GEORGIA, AZERBAIJAN FACE “SOFTENING-UP BARRAGE
Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 2
“Vladimir Putin’s elevation to the Russian presidency seems to have lent a fresh impetus to the intimidation campaign against Georgia and Azerbaijan. Beginning on January 7 the Russian military and the intelligence agencies began accusing those two countries of condoning the creation of Chechen “jump-off points” and “bridgeheads” on Georgian and Azerbaijani territories, in preparation, the Russian officials said, for a “protracted war” against the Russian forces in Chechnya. They charged, moreover, that Chechen leaders were freely circulating in Georgia and Azerbaijan and that Chechen commanders were recruiting supporters or “mercenaries” in the two countries. The allegations, widely disseminated by the Moscow media, remained wholly unsubstantiated despite their gravity. They were clearly designed to intimidate those two countries into political and military concessions to Russia, not necessarily and certainly not mainly over the Chechen issue. One Tbilisi official, using a Russian military term, compared Moscow’s propaganda to a “softening-up artillery barrage” preparatory to Russian demands for concessions.
Tbilisi and Baku are responding with indignant denials, coupled with reassurances that they are interested in upholding the territorial integrity of states and in suppressing terrorism, because they themselves have been targeted by secession movements and terrorist groups. Azerbaijan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry and National Security Ministry, in their statements, not only refuted the charges but described them as deliberate misinformation, serving “war-mongering” goals and possibly aimed at dragging Azerbaijan into the conflict. Baku’s statements, moreover, reminded Russia–and, indirectly, international opinion–that Azerbaijan is separated from Chechnya by more than 200 kilometers of Russian territory in Dagestan. The statements asked the Russian government to “stop the escalation of anti-Azerbaijani propaganda.”
In Tbilisi, the Foreign Affairs and State Security ministries called on the Russian authorities to “desist from anti-Georgian provocations, which have acquired a permanent character.” The Georgian ministries renewed invitations to Russia to send a border inspection team to Georgia and to join the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring team on the Georgian side of the border opposite Chechnya (see below), so as to ascertain that Georgia is in no way hosting or assisting Chechen forces. President Eduard Shevardnadze sounded the same message in his January 10 news conference. Those Georgian invitations to Russia have been standing since November and December, respectively. Moscow, however, has failed to respond to either invitation. That refusal seems to leave Moscow free to continue its campaign of accusations regardless of the actual facts on the ground.
On January 11, Georgian television screened a video film–shot with a hidden camera–which showed Russian soldiers from the Russian military base at Vaziani handing out a large consignment of weapons and ammunition to unidentified, presumably Chechen men. Georgian security forces impounded the consignment while en route toward Chechnya. The Georgian authorities had long warned their Russian counterparts that corrupt Russian officers in Georgia were selling arms to the Chechens; but the Russian side had done no more than go through the motions of investigating.