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U.S./Russia: Problems In Georgia Loom Large Over Bush-Putin Summit

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Arms-control issues are set to dominate next week's summit in Russia between Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush. But some of the thornier issues in U.S.-Russian relations will be looming over the talks. As RFE/RL reports from Washington, analysts are concerned in particular about U.S. military aid to Georgia and the potential for renewed conflict over the Abkhazia region.

Washington, 16 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The United States says its new military "Train and Equip" program in Georgia is intended to help the Caucasus country deal with lawlessness and possible terrorist threats in some of its more remote areas, such as the Pankisi Gorge.

Analysts interviewed by RFE/RL generally concur that the recently begun program will improve the overall security of Georgia, a chaotic former Soviet republic that, despite Russian resistance, has sought to align itself with the West.

But analysts are also concerned that the $65 million military training program could generate dangerously unintended consequences, such as emboldening an improved Georgian army to try to seek a military solution to the standoff over the Russian-backed breakaway region of Abkhazia.

As U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin prepare to sign an arms-control pact and ring in a much-vaunted "new era" in their ties at a Moscow summit beginning on 23 May, analyst Fiona Hill of Washington's Brookings Institution wonders if unforeseen events in Georgia won't sooner or later spoil their party.

"Georgia is one of the potential flash points -- in fact, more of a flash point than even Central Asia at this point -- for U.S.-Russian relations," Hill said.

To be sure, U.S. officials have repeatedly said the plan to use 150 to 200 U.S. military personnel to train four Georgian battalions for 21 months has nothing to do with the conflict over Abkhazia, the scene of a war between separatists and Georgian troops that ended in 1993.

Late last month, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell made this observation to a U.S. Congressional committee: "We have also made it clear, however, that we don't want to see any improvement in their capability, or that improved capability used against Abkhazia. There has to be a peaceful solution."

But Hill and other analysts, such as Zeyno Baran -- who runs a Caucasus program at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies -- say they were spooked earlier this month by a bellicose statement attributed to Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze.

In a 6 May dispatch by Caucasus Press, Shevardnadze is quoted as telling journalists that he supports a "strong and united" Georgian guerrilla movement. The guerrilla movement was originally set up with the aim of taking back Abkhazia into Georgia. But regional analysts believe the majority of the so-called "partisans" now control cross-demarcation-line smuggling operations, sometimes operating in collusion with Russian peacekeepers and Abkhaz fighters.

No one was immediately available at the Georgian embassy in Washington to verify Shevardnadze's comments. But while they have not been officially denied, Shevardnadze said this week he believes only a peaceful solution can work in Abkhazia.

Tbilisi has long denied any connection to, or control over, several ragtag Georgian guerrilla movements reportedly seeking to take back Abkhazia and the return of some 200,000 Georgian refugees. But Hill, who believes any return to violence over Abkhazia would be a "foreign-policy disaster" for the Bush administration, said some observers doubt Shevardnadze's sincerity. "The accusation has often been from many quarters, you know, that Shevardnadze encourages [the guerrilla movements]."

And Baran said the Abkhaz side appears to view the potential consequences of the U.S. Train and Equip program as a direct threat. "I was recently in Turkey, and a huge Abkhaz diaspora, the largest group of Abkhaz live there -- about 800,000 -- and I met with them. And they're, of course, really concerned that this Train and Equip program, [will get into] the wrong hands or [be] uncontrolled. Or maybe some Georgians will get emboldened and decide that with all the American support, military and political, that maybe they can just solve the Abkhaz situation militarily."

The stalled Georgian-Abkhazian peace process is overseen by the United Nations, for which Russia provides peacekeepers. The UN reportedly is working on a plan that would give the breakaway region, which is recognized only by Russia, autonomy within Georgian territory.

But analysts say any settlement is conditioned by the state of Russian-Georgian relations, which have worsened over the last year. And they say that the worse things get between Tbilisi and Moscow, the more pressure is put on relations between Russia and the United States.

