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Georgia/Russia: Tbilisi Moves Against Pankisi, But Will That Affect Relations With Moscow?

For the second time this year, Georgian security forces have launched a criminal crackdown on the Pankisi Gorge, a small mountainous region that borders Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya. The decision appears to accommodate demands by Moscow that Tbilisi reassert control over the area. But Russian officials claim the operation is aimed only at deceiving the international community into believing that Georgia is determined to oust armed Chechen separatists allegedly using Pankisi as a base of operations. RFE/RL looks at the ongoing security crackdown in the context of deteriorating Georgian-Russian ties.

Prague, 28 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- On 25 August, Georgian authorities ordered Interior Ministry troops to assert control over the Pankisi Gorge, an area with a reputation for lawlessness that is located a mere 150 kilometers northeast of the capital Tbilisi.

Up to 1,000 soldiers equipped with armored vehicles have been taking possession of the area, setting up at least 10 checkpoints near villages and settlements.

In a televised interview broadcast on Sunday, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze said the operation aimed mainly to restore order in Pankisi and to "cleanse the area of criminal elements and terrorists, provided there are [terrorists] there."

Pankisi, which has long been beyond Tbilisi's control, is believed to serve as a base of operations for criminal gangs specializing in human trafficking and weapons smuggling. Russia also claims the region serves as a base of operations for armed militants from the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

An earlier police crackdown in January failed to re-establish government control there. In the latest operation, soldiers and police officers have been searching homes and setting up street patrols. So far, however, they have found neither criminals nor weapons caches. As of today, no incidents have been reported.

Georgian officials have so far declined to say how long the present operation will last. Reporters are not authorized to travel on their own in the area, which authorities say is now partially under the control of Interior Ministry troops.

Speaking to reporters yesterday from the town of Duisi, where the command center of the security operation is located, Shevardnadze said the initial stage of the operation bodes well for the future. "You know, it is too early to elaborate about the results. But I believe that everything that has been done up until now, the initial stage [of the operation], is a success," Shevardnadze said.

Shevardnadze met yesterday with residents of Matani, a Pankisi village bombed on 23 August in an alleged attack by Russian warplanes that left an elderly man dead and seven others wounded. Georgian authorities say the Russians intended for the raid to disrupt preparations for the Pankisi crackdown, which had been announced several days earlier.

Moscow denies any responsibility for the incident, and has blamed Georgia for the deadly bombing. Yesterday, the Russian website quoted an unidentified Georgian defense official as saying the raid had been carried out by a Georgian Sukhoi 25 bomber bearing Russian identification marks.

Georgia has dismissed the Russian article, which itself contradicts a report released earlier by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has military observers posted along the Georgian-Chechen border.

A statement posted on the organization's website says OSCE observers patrolling the area on 23 August observed "numerous aircraft" flying from north to south at dawn. Several minutes later, they reported seeing flashes and heard the sound of explosions.

As if anticipating the OSCE report, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov the same day accused the organization of incompetence, saying its border monitors have failed to report on Chechen fighters entering Georgia.

Moscow accuses Tbilisi of harboring hundreds of armed separatists in Pankisi, an area populated mainly by ethnic Chechens known as Kists. The region is also home to thousands of refugees who have fled the combat zone after the second Chechen war began in October 1999.

Georgia long denied the Russian claims but eventually admitted that a small number of fighters may be located in Pankisi. Tbilisi says, however, that any Chechen separatists on its territory have been purposely driven into Georgia by Russian troops.

Asked by reporters yesterday whether the Pankisi crackdown would prevent further infiltration of Chechen fighters into Georgia, Shevardnadze said: "You know, everything here depends on the Russian side. Everything depends on how they will guard their border."

Tensions between Russia and Georgia have grown significantly worse since last year's U.S.-led military campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Several alleged Russian bombing raids have been reported in Pankisi since November of last year. While the Kremlin has consistently denied any wrongdoing, officials in Moscow have argued they have the right to root out "terrorists" -- as Russian authorities commonly refer to Chechen fighters -- "just as the Americans are doing in Afghanistan."

Last week's bombing raid -- the first border incident to claim a life -- has sparked a wave of public outcry in Georgia.

Foreign Minister Irakli Menagarishvili accused Russia of "cold-blooded murder," while Shevardnadze's spokesman Kakha Imnadze described the raid as "open aggression" against Georgia.

Since Friday, demonstrators have been picketing the Russian Embassy in Tbilisi, demanding the withdrawal of all Russian troops stationed in the republic.

