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Georgia: Shevardnadze To Act Under Constraint In Abkhazia, Pankisi

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

As internally displaced persons in Georgia continued this week to demand the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers deployed in Abkhazia, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze held talks with Russia's Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo on the situation in the breakaway province and recent police attempts to reassert Tbilisi's control over the northeastern Pankisi Gorge. Both issues are of crucial importance for the Georgian leader, who is under constant pressure from Russia to join forces against Chechen separatists.

Prague, 31 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- At the same time as Georgian authorities claim they are trying to reassert their control in a much-troubled area bordering Russia's separatist republic of Chechnya, they are confronting another seat of tension at the other end of the country.

On 19 January, a group of demonstrators started picketing the administrative border stretching along the Inguri River separating the northwestern breakaway province of Abkhazia from the rest of Georgia. The river also marks the demarcation line established after the 1992-1993 conflict that pitted Georgian government troops against Abkhaz separatist forces.

The war broke out when the then-autonomous republic of Abkhazia seceded from Georgia and asked to be integrated into the Russian Federation, prompting Tbilisi to resort to force. With the active support of Russia's armed forces, Abkhaz militiamen eventually repelled Georgian troops beyond the Inguri.

In July 1993, both sides signed a truce and a few months later agreed to the deployment, along the Inguri, of an 1,800-strong peacekeeping force under the aegis of the 12-member Commonwealth of Independent States.

The continued presence of this force -- composed exclusively of Russian soldiers -- has always been problematic for Tbilisi, which claims that it mainly serves Moscow's plans to keep a foothold in Abkhazia. Some Georgian officials also accuse Russian peacekeepers of complicity with drugs, weapons, and gasoline smugglers operating on both sides of the Inguri.

In October last year, armed clashes broke out between Abkhaz troops and alleged Georgian and Chechen guerillas in the Kodori Gorge, a Georgian-controlled area located on the Abkhaz side of the demarcation line. The incidents claimed some 40 lives, including four members of the United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG).

Shortly after, Georgia's parliament adopted a non-binding resolution demanding that Russian peacekeepers be withdrawn and replaced with soldiers from other countries. Shevardnadze initially supported the legislature. But after Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would not object to a pullout, Shevardnadze unexpectedly backtracked, saying he now favors the presence of Russian troops, whose mandate expired 31 December of last year.

Talking to reporters on 29 January after meeting with visiting Russian Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo, Shevardnadze attempted to clarify his position, saying he would welcome a continued Russian military presence in the area, but only if certain conditions are met.

"In principle, if we can reach an agreement on the extension of the 'control zone,' [if] all conditions required to ensure the safety of the population are met, then Georgia and I, as the president of this country, will not ask for the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers."

Shevardnadze did not explain what he meant by "control zone," but Russian media yesterday shed some light on Georgia's plans.

The Moscow-based "Nezavisimaya Gazeta" and "Kommersant" dailies reported that Shevardnadze wants Russian peacekeepers currently deployed in the Gali administrative district to move further north into Abkhazia along the Galidzga River.

The move would force Abkhaz forces to retreat beyond the Galidzga, theoretically paving the way for the return of the tens of thousands of ethnic Georgians who left this part of Abkhazia during the war.

An analysis in "Kommersant" speculates Shevardnadze is also seeking assurances Russian peacekeepers will effectively ensure the safety of the Gali district, which has been the scene of deadly skirmishes between armed groups that both Georgia and Abkhazia describe as "uncontrolled elements."

But Shevardnadze's insistence on keeping Russian peacekeepers in the region may reflect deeper concerns, as his comments after his meeting with Rushailo suggest. "I will say it straightforwardly. I've already said this in the past and I am repeating it today -- nobody can guarantee that, once the peacekeepers are gone, there will be no new military clashes, no real, full-scale war, no Caucasus war."

Whether Russia will agree to move its peacekeeping force further back into Abkhaz territory is unclear. But should that happen, analysts say, Moscow -- which has two military bases in Georgia in addition to its Abkhaz peacekeeping force -- will ask for something in return.

Since the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States, Russia has increased its pressure on the Georgian leadership to join forces against the Chechen separatist fighters it commonly refers to as "terrorists."

Moscow accuses Georgia of harboring separatist forces in the Pankisi Gorge, a northeastern mountainous area that borders Chechnya. Tbilisi had long denied the charge, until Shevardnadze a few months ago admitted to the possible presence in the region of armed Chechen fighters.

