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Caucasus: Relations Between Russia, Georgia Strained Over Terrorism Issues

Russia accuses Georgia of providing safe haven and free transit for separatist fighters from its breakaway republic of Chechnya, with which Georgia shares a border. Moscow considers the separatists to be terrorists. But Tbilisi's ambassador to Russia, Zurab Abashidze, denies the charges, saying Georgia itself has suffered from the scourge of terrorism. And he says Georgia is prepared to assist in the international campaign against terrorism.

Moscow, 28 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Diplomatic relations between Russia and Georgia are strained because of conflict over the issue of terrorism.

Russia accuses Georgia of permitting Chechen rebels -- whom it considers to be terrorists -- to take refuge in the Pankisi gorge, an area along Georgia's border with the breakaway Russian republic.

Yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin -- in an interview with leaders from the German media -- again accused Georgia of tolerating bases on its territory where, he says, "terrorists could easily take a rest."

Russian officials say they were forced to impose visa controls on Russia's border with Georgia in 2000. The new regime was introduced with the aim of impeding the movement of Chechen rebels and their weapons across the frontier. Georgians wishing to enter Russia now need to apply for a visa at Russian consular offices, while Russians wanting to visit Georgia need to do the same at Georgian consular offices.

Interfax quoted Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze as saying on 26 September that he is ready to meet with Putin to discuss the challenges of combating terrorism. He said it is time to end groundless accusations and called on international organizations to increase the number of observers in Georgia to confirm the absence of terrorists. Georgia also says it will send an envoy to Moscow to prevent a further deterioration of relations over the issue.

Zurab Abashidze is Georgia's ambassador to Russia. In a recent interview, he denied that his nation is harboring Chechen separatists and said Georgians don't like the attitude that both Moscow politicians and the Russian media take when they talk about Georgia:

"Sometimes the media here in Moscow -- and not only the media -- talk about Georgia in a way we don't like. Often [the name of our country] is linked to facts that had happened in Chechnya. I'd like to point out that Georgia itself is one of the victims of the Chechen conflict. The criminality in our country has increased [since the conflict began]. [Furthermore], we had to host about 8,000 Chechen refugees, and they are Russian citizens."

Abashidze acknowledges that a few of the refugees his country has hosted may have been Chechen fighters, but he says Georgian authorities were unaware of this:

"Among [all the Chechen refugees that we hosted], there were wounded men. They might have been rebels. Unfortunately, they didn't have documents [where it would have been indicated] whether they were rebels or not. We had to host them in our country, out of humanitarian principles."

News agencies have quoted Shevardnadze as saying that among the refugees in Georgia who had fled the Russian military campaign in Chechnya were an unspecified number of wounded militants. He said some of them "returned to their homeland after treatment."

Shevardnadze has said in the past that Georgia is ready to hand Chechen militants over to Russian authorities if Moscow provides evidence they have committed crimes.

Ambassador Abashidze emphasizes that Georgia spent a large amount of money to reinforce the 85-kilometer border it shares with the Chechen republic. He says such actions have not helped to improve relations with Russia.

"We had to reinforce our border with Chechnya, and it meant additional expenses for us. And now we are really disappointed that our relationship with Russia got worse."

He stresses that Georgia is taking all measures possible to prevent a further deterioration of the situation. Abashidze says it is more difficult to cross the Georgian border now.

"Now it is very difficult to get through our border. OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] observers and Russian border guards didn't register serious violations of our border recently."

Abashidze says Georgia has already experienced terrorism on its own soil, referring to assassination attempts made against Shevardnadze by opponents at home and violence linked to the nine-year-old conflict in separatist Abkhazia. For that reason, he says, his country welcomes the international effort to fight terrorism:

"Our President [Eduard Shevardnadze] has experienced what terrorism is many times. For that reason, Georgian authorities welcomed the agreement that Russia, the U.S. and other Western countries have reached to fight against terrorism, the plague of our time."

He says Georgia was one of the first countries to give its support to the U.S. in its fight against international terrorism. He says Georgia has not yet received any formal request for assistance from the United States:

"We didn't make official statements relating to the fact that Georgia might give its air corridor and its military bases for an [eventual] military operation [against Afghanistan], since the U.S. has not made any formal request. Yesterday, President Shevardnadze said that the U.S. might not have asked for it since the modest means we have are unlikely to be useful in such a situation ..."

On 26 September, Shevardnadze said Georgia is cooperating in the global fight against terrorism, not only with Russia but with the United States, particularly in the area of information exchange.