On 26 August, the Georgian parliament held an emergency session and passed a nonbinding resolution asking Shevardnadze to decide unilaterally on the fate of Russia's two remaining military bases in the country, one in the mainly ethnic Armenian region of Akhalkalaki and the other in the autonomous republic of Adzhara.

Legislators also urged Shevardnadze to denounce the mandate of Russian peacekeepers stationed in the breakaway republic of Abkhazia and to consider Georgia's withdrawal from the Commonwealth of Independent States, or CIS.

But the Georgian president rejected the legislators' proposals, saying they would not help resolve the dispute with Russia.

Speaking to reporters ahead of the parliamentary vote, Shevardnadze said he was against any radical step that could further damage already thorny bilateral ties. "Withdrawal from the CIS will not help us out of the present situation. I believe it will not help defuse tension. This is one thing. Another thing is that we've been hearing voices urging us to recall our ambassador [from Moscow] or sever diplomatic relations with Russia. I believe this is not a solution, either. I believe that we cannot afford to take such a step now. We cannot because we have to think not only about the present day, but also about the future of Georgian-Russian relations," Shevardnadze said.

Shevardnadze also sent a conciliatory signal to the Kremlin, saying he does not believe President Vladimir Putin was behind the 23 August bombing raid.

The Russian leader, for his part, has not commented on the alleged border incident, entrusting his defense minister and other military representatives with the task of denying the Georgian claims.

But speaking today in the Siberian city of Chita, Putin reiterated an earlier offer to conduct a joint security crackdown in Pankisi. "We hope that, in any case, what is going on [in Pankisi] is not just for show. We hope that it is a sincere effort [by the Georgian authorities] to cleanse their territory of terrorists. In any case, we are ready to assist them in any possible way," Putin said.

Suspecting Georgian authorities of colluding with Chechen fighters, Moscow has insisted that Tbilisi allow Russian troops into Pankisi. But Georgia has rejected the suggestion, saying it can handle domestic security issues on its own.

Officials in Tbilisi have long speculated that Moscow is trying to boost its military presence in Georgia with the eventual aim of ousting Shevardnadze and seeing him replaced with a more compliant, Kremlin-friendly leader.

While it is difficult to determine the truth behind such speculation, it is clear the Georgian leader is walking a political tightrope.

Shevardnadze fears the possible withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from Abkhazia would leave the door open to covert operations, sponsored by Moscow that would eventually reignite the separatist conflict.

Analysts generally believe the Georgian president's insistence on extending the peacekeepers' mandate reflects his belief that despite the military support offered by Moscow to the Abkhaz leadership during the 1992-1993 war, the presence of Russian soldiers in the region is the lesser of two evils.

Shevardnadze also fears that severing ties with Moscow might scupper already difficult negotiations on a bilateral treaty that, in principle, should seal the fate of Russia's Akhalkalaki and Batumi military bases. Tbilisi would like Moscow to withdraw from the two bases within three years, while Russia argues it cannot vacate the military facilities before the mid-2010s because of a lack of funds. The South Caucasus leader also fears that suspending bilateral relations would strike a blow to Georgia's ailing economy, which relies heavily on Russian energy supplies.

In his arm wrestling with Moscow, Shevardnadze appears able to rely on the support of the United States, which has developed multimillion-dollar energy projects in the region and has been training Georgian Army officers in antiterrorism tactics for the past four months.

On 26 August, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher reiterated Washington's concerns about last week's air raid and urged Russia not to interfere in what President George W. Bush's administration sees as Tbilisi's domestic security issues. "Georgia is beginning to move forces into the Pankisi area to establish government control there. We believe that those problems in that area should be first addressed by the Georgian government. As you know, we've worked with the Georgian government to try to make sure that they can take more responsibility there and to improve their capacity on border security. So we would urge Russia to cooperate with Georgia in that regard so that both countries, operating each in their respective territory, can deal with the question of international terrorists and Chechen fighters who might remain in Georgia," Boucher said.

Meanwhile, Georgian officials say they expect more Russian air raids in the future. The Defense Ministry has asked parliament for extra funds to repair the country's decaying air-defense system.

Yesterday, the Russian "Izvestiya" daily cited comments from Georgian Security Council Secretary Tedo Dzhaparidze that seem to reflect the general mood in Tbilisi. Asked whether Russian officials had reacted to the 25 August launch of the Pankisi operation, Dzhaparidze answered: "They haven't bombed [us again yet]. This is already a reaction."