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Russia: Moscow Concerned NATO Spy Planes May Use Georgian Airspace

Relations between Russia and Georgia came under further strain this week amid reports that Tbilisi might soon open its airspace to NATO reconnaissance aircraft. Moscow yesterday lodged an official complaint, cautioning both Georgia and NATO against taking unfriendly steps.

Prague, 11 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow is expressing concern about reports that Georgia might soon open its airspace to NATO spy planes, which would theoretically allow the alliance to enhance its surveillance capacities over Russian territory.

The Russian Foreign Ministry yesterday protested the upcoming Georgian-NATO intelligence deal, cautioning against any move that could "further stir tension" in the traditionally volatile Southern Caucasus region.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said in a statement that the possible deployment of NATO radar monitoring and surveillance aircraft (AWACS) in Georgia would run counter to Russia's national security interests and compel Moscow to take protective countermeasures.

Yakovenko said, "We hope NATO will abide by its obligations regarding the transparency of its military activities and offer all necessary explanations regarding this issue within the framework of the NATO-Russia Council."

Andrei Kokoshin, the chairman of the CIS Affairs Committee in Russia's State Duma, the lower house of parliament, said he views the reported Georgian-NATO cooperation plans as an unfriendly gesture by Tbilisi. In comments broadcast on Russian state television the day before, he said, "Since Georgia is our neighbor, we cannot view this as a step friendly to Russian interests. [Of course], nobody is talking here about the possibility of an armed conflict. Yet, I would say we somehow feel a certain pressure coming from the Southern Caucasus region. In the present situation, such pressure is absolutely not necessary. It is neither in our interest, nor in Georgia's or America's [interests]."

NATO has not reacted yet to these statements. But Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Kakha Sikharulidze today dismissed Russia's concerns as absurd and "not worth commenting upon."

The incident is reminiscent of a similar dispute that arose between the two neighbors earlier this year.

In March, Moscow accused Tbilisi of yielding to Washington's "Cold War tactics" after American U-2 spy planes carried out reconnaissance flights near the Chechen section of the Russian-Georgian border.

At the time, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze said the U.S. planes were operating at Tbilisi's request and that the flights were aimed at monitoring the movements of Chechen fighters and preventing them from entering the country.

Georgia has dramatically boosted its defense ties with the United States since officially applying for NATO membership last autumn.

In the midst of the Iraq crisis, Georgian lawmakers ratified an agreement on 21 March granting U.S. armed forces conditional access to all national military facilities and extending diplomatic immunity to all U.S. personnel posted in the country. The State Duma swiftly reacted to the vote, characterizing the Georgian-U.S. agreement as detrimental to Moscow's relations with Tbilisi.

Commenting on the latest developments in military cooperation between Tbilisi and NATO, the Moscow-based "Nezavisimaya Gazeta" daily yesterday wrote that, should the alliance's AWACS aircraft be granted overflight rights by Georgia, they would be in a position to watch Russian territory up to Rostov-on-Don, some 450 kilometers north of the Georgian border.

"That would constitute the deepest intrusion to date of foreign air intelligence on Russian territory," the daily said, noting that news of increasing intelligence cooperation between Georgia and the alliance coincided with NATO Secretary-General George Robertson's visit to Central Asia.

In a much more sober tone, the Russian Army General Staff's "Krasnaya Zvezda" newspaper yesterday reported on talks that Major General Johann Dora, the commander of NATO's AWACS fleet, had held the day before in the Georgian capital with Defense Minister Davit Tevzadze and Army Chief of Staff Joni Pirtskhalaishvili.

The three men discussed ways to enhance military cooperation between Georgia and the alliance, and NATO pilots demonstrated the AWACS plane that had brought Dora to Tbilisi.

Georgian state television claimed the same day that this was the first time a NATO radar plane had ever entered the former Soviet Union's airspace.

Talking to reporters after the demonstration flight, Tevzadze said NATO spy planes could allow Georgia, which has been left with virtually no air defense systems, to collect information vital to its security.

Dora, however, made it clear that intelligence data would not be made available to Georgia's armed forces until Tbilisi joins the alliance.

During a visit to Tbilisi in May, Robertson warned Georgian officials that the road to admittance would be "long and difficult" and would largely depend on their ability to implement democratic reforms.

Defense analysts say modernization of Georgia's depleted armed forces and a successful fight against rampant corruption in the military are also prerequisites for Tbilisi's NATO membership.

The U.S. last year launched a $64 million program to train a few crack units of the Georgian army in antiterrorism tactics. NATO members Turkey, France, and Germany are also helping Tbilisi modernize its armed forces.

But despite this assistance, the Georgian army continues to experience budgetary problems. Yesterday, Tevzadze admitted that he had to freeze a number of important military programs in the past six months because he has received only 60 percent of the money promised by the government.