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Georgia: Relations With Russia Worsen

Georgia's accusations that Russian helicopter gunships bombed Georgian territory near the border with Chechnya yesterday are only the latest evidence of spreading tension in the Caucasus. RFE/RL's Michael Gallant looks at the deterioration of Russian-Georgian relations.

Prague, 18 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian officials say that three Russian helicopter gunships opened fire on a village and border post inside Georgia yesterday.

Initially, Russia admitted violating Georgian air space, but not bombing Georgian territory. But Russia's Defense Ministry today dismissed the entire report as "malicious misinformation." The ministry said no aircraft had intruded Georgian airspace, and no air strike took place. Georgia, for its part, did not accept the denial.

The alleged bombing is the latest episode in what analysts say is Russia's ongoing attempt to reassert control over the southern Caucasus, which is rich in oil and gas. They say Georgia sees Russia as a lumbering bear, infringing on Georgian sovereignty and threatening to destabilize the former Soviet republic.

Russia has accused Georgia of allowing Chechen arms and fighters to cross Georgian territory on the way to Chechnya. Russian officials say Chechen fighters are planning to form a government-in-exile in Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Merab Antadze denied those accusations last week in an interview with RFE/RL in Tbilisi. He said such reports are part of a Russian disinformation campaign against Georgia.

"In Russia, some forces that are very influential among the military, and also a big part of political forces, are interested in destabilizing Georgia, as well as the whole region. And that concerns the big [gas and oil pipeline] projects in which Russia is afraid not to be involved. Russia is afraid not to participate in these projects."

Azerbaijan and Turkey recently finalized an agreement on an oil pipeline from Baku on the Caspian Sea to Ceyhan on the Mediterranean, which will run through Georgia and bypass Russia. The U.S. gave strong support to the project as a means of transporting oil from Central Asian countries outside Moscow's control.

There are also plans to construct a Trans-Caspian gas pipeline that would begin in Turkmenistan and run through Azerbaijan and Georgia on its way to Turkey.

Ghia Nodia is the chairman of the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development in Tbilisi. He told RFE/RL that certain forces in the Russian government want to draw Georgia into the war with Chechnya.

"I think there is an instinct of some Russian strategists that because Western influence in Georgia and in the Caucasus in general is on the increase, something has to be done about this, to change it, to break it. The strategy can be, if Georgia is destabilized through being involved in this war, it will be less attractive to Western investments and Western politicians -- and then Russian influence will increase again."

Georgian officials also charge that Russia is trying to gain influence by supporting separatist conflicts in Georgia's three autonomous regions, and by backing the main opposition bloc in the recent parliamentary elections. Before the elections, President Eduard Shevardnadze said that if that bloc, the Union for the Revival of Georgia, gained a majority in parliament, it would amount to a parliamentary coup. Shevardnadze alleged that Russia was financing Revival, which is headed by Aslan Abashidze, the leader of the Adjarian autonomous republic.

Hamlet Chipashvili, Abashidze's representative in Tbilisi, told RFE/RL that Shevardnadze's charges are baseless. In his words, "Russia has lots of its own problems. It has no time for this."

Revaz Adamia, the chairman of the defense committee in the last parliament, alleges that Russia is also providing financial and military assistance to the breakaway region of Abkhazia, which has declared its independence from Georgia.

Nodia asserted that Russia has few ways to maintain influence in the region. He says that Moscow's backing of the separatist regions is its strongest card.

"Russia wants to maintain its influence, its dominating influence in the region, but it has no resources to do so. It has no economic resources to do so. Its military is not strong enough. It's not so attractive to these countries themselves. In lieu of those resources, the separatist conflicts has become its main resource. Some Russian analysts say it openly, most would not, but I think that's the reality."

Russia fears the West is trying to dominate the Caucasus, and sees that as a threat to Russian security. Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev recently accused the United States of wanting to control the Caucasus.