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Georgia: Why Kill President Shevardnadze?

Prague, 16 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Six days after the assassination attempt against Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze announced (on Feb. 15) the detention of several persons suspected of participating in the assault.

Georgian officials estimate that up to 20 people took part in the February 9 attack in the Georgian capital Tbilisi. Shevardandze was lucky to escape unhurt from the ruins of his armored limousine, but two of his bodyguards and one of the attackers was killed.

The identity and motives of the assailants and those who commissioned the attack remain unclear. Shevardnadze himself has said that the four or five suspects now being held include supporters of the late Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, and that they had been trained outside Georgia.

But if Gamsakhurdia's supporters were indeed responsible, it is not clear whom they intended to install as president in Shevardnadze's place. Moreover, political figures in Tbilisi, Moscow, and Chechnya, sometimes seeking to extract dividends from the assassination bid, have made conflicting statements that add to the confusion surrounding the incident.

On 10 February, the day after the assault, a Georgian Interior Ministry official announced that the member of the hit squad killed by Shevardnadze's bodyguards was apparently a Muslim. But the passport found on him was reported stolen several months ago by its owner, a Dagestani Chechen.

Georgian parliamentary chairman Zurab Zhvania described the assailants as "highly efficient specialists," adding that there is no military unit within Georgia capable of operating with such professionalism and that they must therefore have been from outside. But U.S. experts helping in the investigation initially concluded that those involved were not high-class professionals.

Shevardnadze initially blamed the attack on "external forces" intent on sowing "controlled chaos" throughout the Caucasus. The following day, he implicated unnamed forces "who cannot forgive Afghanistan, the [fall of the] Berlin Wall, Europe's liberation, oil pipelines, and the Eurasian transport corridor." But he also denied having referred to "a Russian connection" in the assault, affirming that "Georgia needs Russia, just as Russia needs Georgia."

Zhvania, however, who over the past year has taken a consistently harder line on relations with Russia than has Shevardnadze, said that members of the hit squad had spoken Russian among themselves. He added that they may have been evacuated from Georgia on a Russian military plane that landed at the Russian military base at Vaziani, 30 km east of Tbilisi, several hours after the attack on Shevardnadze and took off again 90 minutes later. Russian journalists, however, pointed out that Vaziani and the site of the assassination attempt are located on opposite banks of the River Kura, and that the assailants could not have reached the nearest bridge before it was closed by security forces.

Predictably, Russian officials have disclaimed any involvement in the attack and have suggested that it was planned inside Georgia, possibly by economic interest groups targeted by Shevardnadze's ongoing drive to eradicate corruption. But forces certainly exist in Russia with a vested interest in eliminating Shevardnadze, although those forces are less likely to be motivated by revenge for Shevardnadze's actions as Soviet Foreign Minister than by the desire to retain Georgia within Russia's sphere of influence. The domestic chaos that would inevitably have followed Shevardnadze's demise would have jeopardized both the export via Georgia of Caspian oil, and the TRACECA project to transport goods from Central Asia and the Transcaucasus to Europe bypassing Russia, and the planned creation of a Caucasian "Common Market" comprising Chechnya, Georgia, and Azerbaijan.

Alternatively, some political circles in Moscow, either acting independently or in tandem with the radical wing of the Abkhaz leadership, may have wished to prevent the international community's further involvement in mediating a solution to the Abkhaz conflict. While neither the UN nor NATO is likely to endorse the "Bosnia option," which foresees a peace-enforcing operation in Abkhazia and for which Shevardnadze has been lobbying in recent weeks, the prospect of an international force deployed close to the borders of the Russian Federation may have been unacceptable to those circles.

By contrast, Chechen government involvement in the assassination bid is implausible. Since last summer, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov has sought to expand economic relations with Georgia, which is Chechnya's sole outlet to the Black Sea. Shevardnadze, for his part, has proved amenable to such contacts, while stressing that he considers Chechnya an inseparable part of the Russian Federation. But Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ramazan Abdulatipov has condemned the Georgian "flirtation" with Chechnya. And Revaz Adamia, chairman of the Georgian parliament Commission on Defense Affairs, told RFE/RL that individual members of the Russian Federal Security Service may have decided to eliminate Shevardnadze in order to curtail the Chechen-Georgian rapprochement. Maverick field commander Salman Raduyev's claim that the attack on Shevardnadze was perpetrated by his Caucasian Home organization was probably intended primarily to embarrass Maskhadov and enhance Raduyev's own inglorious reputation.

A final question is how the Georgian security service failed to forestall a second attempt on Shevardnadze's life within two-and-a-half years. Russian Interior Minister Anatolii Kulikov has said he warned his Georgian counterpart Targamadze in November 1997 that an assassination attempt was in the offing.