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2001 In Review: Shevardnadze Loses Room To Maneuver

The year 2001 is a year Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze would probably rather forget. Facing growing pressure both at home and abroad, the 73-year-old head of state has seen his room to maneuver considerably reduced over the past 12 months. For the embattled leader, normalizing relations with Russia is increasingly seen as a matter of political survival.

Prague, 18 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- When Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze left his country to attend a CIS summit in Moscow last month (30 November), many thought he would use the opportunity of a face-to-face meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin to settle scores with the Kremlin.

But the interview between the two men took an unexpected turn. Not only did the Georgian leader keep a low profile during the meeting, he was also admonished by Putin for allegedly making his country a safe haven for Chechen guerillas.

Even more unexpectedly, while addressing the nation on Georgian state radio a few days later (3 December), Shevardnadze said bilateral relations with Russia had reached a turning point and clearly suggested that a rapprochement between Tbilisi and Moscow was now possible. To many of Georgia's 5 million citizens, the remarks probably came as a surprise.

Three days before the CIS summit, Shevardnadze had accused Russian aircraft of violating Georgian airspace to bomb groups of Chechen fighters the Kremlin claims were hiding in an area close to its border. But, once in Moscow, Shevardnadze suddenly backtracked, blaming rogue elements within the Russian military for the attack.

"I think the Russian leadership was unaware [of the incident.] It was either the result of somebody's arbitrary order or of a mistake made by some military commanders. Thankfully, there were no casualties. But the incident has caused some great damage, especially to the Russian-Georgian relations."

This latest border incident is symptomatic of the conflicting bilateral relations that have developed since Shevardnadze first hinted in 1995 that he might "knock on NATO's doors" within the next decade and since Georgia, two years later, set up GUAM, an informal group which at the time also included Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova.

GUAM -- which later became GUUAM with the addition of Uzbekistan -- was originally designed to promote trade among its members and to lessen their energy dependence on Russia.

Russia sees the organization as a challenge to its national interests in the former Soviet Union and to its own military alliance with Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, better known as the CIS Collective Security Treaty.

In April this year, GUUAM suffered a serious blow when Vladimir Voronin, a former communist leader who advocates closer links with Russia, was elected president of Moldova.

A recent improvement in Russia's bilateral relations with both Ukraine and Azerbaijan has further isolated Tbilisi, whose defense policy now depends largely on the United States and neighboring Turkey.

Ankara, which has donated at least $13 million for Georgia's defense needs since 1997, is also involved in two major U.S.-sponsored pipeline projects to export Azerbaijani crude oil and natural gas through Georgia. Several Turkish military delegations have visited Georgia over the past 12 months to train Georgian officers and help refurbish former Soviet military installations.

Shevardnadze, who this summer (9 July) claimed that relations between Tbilisi and Ankara were turning into a strategic partnership, met twice this year with his Turkish counterpart.

In January (29-31 January), the Georgian president visited Ankara to sign a series of bilateral agreements, including one on defense cooperation.

Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer's visit to Tbilisi in November (8-9 November) coincided with a new outbreak of violence in Georgia's breakaway republic of Abkhazia.

At the time, Sezer made little secret that the main purpose of his visit to Tbilisi was to show support to Georgian leaders: "Our friend Georgia is going through difficult times these days. With those events that are taking place in Abkhazia, we see that tension is on the rise. We are closely following these developments."

Abkhazia won de facto independence eight years ago after several months of a bloody armed conflict between Georgian troops and separatist fighters supported by the Russian army.

Despite a cease-fire agreement signed in 1993 and sustained efforts by the United Nations to bring both sides together to sign a peace treaty, Georgia and Abkhazia are still formally at war.

Three months ago, hundreds of alleged Chechen and ethnic Georgian guerillas made a series of armed incursions in the Kodori gorge -- a Georgian enclave in Abkhazia -- before being repelled by separatist troops, whom Tbilisi says benefited from Russian air support.

Tbilisi, which considers Moscow the main obstacle to the signing a UN-brokered document that defines the separation of powers between Georgia and Abkhazia, also accuses Russia of delaying a planned military withdrawal from the province.

This past summer Russia reluctantly agreed to comply with a 1999 Georgian and international demand to pull out its military personnel and hardware from the Vaziani airfield, near Tbilisi.

