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Russia: Is Moscow Behind Georgian Unrest?

Anti-Georgian demonstrators outside the Moscow embassy on November 12 (AFP) November 14, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Trading accusations has been a recurrent -- if not dominant -- feature of Georgian-Russian relations since Tbilisi's pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili, was swept to power in 2003. With Georgia in the midst of its worst political crisis in years, fingers are again pointing in Moscow's direction.

Saakashvili has spearheaded the accusations, blaming Russian intelligence services for orchestrating a week of opposition rallies in Tbilisi that spiraled into violence on November 7 after riot police used tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets to disperse rock-throwing protesters, injuring hundreds. Saakashvili, labeling the protests a Russia-backed attempt to overthrow his government, declared a state of emergency.

Angry rhetoric has long been the standard for exchanges between Moscow and Tbilisi. The latest turmoil, however, opened the floodgates for all-out mudslinging.

Moscow branded the allegations "hysteria" and described the beating of peaceful protesters as "democracy, Georgia-style" -- a clear swipe at Saakashvili's pro-Western policies.

Russian-Backed Separatism

Striking back, the embattled Georgian leader accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of seeking to partition his country like the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus. "I want to tell you something that I have never spoken about before," Saakashvili told national television viewers on November 12. "Last year, during the Minsk [CIS] summit, President Putin told me, very specifically, that Russia would organize a new Cyprus in Abkhazia."

Moscow's support for the Georgian separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has been at the crux of the protracted bickering between Georgia and its giant neighbor. Saakashvili, who has vowed to restore control over the breakaway regions, accuses Moscow of violating his country's territorial integrity by pumping cash and Russian passports into the two regions.

David Bakradze, Georgia's minister of conflict resolution, this week sounded the alarm, accusing Russia of a military buildup in Abkhazia. He said tanks, rocket launchers, armored personnel carriers, artillery, and about 200 soldiers -- many of them ethnic Chechens serving in Russia's military intelligence (GRU) -- had entered Abkhazia at the Black Sea port of Ochamchira.

The participation of Chechen troops, who fought against Georgian forces in the war between Georgia and Abkhazia, is likely to be perceived as an additional slap in the face for many Georgians, who see their cooperation with Russia as a profound betrayal of Caucasian unity.

The Russian Foreign Ministry immediately rejected Bakradze's claim as a "provocation." Abkhazia's rebel leadership joined in by describing them as "rubbish." Russia has consistently insisted its troops are a peacekeeping contingent.

"We are trying to help people in the hope that peace will be established between peoples," Movsar Usmanov, a Chechen peacekeeper, told RFE/RL. "Considering the fact that we have seen the tragedy of war and know what it is like, we hope that it will be possible to solve this conflict and that these people will live peacefully. Sometimes we use force, but most of the time we operate through words."

Bad Neighborly Relations

Russia, which has made the Georgia unrest a staple of its daily news coverage, has sought to portray itself as a cooperative, unaggressive neighbor. The Russian military, with considerable pomp, on November 13 declared the end of its centuries-long presence in Georgia after shutting down its military base in the Black Sea port city of Batumi. But the suspected troop buildup in breakaway Abkhazia -- and continued doubts over the status of a Russian base in the Abkhaz city of Gudauta -- means the claim rings hollow in Georgia.

Saakashvili's grievances against Moscow reflect a widespread perception in Georgia that Russia is meddling in the tiny Caucasus country, which it continues to treat as its own backyard.

"Russian spies are trying to influence domestic developments. An open aggression is taking place again Georgia, in violation of all international and bilateral agreements," says Georgian political analyst Temur Yakobashvili. "Russians are not even hiding that they are seeking regime change in Georgia by manipulating domestic political developments and influencing various political movements and leaders."

Russia has certainly come under fire for its harsh stance on Georgia since Saakashvili came to power with a pledge to steer his country westward into NATO and the European Union.

In 2006, Moscow slapped a ban on Georgian wine, fruit, vegetables, and mineral water, citing health concerns. Just months later, it imposed further sanctions, cut transport links, and summarily expelled thousands of ethnic Georgians in retaliation for the arrest in Tbilisi of four Russian military officers detained on spying charges. Three Georgians died during deportation.

There is little doubt, even among Russian political analysts, that Russian intelligence services are heavily involved in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But claims of a Russian coup attempt are raising eyebrows, both in Georgia and abroad.

Overplaying The Russia Card?

"The real problems in Georgian-Russian ties center around conflict regions for Georgia, and Georgia's relations with NATO for Russia," says Georgian political expert Marina Muskhelishvili. "We should make a distinction between this and the power struggle between the government and the opposition, which has nothing to do with Russia."

On November 7, during the peak of the violence in Tbilisi, Georgia's Interior Ministry released footage of what it said were negotiations between several leading opposition leaders and Russian intelligence agents. Saakashvili and the Georgian opposition, however, largely see eye to eye when it comes to Russia.

"On the domestic political scene, there's no real basis to say that the Russians are strongly involved," says Thomas de Waal, a Caucasus expert at Britain's Institute for War and Peace Reporting. "Badri Patarkatsishvili, the oligarch who is the main financial supporter of the opposition, is himself wanted in Russia because he's an associate of Boris Berezovsky. If you look at the Georgian opposition, most of them are just as anti-Russian as the government."

Claims that Russian intelligence had a hand in the turmoil that gripped Georgia last week are difficult to verify. But regardless of Russia's possible involvement, Saakashvili's finger-pointing against Moscow is seen by many as an attempt to deflect attention from his own handling of the antigovernment rallies. The brutal dispersal of protesters and the media clampdown that ensued have drawn much criticism abroad, dealing a severe blow to Saakashvili's credentials as the region's most democratic leader.

"It's obviously convenient for President Saakashvili to blame Russia in a time of crisis," says de Waal. "I think this is a card that can be overplayed, and I think many citizens are getting a bit fed up with that."

Amid the current unrest, one thing is certain: the mudslinging between Tbilisi and Moscow has certainly not taken anyone by surprise. Both Georgian and Russian policy watchers says finger-pointing is a time-honored tradition in post-Soviet territory:

"Georgia is reminiscent of Russia's bad political habits," says Sergei Markedonov, an expert at Moscow's Institute for Political and Military Analysis. "Many Russian politicians are genuinely convinced that the West is to blame for everything: the West caused the Orange Revolution, the West caused the Rose Revolution, the West demolished the Soviet Union. Georgian authorities are using exactly the same method. Only here, the evil Russia replaces the evil West. Georgia, Russia, and many post-Soviet countries have a very close mentality. Only the enemy changes."