[A-List] US imperialism: Georgia
Michael.Keaney at mbs.fi
Fri Mar 22 01:10:04 MST 2002
Georgia looks west to Washington
Moscow mistakenly imagined that September 11 would give it a green light to eradicate Chechen 'terrorists' in Georgia, writes Ian Traynor
Thursday March 21, 2002
Passing through the pretty but poor villages of Georgia beyond the capital, Tbilisi, it is common to be confronted by a statue of the most famous Georgian of them all - Josef Stalin.
But in the office of the defence minister, David Tevzadze, pride of place on the wall goes to an imposing portrait of another international figure of Georgian roots - General John Shalikashvili, the former chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff.
The contrast between the reverence for the Soviet despot and the hero worship of the US officer highlights the conflict between the small Caucasus republic's past and its future.
This conflict between dependence on and domination by Moscow versus support from Washington is being played out right now as the global "war on terrorism" shifts to a certain extent to Georgia.
In October 1999 then President Boris Yeltsin of Russia turned to President Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia with a demand to be allowed to stage a Russian invasion of Chechnya from Georgian territory south of the secessionist republic. Russia's second war in Chechnya had just begun. But the Russians were told no.
Exactly two years later, last October, Mr Shevardnadze went to the White House in Washington. When the Americans requested permission to deploy some 200 troops, the answer from Mr Shevardnadze was yes.
"The Russians never offered us the same help as the Americans," explains the deputy foreign minister, Giorgi Burduli. "Joint operations with the Russians are completely unacceptable for us. The US presence here is a very important factor, a stabilising factor."
There is little doubt that these days the Georgian elite prefers Shalikashvili to Stalin. For years Russia and America have been sparring over the strategic territory of Georgia. But September 11 has given that contest a jolt, with the Americans pushing on an open door in Georgia while the Russians are shut out.
The result is a worsening relationship between the Russian and Georgian leaderships. President Vladimir Putin and Mr Shevardnadze appear to have a strong personal dislike for one another. The Russian security and military elites still cannot forgive Mr Shevardnadze for his permissiveness in facilitating the end of the Soviet Union when he was Mikhail Gorbachev's foreign minister.
If Mr Shevardnadze is still remembered fondly in the west for his charm and liberalism, he is despised in Russia. But after 10 years as president, Mr Shevardnadze is nearing the end of his period in power, bequeathing a country in dire straits and a government that is notoriously corrupt and ineffective.
Large swaths of Georgia are beyond Mr Shevardnadze's power and the Russians are adept at playing the game of divide and rule. The Pankisi gorge to the north-east - the focus of the US military attention - is run by Chechen warlords and gangsters.
The breakaway Black Sea region of Abkhazia in the north-west is de facto independent, with Russia's open support. Ditto south Ossetia in the north. Adzharia to the south-west is autonomous. In short, Shevardadze presides haplessly over a shrunken realm.
"The regions the central government can't control - Abkhazia, Ossetia, and Pankisi - that's the focus of the new programme [with the Americans]," says Mr Tevzadze, the defence minister.
This is the kind of talk that alarms the Abkhaz secessionists and the Russians. Georgian partisans briefly kidnapped four Russian peacekeeping soldiers in Abkhazia this week, triggering furious denunciation of the Georgian government by Moscow, which may be losing the contest for influence with the Americans but which can still cause plenty of mischief.
The Georgians are dependent on Russia for supplies of gas which are turned on and off as a political instrument. The leverage extends to strong Russian influence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia - both bordering Russia proper - with the Russian Duma or lower house threatening to legislate for incorporation of the regions into Russia when it gets particularly upset about Mr Shevardnadze, which is often.
And in a move that is tantamount to non-recognition of Georgian sovereignty over its territory, the Russians imposed visa requirements on Georgians but exempted Abkhazia and South Ossetia from the rules.
The Russians also still have almost 5,000 troops at three bases in Georgia. Tbilisi wants them out within three years. Moscow says it will take 14 years. "Russia is always trying to preserve its presence and influence in this country," says Mr Burduli. "But it does not have a clear policy on Georgia and the Caucasus."
Terrorism has become the catchall excuse for all sides in this tense contest. The Americans maintain - as the Russians have for years - that there are Middle Eastern terrorists in the Pankisi Gorge. The Georgians are happy to let the Americans in to deal with that perceived problem, but then allege that Osama Bin Laden's associates are actually in Abkhazia, not Pankisi.
Everyone fears that the Georgians will exploit the US military training and supplies to attack not Pankisi, but Abkhazia, although more sober minds in the Georgian government insist nothing will be done to impede the search for a diplomatic and political settlement in Abkhazia.
"The American presence will not help the Russians make a deal with Georgia," says a senior European diplomat in Tbilisi. "The Georgian government wants to join Nato and is inviting in the Americans. Putin won't do a deal with it."
Western diplomats in Tbilisi say the Abkhaz conflict can't be settled militarily and that it would be disastrous if the Georgian troops now being trained by the Americans ended up fighting Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia.
But if the Russians imagined that September 11 and the war in Afghanistan gave them a green light to eradicate Chechen "terrorists" on Georgian territory, the Americans have nipped that in the bud.
Back in 1999, when Yeltsin was rebuffed by the Georgians, the Americans signalled that the Russia-Georgian border was "a red line" not to be crossed by the Russians. Despite the consensus between Washington and Moscow on fighting terrorism, the red line policy is still in place.
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michael.keaney at mbs.fi
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