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Caucasus Report: November 30, 2000

30 November 2000, Volume  3, Number  46

IS RUSSIA SEEKING TO IMPOSE AN ECONOMIC STRANGLE-HOLD ON GEORGIA? The mid-November visit to Tbilisi by a Russian State Duma delegation headed by that body's deputy speaker, Vladimir Lukin, served to underscore both the increasing tensions between Russia and Georgia. Moreover, this visit calls attention to the factors that preclude the improvement in bilateral relations that both sides say is needed. And a Russian ultimatum to Georgia apparently made during Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili's visit to Moscow last week has incensed the Georgian parliament even further, prompting some deputies to call for Georgia's withdrawal from the CIS.

Relations between Tbilisi and Moscow have been tense since the fall of 1993, when Russia effectively blackmailed Georgia into joining the CIS in return for military help to quash a comeback attempt by ousted President Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Since that time, Moscow has regarded with ever-increasing suspicion and misgivings Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze's aspiration to anchor Georgia in a democratic Europe. That strategy that has already won Georgia full membership of the Council of Europe, and Shevardnadze has made no secret of his aspiration to see his country eventually enter both NATO and the EU.

Georgia was one of the three founding members of the alignment which was formalized in late 1997 as GUAM and which Moscow perceives as intended to sabotage the CIS from within. And in the economic sphere, Moscow regards Georgia's support for the Baku-Ceyhan export pipeline for Caspian oil as a blow against Russian interests. (It was Shevardnadze and then-Turkish President Suleiman Demirel who in late 1994 first proposed that the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline should be routed through Georgia, not through Armenia as originally suggested.)

Many in Georgia, for their part, bore a grudge against those Russian circles that openly abetted the Abkhaz in the 1992-1993 war, and suspects Moscow of neo-imperialist ambitions. The continued presence in Georgia of four Russian military bases has served to substantiate those suspicions.

In the event, Russia and Georgia agreed in November 1999 on the closure of those bases within the framework of the revised CFE treaty. But the timeframe for doing so, and in particular the fate of the Gudauta base in Abkhazia and the equipment currently located there, has continued to be a source of controversy. Georgia is reluctant to accept Russia's proposal that the Gudauta base should be transformed into a recreation center for the CIS peacekeeping force currently deployed on the internal border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. (Although serving under the CIS aegis, that force is composed exclusively of Russian troops.) That proposal implies that Russia either sees no prospect of, or even will actively seek to prevent, a solution to the Abkhaz conflict that would enable the peacekeeping force to be withdrawn.

Meanwhile, the war in Chechnya has provided Russia with the rationale for tightening the screws on Georgia. Even before Russian troops entered Chechnya in October 1999, Russian planes had "accidentally" dropped bombs on Georgian territory. For the past 12 months, Moscow has repeatedly accused the Georgian leadership of allowing the unimpeded transit through Georgia of mercenaries and military supplies bound for Chechnya, and of failing to take action against Chechen fighters who, Moscow claims, have established bases in the Pankisi gorge region of north-eastern Georgia. Tbilisi has just as systematically rejected all charges of abetting the Chechen fighters.

In early November 1999, then-Russian Premier Vladimir Putin ordered the foreign ministry to begin negotiations with Azerbaijan and Georgia on imposing a visa requirement for citizens of those countries wishing to enter Russia. Putin argued that such a step is necessary to prevent Chechen gunmen freely crossing into the Russian Federation from those two countries (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 November 1999). While it was originally envisaged that that visa regime should take effect on 1 January 2000, the first, preliminary talks between Moscow and Tbilisi on the issue did not take place until April. And while Russia continued to insist on the introduction of a visa regime with Georgia, it failed to pursue the issue with regard to Azerbaijan.

In late August, Russia finally announced its withdrawal from the 1992 Bishkek protocol on visa-free travel between CIS member states; but at the same time, it sought to reassure selected fellow CIS members that it will not require visas for their citizens wishing to enter the Russian Federation.

On his return from Moscow last week, Menagharishvili told the Georgian parliament that Moscow had laid down the conditions on which it would waive the visa requirement for Georgian citizens, which will otherwise take effect on 5 December. They are that Georgia adopt a "neutral" position in the Chechen conflict, that Tbilisi accede to the Eurasian Economic Community created last month on the basis of the CIS Customs Union, that the Georgian government moderate its negotiating position on the closure of the Russian military bases in Georgia, and Georgia will "take into consideration Russia's interests in the export of Caspian oil and gas." It is not clear whether the latter requirement means that Russia wants Georgia to pull out of the Baku-Ceyhan oil export pipeline project. Menagharishvili told deputies that while Tbilisi is interested in "constructive dialogue" with Russia, it will never agree to such demands.

But Moscow shows no signs of backing down: presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii said on 28 November that Moscow has no choice but to impose the visa requirement given what he called Georgia's "strange" reluctance to take action against Chechen "separatists" and "terrorists."

Yastrzhembskii also highlighted the possible economic impact of the new requirement on Georgia. He explained that Moscow and Tbilisi have agreed on a three-month "grace period," during which the estimated 500,000-700,000 Georgian citizens currently working in Russia will not need to acquire an exit visa in order to return to Georgia. But, Yastrzhembskii continued, if those Georgians wish to return to Russia after 1 March 2001, then they will need a letter of invitation from a Russian citizen or a registered entity in order to apply for a Russian visa. They will, moreover, have to apply for those visas at the Russian consulate in Tbilisi; visas will not be issued to Georgian citizens at the Georgian-Russian border. (Residents of the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhaz and South Ossetia will be exempt from the visa requirement, a discrepancy that some Georgian officials have termed a Russian threat to Georgia's territorial integrity.)

