Moscow and Tbilisi have stepped up their war of words over Georgia's Pankisi Gorge in the few past weeks, further raising the long-standing tensions between the two countries. The deployment of U.S. military instructors to Georgia earlier this year gave Tbilisi's defiant stance a major boost. But with Moscow now accusing Georgia of aiding Chechen rebels, it may be looking to use its self-described "war on terror" in the breakaway republic as a new excuse to clamp down on Tbilisi.
Moscow, 16 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The heart of the current dispute between Moscow and Tbilisi is Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, a mountainous region just south of the country's 50-mile border with Chechnya. Russia, whose nearly three-year war in the breakaway republic shows no sign of abating, has accused Georgia of harboring rebel fighters in the rugged Pankisi terrain.
Georgia, in turn, claims Russian aircraft routinely cross into Georgian territory and says jets have bombed Pankisi at least twice this month, ostensibly in pursuit of Chechen rebels. Moscow denies both claims, and continues to insist that Tbilisi is doing little to keep Chechen fighters from crossing over into Georgian territory and using Pankisi as a base for staging incursions on Russian troops in Chechnya.
Russian President Vladimir Putin set off the latest round of accusations earlier this month by lashing out at Georgia for allowing a group of some 50 to 60 rebels to cross into the country. Moscow says the group was responsible for some of the worst raids in recent months, including one near the town of Itum-Kale just north of the Georgian border that left eight Russian border guards dead.
Putin -- who has taken pains to defend Russia's extended war in Chechnya as part of the larger struggle against international terrorism -- then insisted that Tbilisi hand over 13 armed Chechens arrested just south of the border in Georgia. Russian Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov was dispatched to press for the transfer, but returned to Moscow empty-handed after Tbilisi flatly refused.
Analyst Andrei Piontkovskii runs the Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow. He says border crossings into Pankisi are, in fact, a relatively insignificant problem that Moscow has blown out of proportion: "It's now convenient for Russian generals and politicians to delude themselves that the essence of the problem is that terrorists are hiding in the Pankisi Gorge. But from a military point of view, that possibility is de facto infinitesimal. It's infinitely small. In fact, the Georgian border is the only part of Chechnya that is more-or-less well guarded by our border guards. They [the Chechen rebels], of course, get the large part of their support and weapons and food through the border with Daghestan and Ingushetia."
Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, whose grip on his troubled nation is increasingly tenuous, concedes that Pankisi Gorge is a troubled region but has steadfastly rejected Moscow's requests to allow Russian forces into the area.
Instead, Tbilisi is hosting special operations troops from the United States, who earlier this year began a $63 million program with the official purpose of training Georgia's ragtag military forces to combat lawlessness in Pankisi. The move came as part of the U.S. war on terrorism and followed accusations that Al-Qaeda members had infiltrated the gorge.
A first group of 200 Georgian soldiers completed training earlier this month and are scheduled to eventually participate in large-scale exercises to include the Pankisi Gorge. Moscow officials have said they are not threatened by the U.S. presence in the region.
Analysts say any lingering hopes of improved relations between Russia and Georgia have now been all but killed off by the latest round of recriminations. One prominent analyst, Sergei Karaganov, was quoted in an interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta" as saying, "Tbilisi now understands the [Pankisi Gorge] problem must be solved, but doesn't want to solve it together with Russia."
Sergei Kazyenov is an analyst at the Institute for National Security and Strategic Studies. He says Georgia has long sought to forge closer ties with the West and distance itself from Moscow in the process. "Georgia is actively seeking to join NATO, first of all. That's why Georgia doesn't want to cooperate with Russia to address certain problems. Georgia doesn't want to show that it likes Russia in front of NATO."
But Piontkovskii of the Center for Strategic Studies says it is Moscow, not Tbilisi, that is to blame for the poor relations between the two countries. He says Moscow lacks a coherent policy on Georgia, and that its confusion may stem from its failure to resolve the bloody Chechen conflict. "The Russian authorities don't want to admit to themselves that the war in Chechnya has entered a dead end. That especially concerns President Putin, who, as we all know, was elected as the result of a campaign at the center of which was the war in Chechnya and his famous motto of wiping out terrorists in the outhouse." Pointing the finger at Tbilisi, Piontkovskii says, is an attempt to look for blame elsewhere.
Another motive behind the Kremlin's increased pressure on Tbilisi, Piontkovskii says, is Russia's "neo-imperialist" strategy regarding the former Soviet republics. Russia, which may be looking to undermine Georgia's role in piping Caspian oil and gas to Western markets, has sought to destabilize the country by backing separatist movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Piontkovskii says the Russian political and military elite also bear a personal grudge against Shevardnadze for selling out Russian interests. As Soviet foreign minister, Shevardnadze was a key player in Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of perestroika, which set the collapse of the Soviet Union in motion.
Over the past decade, Shevardnadze has pushed for closer military and political ties with the West and particularly the United States at the expense of relations with Russia. Moscow, in turn, has kept Georgia in check through its aid to separatist regions and economic levers like cutting off gas supplies.
Piontkovskii says while these tactics are successful in applying pressure on Tbilisi, it remains unclear what Russia's ultimate goal in Georgia is. "All these factors are at work, of course, but they're all emotional and psychological in character. But to address what Russia's strategy is and what it wants from Georgia, I can assure you that I can't answer that, because Russia's leaders can't answer that question for themselves."
When asked in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" why Russia insists on making strong political statements "verging on armed conflict," Karaganov said: "I think it's because [Russia] still lacks a coordinated policy with regard to Georgia. Perhaps no such plan exists; or perhaps it cannot exist, since the situation is very complicated."