Last November, one month to the day since the Kodori events started, Russian aircraft reportedly attacked a village in the Pankisi Gorge in an apparent attempt to destroy Chechen guerilla groups hiding there. Although Russia has denied any wrongdoing, some Georgian officials have described the bombing as a "provocation."

The London-based "Jane's Intelligence Digest" ("JID") magazine on 25 January said it had gathered evidence suggesting the October Kodori armed clashes were, in fact, instigated by Russia. "JID" speculates that the conflict was "aided by Russian covert forces which supplied the personnel for the so-called 'anti-Abkhaz' partisan unit and provided military support for Abkhazia" to repel the attack.

In an interview with RFE/RL, "JID" editor Alex Standish said that since Putin took over from Boris Yeltsin nearly two years ago, the Kremlin has stepped up its intelligence operations to try to keep Georgia in its sphere of influence and force the Southern Caucasus state into a more compliant policy, in particular on Chechnya.

"The influence that dominates in the Putin administration is that of the former KGB, the FSB (Federal Security Service) as it now is. I think that there is a far more concerted effort to build up again Russia's intelligence operations, which I think had been somehow neglected, certainly in the early part of the Yeltsin administration. So I think the basic division, or the basic difference as I would see it, is that Putin, coming from a KGB background, is far closer to the intelligence, has a far greater commitment to using the Russian intelligence services to achieve Moscow's political objectives."

Some analysts believe these circumstances could explain why Shevardnadze now wishes the Russian peacekeepers to stay in Abkhazia. Richard Giragosian is a Washington-based regional analyst and the publisher of the monthly newsletter "Transcaucasus: A Chronology." Giragosian told RFE/RL he agrees with the view that Shevardnadze has very little room to maneuver in order to avoid "more destructive attempts at Russian manipulation in Georgia."

"In many ways, Shevardnadze is faced with a difficult situation where he may decide [that] accepting a Russian-dominated peacekeeping force to stay in Abkhazia may be the better of two evils," Giragosian said. "Because in many ways it does seems possible that his insistence [on obtaining its departure,] or the actual Russian withdrawal from Abkhazia, may force Moscow to take much more dangerous, much more threatening moves, in other ways, that would further destabilize Shevardnadze."

In a move apparently aimed at appeasing Moscow, Georgia earlier this month launched a police operation against Pankisi-based criminal rings specializing in human trafficking and drug smuggling. Reports from the area and support offered to the law enforcement agencies by local ethnic Chechens -- known as Kists -- suggest that the operation is so far not directed at Chechen fighters Moscow claims are using Pankisi as a base of operations.

Yet analysts believe Shevardnadze may eventually yield to Russian pressures and take steps against Chechen separatists to avoid greater evils. Regional expert Giragosian says, "Actually, from the Russians' perspective, I see their short-term strategic interests better served by a half-hearted Georgian attempt at a crackdown [in Pankisi], in that Russia [would] prefer to deal with the Chechen armed-rebel groups themselves. They would even possibly consider a cross-border intervention into the Pankisi Gorge. So that, in that way, many elements in the Russian Defense Ministry and national security figures have been very happy with the half-hearted, ineffective Georgian attempts at controlling the Pankisi Gorge to give them legitimization and justification to their own later intervention in the region."

"JID" intelligence expert Standish believes that, should Shevardnadze persist in refusing to address Moscow's concerns regarding Chechnya and other issues, the Kremlin could eventually opt for more radical steps.

"I think there is a strategy that while Shevardnadze is in power there is likely to be tension with the Kremlin. And Russia may be making longer-term plans to destabilize [him] further -- because we cannot say that the Shevardnadze administration is a particularly stable one. It may well be that part of the longer plan is to destabilize Georgia, leading to the ultimate fall or the elimination of Shevardnadze, and then putting their own people in positions of power whereby they can exert a greater degree of influence within Georgia."

However, Moscow's policy seems to have already borne some fruit. Speaking to journalists yesterday after talks with Rushailo, Georgia's Security Council Secretary Nugzar Sadzhaya said he did not rule out the presence of what he described as "people who have taken an active part in combat operations in Chechnya" among Pankisi-based refugees.

He also said Shevardnadze had given orders to ensure that Russian and Georgian intelligence agencies conduct joint operations in the gorge.