The Russian army pulled out its hardware from another location, at Gudauta in Abkhazia, only two months ago (26 October), more than 18 weeks behind schedule.

Despite Tbilisi's objections, Moscow wants to maintain in Abkhazia a 600-strong military force that would add to its 1,800 peacekeepers stationed along the Inguri River that separates the province from Georgia proper.

Russia has two other bases in Georgia: one in Akhalkalaki, the predominantly ethnic Armenian administrative center of the central region of Dzhavakhetia, and one in Batumi, the capital of the autonomous republic of Adzharia. Georgia wants both bases vacated within three years, while Russia says it may need up to 15 years to pull out for financial reasons.

The situation in the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia, Georgia's other breakaway region, may soon turn into a new headache for Shevardnadze.

South Ossetia seceded from Georgia even before the demise of the Soviet Union, triggering a three-year armed conflict that ended with a cease-fire agreement in 1992 and the region's de facto independence.

Until recently, the region was run by Lyudvig Chibirov, a man with whom Shevardnadze had managed to maintain some kind of status quo. But earlier this month (6 December), South Ossetia's 34,000 registered voters elected 38-year-old Eduard Kokoyev, a Russian businessman and a former Communist Youth leader, as their new president.

Kokoyev has already said he would insist that his native region become part of the Russian Federation and that Georgia officially apologizes for staging the 1989-1992 war.

In addition to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgian authorities have de facto lost control over another area bordering Russia: the Pankisi gorge.

Located some 200 kilometers northeast of Tbilisi, the Pankisi gorge has become a base of operations for drug and arms smugglers, as well as for criminal gangs responsible for kidnapping many Georgian and foreign individuals.

Moscow claims the area -- home to thousands of ethnic Chechens -- is also being used as a supply base for "terrorists," a word generally used by Russian leaders to designate Chechen separatist fighters.

The presence of Chechen guerillas on Georgian territory -- which Shevardnadze only recently admitted to as a possibility -- served as a pretext for the Kremlin to introduce last year a visa requirement for most Georgian citizens travelling to Russia. The regulations, which do not apply to residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, are still valid despite Moscow's claims that they were introduced only as a temporary measure.

The year also brought unpleasant news to Shevardnadze on the domestic front.

On 1 November, the Georgian president forced out his entire government in a bid to defuse a simmering political crisis following a failed tax police raid in October on the Rustavi-2 private television station.

Rustavi-2, which gained fame by exposing corruption among state officials, had been at the origin of another scandal a few months before when one of its leading journalists, Georgii Sanaya, was found dead in his apartment. Rustavi-2 officials claim Sanaya's murder was politically motivated.

Assuming the October raid was part of a new attempt to rein in the station, thousands of angry protesters took to the streets of the capital to demand changes in the country's leadership.

Ignoring claims of both demonstrators and opposition leaders, Shevardnadze said he would not resign until his mandate expires in 2005.

"[The president] can resign only if he commits a crime against his people, against the law, or against the state. This is what is called an impeachment or, rather, the result of an impeachment. Or if he dies, which I do not plan to do. I will act in accordance with the interests of my homeland."

The crisis also prompted parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania -- one possible contender to the post of president -- to resign. Thirty-seven-year old Nino Burdzhanadze, a member of Zhvania's team and Georgia's first-ever female parliament speaker, took over in his place.

Soon after he resigned, Zhvania announced he will set up a new political party with Mikhail Saakashvili, who resigned last September from his post of justice minister amid claims that he could no longer work under the current head of state.

Zhvania and Saakashvili are Georgia's two most popular politicians and are seen as Shevardnadze's most serious challengers.

Georgia's legislation does not allow the 73-year-old Georgian leader -- who has been already elected president twice, in 1995 and 2000 -- to run for a third term and Shevardnadze said earlier this year (6 August) that he would not seek constitutional amendments to make this possible.

On the other hand, he has said he will try to have the constitution changed to restore the post of prime minister.

Some analysts interpret Shevardnadze's insistence on having a second-in-command as an attempt to consolidate his power and counterbalance the influence of parliament. Others believe the man who will be chosen to run a restored cabinet of ministers could become Shevardnadze's designated candidate for the 2005 presidential election.

In any case, it appears that both the Georgian president, confronted by pressure at home and abroad, is running out of room to maneuver.