Yastrzhembskii claimed that Georgians currently working in Russia remit to their families in Georgia a total of $1.5 billion annually. A Georgian emigration official offered a much lower estimate of $600-700 million, but noted that that sum is equal to twice the country's annual budget. The loss of those monies will aggravate social hardship in Georgia (some 52 percent of Georgians live under the poverty level), and, if the Georgians who return from Russia fail to find employment at home, unemployment will rise considerably. Both those developments would inevitably exacerbate social tensions in Georgia.

Meeting with Shevardnadze in Minsk on 30 November on the eve of the CIS summit, Russian President Putin reportedly offered to drop the visa requirement if Georgia accedes to the Russia-Belarus Union State, according to "Rezonansi" quoting an unidentified source within the georgian state chancellery. That source said that Shevardnadze did not reject Putin's proposal out of hand, and may be constrained to agree to it if the situation in Georgia continues to dereriorate. (Liz Fuller)


IOSELIANI ELECTED CHAIRMAN OF NEW MKHEDRIONI.

The first congress of the political organization Mkhedrioni, created two years ago on the basis of the former paramilitary organization (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 1, no. 29, 15 September 1998), took place in Tbilisi last week. Some 400 delegates elected as the organization's chairman 73-year-old Djaba Ioseliani, the bank-robber turned philosopher and novelist who achieved notoriety as head of the original Mkhedrioni paramilitary organization in 1991-1992. Ioseliani had been sentenced to 11 years' imprisonment in November 1998 on charges of banditry, terrorism and involvement in the August 1995 attempt to assassinate then Georgian parliament chairman Eduard Shevardnadze. He was released in the spring of this year and immediately announced his plans to return to active politics (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, no. 19, 12 May 2000). Last month he signaled his intention of contesting the by-election in a Tbilisi constituency now vacant due to the appointment of majority Union of Citizens of Georgia faction leader Mikhail Saakashvili as minister of justice.

Delegates to the congress adopted a political program that includes a call for the abolition of the presidency and the introduction of a parliamentary republic and another for Georgia to declare its neutrality and seek "balanced relations" with both Russia and the West.

Two incidents on the eve of the congress suggest, however, that some in Georgia are either not convinced that the Mkhedrioni leopard has indeed changed its spots or still view it as a destabilizing influence. First, Tbilisi police identified Mkhedrioni secretary Tornike Berishvili as one of the organizers of the demonstrations in Tbilisi several days earlier against endemic power outages. (Berishvili admitted that he had participated in those protests, but denied organizing them.) Then on 20 November, an unidentified vehicle rammed Ioseliani's car in Tbilisi, after which the driver fled the scene.

The new Mkhedrioni has not yet formally registered as a political organization with the Georgian Ministry of Justice. It will be interesting to see whether it encounters problems in doing so. (Liz Fuller)


PUTIN APPOINTS MINISTER FOR RECONSTRUCTION IN CHECHNYA.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on 28 November named former Orenburg Governor Vladimir Yelagin to coordinate the work of federal ministries engaged in rebuilding Chechnya's war-shattered infrastructure. Commenting on that appointment, Russian presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii said that while interim Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov has achieved progress in the political sphere, social and economic problems remain unresolved. Yastrzhembskii added that Kadyrov's administration "functions stably" and that there is therefore no need to impose direct presidential rule on Chechnya.

The decision to name a special minister to oversee, and monitor the financing of, reconstruction in Chechnya is unlikely to please either Kadyrov or Putin's presidential representative to the South Russia federal district, Viktor Kazantsev. Kadyrov had traveled to Moscow earlier this month in a bid to secure greater autonomy and more extensive powers for his administration, including in economic issues (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, no. 44, 10 November 2000).

Kazantsev for his part had argued for the "total centralization" of administration of Chechnya in the hands of one man (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, no. 41, 20 October 2000).

A third person who will probably also be unhappy with Putin's decision is Chechen businessman Malik Saidullaev, head of the Moscow-based Chechen State Council, the legitimacy of which Kadyrov refuses to acknowledge. "Izvestiya" on 29 November said that Saidullaev had himself aspired to the post of Chechen financial controller. ITAR-TASS quoted Saidullaev as having told a Moscow conference on Chechen reconstruction earlier this week that it is too earlier to form a real government in Chechnya (as Kadyrov had hoped to do). Instead, Saidullaev argued, a strict vertical power hierarchy should be imposed and administration of the republic should be placed in the hands of "a person who has levers and knows the situation" there. In addition, Saidullaev said, a comprehensive reconstruction program should be drafted with guaranteed funding and strict deadlines. (Liz Fuller)


QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "The old Balkan story of violence and ethnic cleansing is not over yet. Today, Kosovo is Europe's biggest problem, which could activate other, seemingly sleeping flashpoints outside the Balkans." -- Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica at the 24 November Zagreb Balkan summit. Quoted by Reuters (courtesy of "RFE/RL Balkan Report").

"We are moving towards peace." -- Azerbaijani parliamentary deputy speaker Arif Ragim-zade, speaking at a session of the Black Sea Assembly in Yerevan on 29 November (quoted by RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau).

"Azerbaijan is a country that will have to be concerned with strengthening its independence for many years to come." -- Azerbaijan State Oil Company Vice President Ilham Aliev, in an interview with "Moskovskie novosti," No. 46, 21-27 November 2000.

"Parliament deputies should not be entitled to carry weapons in parliament. A deputy's task is to vote and that can also be done without a gun." -- Vahan Hovanessian, chairman of the Armenian parliamentary standing commission on Defense, National Security, and Internal Affairs, quoted in "Hayots ashkhar" on 21 November.


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