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Russia: Experts Ponder Putin's Continuous Pressure On Georgia

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

While confrontation continues between Moscow and Tbilisi over alleged Georgian-based Chechen separatist hideouts, other South Caucasus countries wait with anxiety for the outcome of the dispute. So high are the concerns that Armenia, Russia's closest ally in the region, offered to mediate between Russia and Georgia. RFE/RL discusses with regional analysts Russia's suspected motives in pressuring Georgia and the possible consequences for the stability of the South Caucasus.

Prague, 19 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- On 11 September, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued his toughest warning yet to Georgia, threatening to order air strikes against armed Chechen separatists allegedly sheltering in the South Caucasus country unless Tbilisi takes radical steps to flush them out.

Putin's remarks, backed by a strongly worded parliamentary resolution, sparked a wave of public outcry in Georgia, where they were officially characterized as a "threat of aggression." The government appealed to the international community to avert a possible armed incursion.

Georgian authorities have since signaled their readiness to cooperate with Russian law-enforcement agencies in restoring law and order in the Pankisi Gorge, the border area Moscow claims serves as a base of operations for Chechen militants, but the Kremlin has not softened its stance.

Speaking yesterday in Washington, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov mentioned possible "preemptive strikes" on Georgian-based Chechen militants.

Addressing reporters in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi 17 September, Putin said he was not satisfied with Georgia's response and accused Tbilisi of cooperating with "terrorists." "The further we go, the more information we get that confirms that not only are Georgian authorities not willing to cooperate with us, but that they are cooperating with terrorists," Putin said.

Russia claims that Georgian authorities have voluntarily let the Pankisi Gorge turn into a "nest of terrorists" comparable to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Tbilisi denies the charge and says the few dozen armed separatists stranded in Pankisi have been driven there from Chechnya by Russian troops. Georgia also blames Moscow for a series of cross-border air raids on Pankisi and nearby areas, including a recent bombing that left one villager dead.

As proof of their goodwill, Georgian authorities on 25 August launched a security crackdown in Pankisi that has so far resulted in the arrest of about a dozen wanted criminals and as many suspected Chechen separatists.

Yet, Russia cites the fact that Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze urged the male population of Pankisi to leave the area ahead of the security operation as evidence that Tbilisi is conniving with Chechen fighters in undermining its security. Georgia, in turn, says the warning was issued to avert bloodshed with armed militants and confrontations with local residents.

Moscow also maintains that Pankisi-based Chechen fighters and Georgian irregulars are planning armed forays into Georgia's breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Both provinces, which effectively seceded from Tbilisi in the early 1990s with the active military support of Russia, have threatened to respond by force to any attack, raising fears of a reignition of the unresolved separatist conflicts.

Even in Moscow, some political analysts openly question Putin's claim that his ultimatum is aimed at forcing Georgia to remove threats to Russia's national security.

Emil Pain runs the Moscow-based Center for Ethno-Political and Regional Studies. A former adviser to former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Pain said that of all possible explanations for Putin's move, he believes "the least plausible is probably the official version." "In my view, it is difficult to say what the aim pursued [by Russia] really is because the stated objective, to combat [Pankisi-based] Chechen fighters, can be attained neither by threats nor by concrete [military] operations. Besides, past experience of air raids conducted during both Chechen campaigns shows that such an operation is almost unfeasible. All the more so that [Chechen] fighters have been notified in advance about the operation and have had time to regroup and hide. With regards to [Putin's] secret motives, there is a multitude of possible explanations. However, I would say the most realistic one is that [these threats] are meant for domestic consumption rather than for the outside world. If we take into account the fact that public opinion [in Russia] generally supports all decisive steps made by the president, in particular when it regards Georgia, this kind of statement obviously serves to strengthen the president's popularity," Pain said.

Pain said that, although two-thirds of Russians now favor a peaceful solution to the Chechen conflict, compared to one-third two years ago, the vast majority of the Russian population seems to approve of Putin's hard stance on Georgia.

When Putin became president in March 2000, he promised to bring the then-five-month-old second Chechen war to a rapid and successful conclusion. Yet, federal troops have been unable to subdue the breakaway republic, and separatist fighters continue to conduct daily raids on Russian soldiers.