"I would say over the last year, or maybe longer, [Georgia] has been a thorn [in U.S.-Russian relations]. And definitely, unless the U.S. and Russia can work out a way to cooperate on Georgia, and basically have Georgia more stable, it will definitely be one of the key issues that is going to keep the U.S. and Russia from the rapprochement process," Baran said.

Moscow has long said that Chechen separatists, some with Al-Qaeda connections, use the lawless Pankisi Gorge on the Georgian border with the breakaway Chechen republic as a haven. Last fall, the U.S. said it believed the Russian military had conducted air strikes in the gorge.

Russia's preoccupation with the Pankisi Gorge was in the news again this week when nationalist Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Dmitrii Rogozin said he believed the alleged perpetrator of the 9 May bombing that killed 42 people in Daghestan is hiding in the region. Georgian officials have called those charges unfounded.

The U.S. State Department has not commented on them, but said it understands Russia's concerns about the Pankisi Gorge.

In remarks before the U.S. Helsinki Commission last week, Assistant Secretary of State Steven Pifer said Washington's intention is not just to bolster Georgia's ability to fight terrorists but to reduce the temptation for the Russian military to strike Georgian territory.

"The training-and-equipment program, which is just beginning in the last couple of weeks, is intended to help give Georgian security forces the capacity to deal with these individuals operating in the Pankisi Gorge. Again, what we're trying to do is help Georgia be in a position to resolve the problem, because we don't think the situation in Georgia would be advanced were the Russians to take action across the border," Pifer said.

Nor, however, would it be advanced by fresh hostilities over Abkhazia. But that is what one Georgian leader is proposing. Teimuraz Shashiashvili, the governor of the Imereti region, has reportedly laid down an ultimatum to Shevardnadze that unless he can persuade the international community to get the Abkhazians to agree to a deal, he will personally lead a guerrilla campaign to restore Tbilisi's control over Abkhazia.

Shashiashvili also said there is no longer a chance for a peaceful solution to the conflict and that there will be -- in his words -- "another Afghanistan" if Russia does not persuade Abkhazia to sign a settlement. The deadline for the ultimatum is 26 May, the last day of the Bush-Putin summit.

On the other end of the divide, Baran said Abkhazians are worried that warming U.S.-Russian relations will lead Moscow to "drop" them. And she said this could tempt some to try to destabilize the situation during the summit.

"Some of these Abkhaz are very concerned that if the Russian-U.S. relations get even closer, then Russia might just drop Abkhazia as a sort of strategic tool. And so the Abkhaz might then try to make sure that they are not just considered to be easily droppable. So they might do something that would force people to look into it," Baran said.

But Baran and Hill say neither side in the dispute really wants a return to arms, and that apart from Russia, the whole international community -- led by the UN -- wants to see a peaceful settlement, with the region returning to Georgia. Baran said all this concern before the summit may lead Putin and Bush to focus on Abkhazia.

"We're going to see, over the next couple of weeks, a lot of heating up on the ground: mutual accusations, probably some ultimatums, and definitely some misinformation. And it's all hopefully going to come to some sort of quiet [end] after the summit. People need to see that the Caucasus conflicts are going to come up [at the summit] and that it's not just going to be the big questions," Baran said.

But persuading Russia to agree to a settlement on Abkhazia won't be easy.

Baran believes Putin would agree to a deal, but that he needs something in exchange from Bush to appease hard-liners in the military.

Russia has had a long, complicated affair with Georgia. Former Soviet leader Josef Stalin -- a creator of the Soviet state -- was Georgian. And the last Soviet foreign minister, Shevardnadze -- seen by many as a destroyer of the Soviet state -- is also a Georgian. And Hill said there are so many other intangibles in the relationship between them that it's very hard for Russians to "let go" of Georgia.

"Georgian food, music, wine -- everything is all kind of tied into Russia, into a kind of cultural-culinary level. There are so many intricacies in it. And [there's] a great deal of romanticism about Georgia. It's all mingled together. It's really hard to try to talk to Russians about it, to disentangle everything they're so concerned about," Hill said.

But perhaps next week, Bush and Putin can give it a shot.

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