yerevan into joining the Russia-Belarus Union and appear to reflect a Russian effort to intervene in Georgian domestic politics.

Second, Putin used his meetings in Central Asia earlier this month to put pressure on Tashkent to devote more attention to the CIS than to GUUAM, a shift that calls into question Shevardnadze's regional policies and leaves him and his country potentially more isolated.

And third, Moscow appears to be dragging its feet on the withdrawal of some of its military bases from Georgia under the terms of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe accords signed in Istanbul in 1999. While Georgian officials last week claimed that talks between the United States and Russia had been "successful" in arranging American financing for the withdrawal, Russian agencies said that the talks had "not yielded results."

Shevardnadze has long sought the removal of Russian forces from Georgia, but Moscow has been less interested in doing so. By creating difficulties in these talks with Washington, Moscow can put additional pressure on Tbilisi to accept a greater and longer Russian presence on Georgian territory than it might otherwise be willing to agree to.

Indeed, the visit to Tbilisi last week by Colonel-General Vitali Gritsan, the head of the coordinating service of the CIS border guards departments, may have been intended to signal Russia's interest in continued involvement in bilateral cooperation with Georgian units.

Moscow's immediate target of this campaign is Shevardnadze, but the Russian leadership clearly intends its treatment of the independent-minded Georgian leader as an object lesson for other governments in the region.

But past Russian efforts of this kind suggest that Moscow may generate a backlash not only in Georgia but elsewhere, leading Shevardnadze to revive his efforts to gain greater Western support and other regional leaders to look outward as well.