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Georgia: War On Terrorism Brings Renewed Russian Pressure

America's war on terrorism is having unexpected ripple effects in regions around the world. The Caucasus is no exception. In recent days, Moscow has increased its pressure on neighboring Georgia, accusing the Tbilisi government of harboring Chechen militants. Some Russian officials have even called for the Russian military to undertake operations in Georgia, citing the need to eradicate so-called "terrorist" cells. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, who denies the accusations, is now in the United States, where he will look for support from Washington. But will Tbilisi's traditional ally be in any position to offer assistance, at a time when the United States is counting on close Russian support in its war on terrorism?

Prague, 3 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Despite President Eduard Shevardnadze's repeated denials that Chechen militants are not operating from Georgian soil, independent analysts say there is little doubt that groups of rebels have been using the Pankisi Gorge, near the country's border with Chechnya, as a staging point.

Richard Giragosian is a Washington-based regional analyst and publisher of the monthly newsletter "TransCaucasus: A Chronology."

He says, "Despite the best efforts by both the Georgian military and security forces they are practically unable to contain a lot of operational and logistic capacities of cross-border operations involving Chechen rebels and their support structures, [which] have been basing themselves from the Pankisi Gorge, out of the reach of Georgian capabilities."

Giragosian points out that the Pankisi Gorge issue is only one of a series of territorial problems that have dogged the central authorities in Tbilisi.

"The Georgian authorities, in fact, are unable to control, police, and maintain state power throughout their jurisdiction, throughout their territory. As we've seen of course in South Ossetia, Abkhazia [and in] Adzharia, the Pankisi Gorge is the latest sign that the failing state -- if we can call it that -- of Georgia is increasingly becoming isolated. The Shevardnadze government is increasingly becoming limited to the Tbilisi district."

RFE/RL regional analyst Liz Fuller says Russia has long sought to exploit this situation. When it comes to the viability of Georgia as a state, she says:

"I would say [Russia] has every interest in destabilizing it and no interest at all in preserving it."

One of the reasons why a destabilized Georgia would suit Russia's geopolitical interests, Fuller says, has to do with oil transit routes.

"If Georgia were to collapse into civil war, it would make it very difficult, for example, to build the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline, to export Azerbaijan's Caspian oil to Turkey. Whereas there happens to be a pipeline already in place, which would do just as well, to export that oil via Russia."

Given the increasing tenuousness of their position, the Georgian authorities have reacted with alarm to Moscow's pressure to allow Russian troops to pursue the Chechens into Georgia. Although militarily this might make sense in the short term, Giragosian says Shevardnadze fears Moscow's long-term intentions:

"The track record indicates that if and once permission is given for a stronger Russian role within Georgia proper, it will set a dangerous precedent. And the Georgian government is very fearful that an opening such as bringing in a greater Russian role, specifically in the Pankisi Gorge, will allow the Russians to exert even greater pressure on the Shevardnadze government. In other words, the potential benefits -- from a security point of view -- of having a Russian military presence or activities in the Pankisi Gorge do not outweigh the trend of instability and destabilizing factors that this would hold for Georgia."

All this will certainly factor in Shevardnadze's talks this week with U.S. President George W. Bush, especially given the possibility that Russia and America will make common cause in the global fight against terrorism.

Giragosian: "President Shevardnadze and his advisers are extremely concerned about the situation and its implications. Just as many of us here in the West are now concerned that this may give a troubling encouragement to Russian actions against the Chechens, as well as Dagestan. In other words, the price of greater Russian-U.S. cooperation in the fight against terrorism may be seen or demonstrated by a greater U.S. acceptance of authoritarian regimes in Central Asia, such as Uzbekistan specifically, as well as a discriminatory treatment of Georgia as a lesser player in the overall picture."

The Kremlin spokesman on Chechnya, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, drew a direct link on 2 October between the Chechen rebels and the terrorist attacks against the United States. Yastrzhembsky said four of the 19 hijackers responsible for last month's suicide bombings against the U.S. had fought for Chechen separatists against Russia.

Yastrzhembsky stopped short of providing details, but said the relevant information has been passed to U.S. intelligence services.

In Giragosian's view, Russia is playing for higher stakes than oil pipelines. It wants to re-establish hegemony over its southern flank. He says the war on terrorism may give it the perfect opportunity to do so.

"The Russian policy now is even greater or broader than just strictly the question of pipelines and territoriality in that the Russian-U.S. rapprochement -- or I would even say greater cooperation -- in the fight against terrorism is going even one step further in giving Moscow, or at least creating a role for Moscow, in terms of greater regional stability. In other words, the question of Russian dominance over the pipeline issue has been superceded by a much bigger role for Russia in the region and hence more [danger] for the smaller, more vulnerable states of the Caucasus."

Shevardnadze will likely find his U.S. backers can do little to help him in his hour of need, as America gears up for a long-term campaign in which its allies will be those countries that can offer it a strategic advantage in the war against terrorism.

Tbilisi, unfortunately, has precious few resources to offer. Analysts say it can therefore expect little more than soothing words.