Pain believes another of Putin's aims in pointing at Georgia's alleged links with so-called "international terrorists" is to make Tbilisi a scapegoat for his failure to quell Chechen separatism. "This is a very important element. Four or five times already, top Russian officials have claimed that the military operation [in Chechnya] is over. However, it is still going on and the number of victims, including among Russian soldiers, continues to increase. Therefore, you have to justify the prolongation of war. The [easiest] way to come through all right is to say that you are not responsible and that there is nothing you can do because [the Chechens] have bases that are located outside the country, bases that you cannot control and that are being used to make incursions [into Russia], although it is obvious that a much, much greater number of fighters are located on Russian territory than in Georgia," Pain said.

Whatever the rationale behind the Kremlin's ultimatum to Georgia, it was received with trepidation in the South Caucasus, including in Russia's ally Armenia, which has offered to mediate between the two countries, if necessary.

Aleksandr Arzumanian is a former Armenian foreign minister who chairs the Pan-Armenian National Movement, Armenia's former ruling party. He told RFE/RL that, however justified Russia's grievances toward Georgia might be, he disapproves of Putin's stance, which he said is fraught with dire consequences for the entire region. "I believe this response in the form of an ultimatum is inadequate. [Russia] should try to solve this problem through consultations with Georgia, which is a sovereign state. Naturally, Russia is worried to see its border being violated [by Chechen fighters], but the fact remains that Georgia has the right to settle this problem on its territory itself," Arzumanian said.

Although analysts doubt Russia has the necessary will or resources to put its threats into execution, concerns that Putin's ultimatum might signal a new stage of Russia's policy toward the South Caucasus remain high.

Asked whether he saw Putin's recent ultimatum as a threat to regional stability, Arzumanian said: "Of course. Today it is Georgia. Tomorrow it could be some other country."

Elkhan Nuriev is the co-chairman of the Southern Caucasus Crisis Management Study, a Baku-based think tank affiliated with Germany's George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. Echoing Arzumanian's concerns, Nuriev told RFE/RL that he sees Putin's ultimatum as a warning to Azerbaijan. "The fact is that Georgia is on the front line. But should Russia reach its objective of having Shevardnadze's regime replaced and Georgia's foreign policy reversed, this would seriously affect Azerbaijan. There is no need [for the Kremlin] to influence Armenia, which is already oriented toward Russia. But this would affect Azerbaijan very strongly, although the effect [of Russia's policy toward Georgia] has been already noticeable over the past few months, especially since January," Nuriev said.

Nuriev is referring to a leasing agreement reached on 24 January that gives Russia the right to use Azerbaijan's Qabala military radar station for another 10 years.

Despite a generally compliant attitude toward Russia, Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev yesterday inaugurated the construction of a U.S.-sponsored crude-oil export pipeline to Georgia and Turkey primarily designed to loosen Russia's energy grip on the South Caucasus.

Speaking at the inauguration ceremony, Shevardnadze, who has listed the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline among Moscow's main grievances toward his country, called the East-West energy corridor, which includes the new pipeline, a landmark in the economic development of the South Caucasus. In a veiled reference to Russia, the embattled Georgian leader also praised Washington for having saved the project "from lots of visible and invisible obstacles."

Vafa Quluzade is a Baku-based political analyst who served as a foreign-policy adviser to three Azerbaijani presidents, including current President Aliev. He said Putin's stance should be seen in the broader context of Moscow's decade-long struggle to regain control over a region progressively drifting toward the West. "For Russia, the Caucasus question is very painful. Russia is determined to retain its control over the Caucasus. Russia's interest in the Caucasus is responsible for the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict [over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave], which has so far no settlement prospects. The same can be said of the conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia, of the conflict between Georgia and [South] Ossetia and of the relations between Georgia and [the autonomous republic of] Adjaria. In all these questions, you would find indications of Russia's interests and policy. Moscow wants to subdue the Caucasus, but the Caucasus has chosen a pro-Western, pro-independence orientation. The trouble is that the Caucasus does not want to be subdued by Russia," Quluzade said.

Quluzade believes Moscow's ultimate goal regarding Georgia is to create conditions propitious to a change of political regime and to have pro-NATO Shevardnadze replaced by a pro-Russian leader.

Most experts, however, believe the Kremlin has not made any firm decision and will for the time being try to force Shevardnadze into a more obedient policy, lest moves to remove him antagonize Washington, which is economically and militarily involved in Georgia.

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