Georgia Threatens to Play the Rebel Card in the North Caucasus

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 20

Russian-Georgian relations continued to be tense because of the situation around the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia. When additional Russian troops were deployed to Abkhazia under the pretext of increasing the number of peacekeeping troops in the region to guarantee its security, the Georgian authorities regarded this decision as Russian aggression. Trying to find a peaceful solution to the problem and calling for dialogue with the Abkhazian separatists and Russia, Georgia is trying at the same time to push the West (the European Council and the United States) to increase pressure on the Kremlin.

Despite the increasing activity of U.S. diplomacy in the South Caucasus and the visit by an American diplomat, Matthew J. Bryza, to Abkhazia, a breakthrough in settling the crisis is nowhere in sight. The Georgian authorities hoped that the visit of Georgia’s State Minister for Issues of Reintegration, Temur Iakobashvili, to Moscow would initiate a serious dialogue with Moscow. It was clear, however, that Tbilisi needed leverage to force the Kremlin to look for a compromise. While Russian troops are stationed in Abkhazia, the only way for the Georgians to force the Kremlin to look for a compromise is to threaten the Russian authorities with possible help to rebels in the North Caucasus. The Georgian authorities generally use the North Caucasian card as an argument of last resort in their negotiations with Russia on Abkhazia and South Ossetia (another breakaway Georgian region).

On May 8, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili declared that “if somebody wants to annex a part of Georgia, this will inevitably provoke consequences in the North Caucasus, but we don’t want it” (Georgia-News, May 8). On May 14, the former Georgian leader Eduard Shevarnadze made a much more candid statement: “While talking about the independence of Abkhazia one should not forget about the Chechen Republic that has been incorporated into Russia by force,” he said. “The Chechens will be more active in the near future and one should advise them not to waste this moment. The Georgian authorities should use the activity of the Chechens and bring Abkhazia back. The most important thing is to choose the time and it won’t be difficult to bring Abkhazia back” (Regnum, May 14).

Shevarnadze made the statement two days before the visit of Iakobashvili to Moscow. It is quite possible that the Georgians believed that such threats would make the Kremlin more compliant. Russia, however, responded immediately to Shevarnadze’s threat. On May 16, the same day that Iakobashvili visited Moscow, a source in Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) told the media that a Georgian spy had been detained in the North Caucasus. The source said that Ramzan Turkoshvili, a Georgian citizen of Chechen origin, had orders from Georgian security agencies to get in touch with “bandit formations in the North Caucasus” to provide them with money given by Tbilisi “in order to step up sabotage activities in the Russian territory” (Interfax, May 16). Later, on May 17, again on the condition of anonymity, the FSB declared that terrorists continued to recruit Muslim youth in the Pankisi Gorge (a Georgian area populated mostly by ethnic Chechens) and that “leaders of terrorist groups are providing bandit formations with financial help from the Georgian territory” (Itar-Tass, May 17).

The fact that all these FSB statements were made unofficially raise doubts about their credibility. Most likely, this is just a warning message from the Kremlin to Georgia not to use the Chechen card against Russia; otherwise the Russian authorities will have the right to attack the Pankisi Gorge under the pretext of conducting an anti-terrorist operation.

In reality the prospect of the union between rebels in the North Caucasus and Georgian authorities is a nightmare for the Russian security officials. They are particularly afraid of any increase in rebel activity in the areas of the North Caucasus adjacent to Abkhazia such as Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia. On May 17, General Arkady Yedelev, the commander of the Russian anti-terrorist forces in the North Caucasus, visited Nalchick, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, where he said that “today terrorists need an excursion (meaning a large-scale raid – AS) into the areas that include the territory of Kabardino-Balkaria and especially Karachaevo-Cherkessia.” Yedelev laid special emphasis on Karachaevo-Cherkessia because this region is adjacent to Abkhazia and if the Caucasian rebels really have plans to help Georgia they should strike there or even more westward in Sochi, which is only 10 miles from the Abkhazian border.

During a press conference in Nalchick, Arkady Yedelev led the public to understand—in a quite emotional manner—that there are no grounds to believe there is any serious anti-Russian resistance in the North Caucasus, which the Georgians are talking about so much. “There is no increasing liberation struggle against Russian occupation in the North Caucasus,” he said. “It is nonsense. Our peoples have been living together for a thousand years and have established a unified and undivided state. There are forces who would like to see the North Caucasus burning but they will fail” (Regnum, May 17).

The disappointment of the Kremlin is understandable. In the event of rebel raids in the northwest Caucasus, Russian domination in Abkhazia and South Ossetia will be immediately questioned and Georgia will have real leverage on Moscow, not the virtual leverage it has now.