Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili is echoing Russia’s old narrative about Georgia as a “haven for terrorists” (see EDM, April 3, 16, 17, May 3). Moscow, however, had largely given up that propaganda theme years ago. Discredited for lack of evidence, that accusation had ceased to play any significant role in Russia’s political warfare against Georgia long before the 2008 invasion, and since. Apparently oblivious to this, Ivanishvili is attempting to whip a dead horse back to life.
Accusations that “terrorists” enjoyed a haven in Georgia had served as a major instrument of Russian pressure on Georgia during Eduard Shevardnadze’s presidency. The two Chechen wars were having their inevitable, if minor spillover effects into Georgian territory. Small numbers of Chechen fighters were being forced from time to time to retreat across the high-altitude border into Georgia, wintered in the Pankisi Gorge, or crossed back into Russian territory. Georgia at that time was incapable of coping even with this minor spillover. Russia’s military and the security services greatly exaggerated the scale of this problem to help cover up their own mismanagement of the Chechen wars. The Kremlin and mass media under its control accused Georgia of colluding with terrorism, as part of their campaign to undermine Shevardnadze and discredit Georgia in the West.
Following the United States’ military intervention in Afghanistan, the Kremlin sought US and European acceptance of parallel Russian military operations in Georgia, under the pretense of “anti-terrorism.” Moscow presented “terrorism” (in its own definition of the term) as a US-Russia “common concern,” implying leeway for Russia to deal with this problem along its own borders. Russia’s ministries of foreign affairs and defense were publicly threatening at that time to undertake such operations into Georgia. The US responded in 2002 with the Pentagon’s Train-and-Equip Program, for Georgian troops to deal themselves with such problems. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) also assisted Georgian security services in cleaning up the Pankisi Gorge. From that time onward, Georgia secured its northern border sectors, essentially precluding cross-border movements of armed groups.
Moscow’s case against Georgia as a “haven for terrorists” had lost all credibility by 2004. At that point, Russia used its veto power within the OSCE to terminate the Border Monitoring Operation (BMO) in Georgia as of January 2005. The BMO, comprised of several hundred unarmed personnel, had watched and patrolled the Georgia-Russia border on the Georgian side opposite Dagestan, Chechnya, and Ingushetia since 2000. The BMO’s meticulous reports did not corroborate Russia’s accusations against Georgia, turning instead into a political embarrassment for the accusing side. Russia could not dictate the BMO’s reporting but could and did veto the prolongation of its mandate. Russia itself could no longer claim to be threatened from the Georgian side with any degree of plausibility by 2004 (see EDM, January 20, 2005).
During Saakashvili’s presidency, Russia multiplied its pressures on Georgia, but could no longer usefully employ the old line that Georgia was harboring terrorists. This type of accusation occurred comparatively rarely after 2004; and when it did, it tended to emanate from local security services in the North Caucasus, not from the Kremlin and the government in Moscow as had earlier been the case. Russia had cried “terrorism” to threaten military intervention before 2003, but never attempted to use that argument for justifying the 2008 invasion, or any subsequent pressures on Georgia to date.
Seen in this light, Ivanishvili’s threats to inculpate the previous government for collusion with Chechen or “North Caucasian” insurgents probably reflect his lack of familiarity with the background to this issue, among other policy issues. Some would claim that Ivanishvili needs to be helped to ascend a learning curve as head of government. But this means more than familiarizing himself with the dossiers. It must include learning a concept of national interest that overrides partisan interests or personalized political vendettas (see accompanying article).
Meanwhile, Russia itself offers no corroboration to charges that Saakashvili’s government bore some responsibility for the war or had colluded with “terrorists.” Team Ivanishvili’s accusations are playing into Moscow’s hands, but Moscow is not telling Georgia and the world “I told you so.” Instead, the Kremlin maintains a calculated silence, waiting to see Georgia isolated and adrift, in the event that Ivanishvili’s team launches criminal proceedings on those counts against the former government.