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Russia: Duma Backtracks On Georgia But Maintains Pressure

Prague, 6 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's State Duma today approved a resolution related to the planned deployment of U.S. military advisers and military equipment to Georgia.

The main outline of this nonbinding document -- which was passed by an overwhelming majority of 364 votes to three -- was agreed upon yesterday by the Duma's foreign affairs and CIS affairs committees after consultations with diplomats and representatives from Russia's military and intelligence sectors.

Although the resolution is largely symbolic, it reflects Russia's general uneasiness over Washington's security plans in a region it traditionally considers its backyard.

The document also represents a significant step backwards, compared with Moscow's initial reaction to the planned U.S. deployment. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov had said the deployment could further destabilize the situation in the region.

Parliamentarians today first rejected a proposal by a far-right deputy that called for the possible introduction of economic sanctions against Georgia. The adopted resolution nonetheless carries veiled threats against Georgia and leaves Russia enough potential leeway to exert pressure on Tbilisi.

Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency quotes the resolution as saying the Russian parliament supports Georgia's territorial integrity and its efforts toward a constructive approach in the search for peaceful solutions to conflicts in the South Caucasus republic. But it also warns that, should peace talks between Tbilisi and its breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia take a negative turn, the Duma will be prepared to consider other ways to deal with what the resolution calls these two regions' "expressions of free choice."

In other words, the Duma reserves the right to cite a controversial bill it adopted last year which, in principle, paves the way for the admission of foreign states, or parts of foreign states, into the Russian Federation.

The vote in the Duma today followed last week's announcement that the United States is preparing to dispatch as many as 200 military advisers and elite troops to train the Georgian Army to combat terrorism.

Washington says the decision is justified by the suspected presence of dozens of Al-Qaeda fighters who it claims have fled Afghanistan and found refuge in the Pankisi Gorge, a crime-ridden Georgian region that borders Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya.

Yet most regional analysts believe the move is also prompted by broader geopolitical concerns, such as offering strategic support to Georgia -- Washington's main ally in the region -- protecting American investments in the regional oil sector, and establishing a safe supply route for U.S. military bases in Central Asia.

Tbilisi insists the U.S. advisers will not be directly involved in any military operation, but some U.S. defense officials last week said the mission might be re-examined depending on the situation on the ground.

The first U.S. soldiers should arrive in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, by the end of the month. Georgian officials say American military advisers will train some 1,500 soldiers over the next two to three months and help create a special forces battalion.

On 2 March, Washington also announced it will provide the Georgian Army with light weapons, vehicles, and communications equipment worth about $64 million as part of its effort to enhance its ongoing military cooperation with Tbilisi.

Moscow initially reacted to the news with anger, saying Washington's initiative might further destabilize the situation in and around Georgia. But Russian President Vladimir Putin -- who last year offered his full support to the U.S.-led war on terrorism -- later said he sees "no tragedy" in the planned deployment.

Putin's cool reaction could suggest that Moscow -- which claims that Pankisi is home to thousands of Chechen separatist fighters with alleged links to Al-Qaeda -- still hopes to turn the presence of U.S. soldiers in Georgia to its own advantage in its war against Chechnya.

News of the planned U.S. military deployment in Georgia has raised much greater concern in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have escalated their demands for autonomy since then.

Last week, Russian legislators warned that the Duma might respond to the deployment of U.S. troops in Georgia by recognizing the independence of the two regions. But they later backtracked, lest Georgia, in turn, threaten to make a similar move with regard to Chechnya.

Speaking to reporters earlier this week (4 March), Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze warned that any action to formally recognize the independence of either South Ossetia or Abkhazia would be detrimental to Russia.

"If the State Duma guarantees some kind of independence or associate membership [to Abkhazia or South Ossetia], I believe that this will signal the beginning of Russia's own breakup. And I really mean it."

In the early 1990s, both of the separatist and unrecognized republics fought against Georgian troops with the active support of Russia, which was then keen to undermine the regime of then-Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Despite subsequent cease-fire agreements, both regions are still formally at war with Tbilisi and have remained under de facto Russian control for the past 10 years.

Abkhaz leaders said last week they would ask that their region become an "associate member" of the Russian Federation.

In an interview with Russia's Interfax news agency, Abkhazia's separatist, President Vladislav Ardzinba, said today that the Georgian leadership might use Western military assistance to forcibly reassert control over the region. Ardzinba also accused the U.S. of contributing to the escalation of violence in the region.

In an interview published in today's issue of the Moscow-based "Vremya Novostei" newspaper, South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoyev said he wants his region to become part of Russia.

Kokoyev justified his stance with what he described as "Shevardnadze's recent calls to resort to force against South Ossetia and Abkhazia," but it is not immediately clear what he is referring to.

Shevardnadze said on 28 February that the presence of U.S. troops in his country is part of a long-standing plan to strengthen Georgia's sovereignty and military readiness. He made no mention of renewed military action against the two breakaway republics.