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Georgia: Russia Issues Ultimatum Over Pankisi Gorge

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday issued his toughest statement yet to Georgia. In a speech to top security officials, Putin urged Georgia's leadership to tackle armed Chechen separatists that Russia says are using the South Caucasus country as a base of operations. As the world was commemorating the first anniversary of the 11 September attacks on the United States, the Kremlin appealed to the international community to back Russia's own efforts to combat alleged "terrorists."

Prague, 12 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The dispute between Moscow and Tbilisi over alleged Georgian-based Chechen fighters took a dramatic turn yesterday, with Russia issuing what sounded like an ultimatum to its southern neighbor.

Addressing a meeting of senior security and defense officials in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Georgia that it must prevent alleged cross-border attacks from armed Chechen separatists reportedly hiding on its territory or face the consequences. "If the Georgian leadership cannot ensure security along the Russian-Georgian border, if it continues to ignore United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373 of 28 September 2001, and if it fails to put an end to bandit incursions and attacks on neighboring Russian regions, then we will reserve the right to act in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter that grants every UN member state the inalienable right to individual or collective self-defense," Putin said.

The Russian leader went on to say that countermeasures might include air strikes on Georgian territory. "I am asking the General Staff of the Russian armed forces to report about the feasibility and expediency, as part of a pursuit operation, of strikes on terrorist bases formally identified by our intelligence. The Foreign Ministry of the Russian Federation will be asked to convey our concerns and report on Georgia's infringement of UN Security Council resolutions," Putin said.

Passed in the wake of the 11 September attacks on the United States, Resolution 1373 of the UN Security Council calls on all UN member states "to prevent those who finance, plan, facilitate, or commit terrorist acts from using their respective territories for those purposes against other countries and their citizens."

The Russian president's televised remarks mark the sternest warning issued yet by the Kremlin since the beginning of the bilateral dispute. How the Kremlin could implement its threats while still respecting Georgia's "territorial sovereignty," as Putin said yesterday, remains unclear.

The Russian president, who was speaking on the first anniversary of the 11 September attacks, went as far as accusing Georgia of sheltering the accomplices of the suicide hijackers who carried out the attacks on the U.S., as well as the perpetrators of a series of apartment blasts that killed hundreds in Moscow and southern Russia in September 1999.

These bombings, which have never been independently investigated, served in part as a pretext for the Kremlin to launch its second Chechen campaign just weeks later.

"Today, nobody can deny -- we know this for sure, and it is confirmed by international sources of information -- that those who took part in preparations for the attacks on the U.S. one year ago and those who were directly involved in the Russian apartment-building explosions are entrenched on the territory of Georgia," Putin said.

Putin reiterated his concerns in a note sent to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan ahead of the UN General Assembly meeting that opens today in New York.

In this letter, which is also addressed to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Putin says he hopes the world community "will support the decisions Russia will make to combat international terrorism, protect the lives of civilians, and guarantee the stability and security of the Caucasus region."

Russia has long accused Georgia of harboring Chechen separatist bases in the Pankisi Gorge, a tiny mountainous area that borders Chechnya to the south.

Georgia denies the claims, admitting only to the presence of a limited number of Chechen fighters on its territory. In addition, Tbilisi says most armed separatists stranded in Pankisi have been driven there by Russian forces fighting in Chechnya.

Despite Moscow's insistence that a joint security operation be conducted in the area, Georgia has always refused to allow Russian troops onto its territory.

After Moscow reportedly carried out a series of random air raids on Georgia, including one that left a villager dead, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze ordered the Interior Ministry on 25 August to cleanse the area of Chechen fighters that might be hiding in Pankisi and of all criminal rings who have been using the area as a base of operations.

Georgian authorities claim the security sweep has so far resulted in the arrest of 10 criminals and one Arab-born French citizen with alleged terrorist links.

But Russia is asking for more and wants Georgia to arrest and extradite all Chechen fighters located on its territory.

Georgia's breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are both supported by Moscow, claim Chechen separatists from Pankisi are now threatening their borders. Both regions have vowed to respond to any possible incursions with military force.

Addressing reporters yesterday in Tbilisi shortly after Putin's remarks, Shevardnadze said some 40 criminals were believed to remain hidden in Pankisi. He reiterated an earlier claim that all "large armed groups" had left the area, and rejected Moscow's accusations of Tbilisi's supporting terrorist organizations.

Asked to comment on Putin's possible motive for issuing such a strong warning, Shevardnadze said "Russia has taken offense at [our] refusal to allow its troops through Georgian territory to strike Chechnya in the back, which would effectively mean a shifting of military operations to Georgia."

Shevardnadze said he was surprised that Putin, in his statement, had not once mentioned the situation in Chechnya itself. He also rejected claims that Georgia should be blamed for the situation in Pankisi, which is also home to thousands of Chechen refugees who have fled the combat zone. "Truth is on our side. Therefore we can be hopeful. We did not create the Pankisi problem," Shevardnadze said.

The Georgian president described Putin's statement as "hasty" and primarily meant for the Russian Army and security officials who attended the Sochi conference.

Shevardnadze also said he would telephone Putin today to seek clarification, and expressed hope that both countries would reach a "mutual understanding."

But Kremlin spokesman Aleksei Gromov today said the Georgian president had not notified Moscow of his intention to contact Putin.

Despite expressing concern over the latest Russian move, the Georgian leadership seems eager to downplay the significance of Putin's warning.

Shevardnadze yesterday dismissed fears that Russia might seriously consider taking military action against Georgia. "That does not mean that Russia is preparing to attack Georgia and start a war. We cannot reach such a conclusion from [Putin's] remarks. On the contrary, at the end of his statement, [Putin] makes a point of saying that he stands for dialogue, that he wants to meet President Shevardnadze. I am confident that we will overcome this crisis in our relations," Shevardnadze said.

Security Minister Valerii Khaburdzania told Georgia's Rustavi-2 private television channel that Moscow has been unable to assert control over Chechnya and that therefore, its bellicose rhetoric should not be taken seriously.

Be that as it may, Shevardnadze's chief foreign-policy adviser, Shalva Pitchkhadze, told Georgia's Prime News agency that the Russian threats should prompt Tbilisi to "activate its search for a new security umbrella" with NATO.

Shevardnadze was expected to chair an emergency meeting of his Security Council today to assess Georgian-Russian relations in light of Putin's latest comments.

Earlier today, the Georgian parliament suspended debate to prepare a written response to Putin's remarks.

In the words of parliamentary speaker Nino Burdzhanadze, the bilateral dispute "no longer fits the framework of normal, civilized relations."