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2002 In Review: Georgia Accelerates NATO Bid Amid Ongoing Dispute With Russia

The year 2002 saw relations between the small South Caucasus republic of Georgia and its powerful Russian neighbor reach an all-time low. Entangled in its Chechen military campaign, Moscow lashed out at Tbilisi over its alleged support of separatist fighters, threatening to bring its case before the United Nations and to launch wide-scale military operations on Georgian soil in pursuit of Chechen militants. In turn, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze last month officially requested that his country be invited into NATO.

Prague, 17 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze roused little surprise at the NATO summit on 22 November when he officially requested that his country be considered for entry into the Western military alliance. The announcement capped off years of promises from the Georgian leader that Tbilisi would "be knocking on NATO's door."

One day ahead of the announcement, Shevardnadze said he remained committed to seeing his country's democratic transformation completed before his mandate expires in 2 1/2 years. Membership in the alliance, he went on to say, would help him achieve this goal. "In concrete terms, [Georgia's NATO bid] means that, on the one hand, the Georgian people and their leaders must remain irreversibly committed to humanist ideals. On the other hand, [it means] that Georgia should find its niche in a security system where its independence and values can in no way be jeopardized. We regard as such a system the North Atlantic alliance, which apart from being a force equipped with state-of-the-art technologies and modern knowledge, unites in its ranks nations whose democratic [ideas] we fully share," Shevardnadze said.

Shevardnadze did not detail his motivations for accelerating Georgia's NATO bid. The deadline the Georgian leader originally set for applying to enter the U.S.-led alliance was 2005. But few doubt that Russia's stepped-up pressure on the small South Caucasus republic was instrumental in speeding up Shevardnadze's NATO timetable.

Ties between Russia and Georgia have long been strained by Moscow's reluctance to vacate its two remaining military bases in southern Georgia and by its support for the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But over the past 12 months, relations have grown substantially worse over the fractious issue of Chechnya.

Seizing upon the international antiterrorism fervor, the Kremlin has accused Georgia of harboring Chechen separatists in its Pankisi Gorge region.

Located near the border with Chechnya, Pankisi has seen a massive influx of refugees from the war-torn republic in recent years. But the Kremlin says hundreds of separatist fighters have been using the mountainous area as a training base for militants staging armed forays against Russian troops.

On 11 September, as the world was commemorating the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Georgia of violating a UN Security Council resolution, passed in the wake of those attacks, that calls on member states to prevent terrorists from using their territory to commit atrocities against other countries.

He threatened to exercise Russia's right to self-defense with a series of countermeasures, including cross-border air strikes. "I am asking the General Staff of the Russian armed forces to report about the feasibility and expediency, as part of a pursuit operation, of strikes on [Georgia-based] terrorist bases formally identified by our intelligence. The Foreign Ministry of the Russian Federation will be asked to convey our concerns and report about Georgia's infringement of UN Security Council resolutions," Putin said.

In fact, Putin's ultimatum was misleading on three counts. First, Russian military aircraft had already carried out several bombing raids on Georgian territory in previous months. Second, Georgia's Interior Ministry troops had already moved into Pankisi and arrested a small number of armed militants allegedly linked to Chechen separatists. Third, the United States had been training the Georgian armed forces in antiterrorism tactics for nearly four months. Code-named Train and Equip, the two-year program is meant to help Georgia set up four elite battalions that should be the backbone of a reshuffled, fully equipped regular army.

Despite its dispute with Moscow, Georgia has sought to appease its powerful northern neighbor, possibly at the request of the United States, which sees Russia as a key ally in its global antiterrorism fight.

On 4 October, Tbilisi agreed to extradite to Russia five Chechen militants it had arrested a few weeks earlier for attempting to enter Georgia illegally. Another three separatist fighters are to follow soon. And earlier this month, the Georgian police rounded up Chechen nationals living in the country for an unprecedented identity check that resulted in the arrest of dozens of illegal immigrants.

Reversing months of bellicose rhetoric, the Kremlin reacted positively, thanking the Georgian leadership for its "efforts to curb terrorism."

Another major bone of contention is Russian support for separatist movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This year, Moscow accelerated the delivery of Russian passports to residents in both breakaway provinces. Almost 60 percent of Abkhaz and South Ossetian nationals, including most government officials, now hold Russian citizenship.

Georgia's decision in October to beef up security along the administrative border with South Ossetia has further strained relations between Tbilisi and Tskhinvali, the capital of the separatist region, which seeks reunification with Russia's North Ossetia republic.

Speaking in Prague in November, Shevardnadze said Georgia's unresolved separatist conflicts and its economic backwardness were among the main obstacles to Tbilisi's road toward NATO. "The second problem, which is no less important -- and perhaps is even more important [than economic issues] -- is the restoration of the territorial integrity of our country," Shevardnadze said.

Yet, during the past year little progress has been made in peace talks between Tbilisi and its breakaway provinces.

Citing a 1998 referendum that backed de facto independence from Tbilisi, Abkhaz authorities continue to oppose a UN-sponsored peace plan that envisages widespread autonomy for the region within Georgia. Although Russia pays lip service to the plan, UN diplomats and Georgian officials have complained that Moscow is doing almost nothing to foster the peace process.

In August, a series of shoot-outs erupted between Abkhaz forces and residents of the Kodori Gorge, the only region of the separatist republic still under Georgian control. Tbilisi and Sukhumi averted further escalation of the tensions by agreeing to the creation of a demilitarized zone in the area. Yet, Georgia's recent decision to build a U.S.-funded military airfield in the area for its border-guard units next year may further strain bilateral relations.

Moscow and Tbilisi have also failed to come to an agreement over the fate of the two remaining Russian bases of Akhalkalaki and Batumi in southern Georgia.

Despite a commitment made three years ago to evacuate all military installations by mid-2001, Moscow continues to insist that it will be another 11 years before it can vacate the two bases. Tbilisi has insisted that it be done in three years and has threatened to begin taxing the two bases next year if no agreement is reached.

In another move likely to upset Russia, Shevardnadze on 2 December announced the construction of the Georgian section of a multibillion-dollar oil pipeline that will eventually link the Azerbaijani capital Baku to Turkey's southern Mediterranean port of Ceyhan through the Georgian capital.

Construction of the conduit, which will eventually be coupled with a gas pipeline stretching from Baku to Erzurum, in Eastern Anatolia, has already started in both Azerbaijan and Turkey and should be completed within two to three years. Plans to connect these pipelines to Central Asia's energy transport network are under consideration.

At a ceremony held on 18 September in Baku to mark the beginning of the construction of the Azerbaijani section of Baku-Ceyhan, Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer said both pipelines would bring far-reaching benefits to the South Caucasus region. "The implementation of these pipeline projects will contribute to the improvement of regional cooperation; to the economic recovery of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey; to the improvement of their social life; and to the strengthening of political stability and democracy -- and thus to peace -- in the region and the world," Sezer said.

Sezer did not mention Russia, although these pipelines go against the economic and strategic interests of Moscow, which currently controls two Caspian export routes.

A day before the Baku ceremony, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov reportedly described the U.S.-sponsored East-West energy corridor -- to which the projected pipelines belong -- as an attempt at squeezing his country "out of regions where it has historic interests."