With increasing frequency, Russian officials are charging that Islamic fighters, weapons and funds are being funneled via Georgia and Azerbaijan to terrorist groups in the North Caucasus. Such charges have been aired in recent days by Russia’s Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Federation Council Chairman Yegor Stroev, Duma Chairman Gennady Seleznev, Duma Defense Committee Chairman Roman Popkovich, and Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov (head of the Defense Ministry’s Main Department for International Military Cooperation). None of these has cited any supportive evidence.
The timing and venue of some of these statements adds to their significance. Ivanov spoke out on the subject as he emerged from a meeting with President Boris Yeltsin; Stroev, following a closed-door session of the Federation Council on the events in the North Caucasus; and Seleznev as the Duma included those accusations in a special resolution on the situation in the Caucasus. This seems to reflect a growing political backing in Moscow for the use of pressure on Azerbaijan and Georgia, as was the case during the 1995-96 Russian-Chechen war, when Moscow made similar allegations which it was never able to substantiate.
In Baku, senior presidential adviser Vafa Guluzade and National Security Minister Namig Abbasov dismissed the latest charges directed at Azerbaijan as baseless. But the wording of their statements has been remarkably restrained, and other Azerbaijani officials have said nothing. Baku seems intent on preserving the recent, slight warm-up in its bilateral relations with Russia (see the Monitor, September 10) against collateral damage from the war in the North Caucasus.
Georgian officials, for their part, have been more forthright in discussing the potential implications of Moscow’s assertions. State Minister [equivalent to prime minister] Vazha Lortkipanidze, who is known for his conciliatory attitude toward Russia, expressed concern that the allegations might presage “an attempt to involve Georgia in the North Caucasus conflict and destabilize the situation in Georgia itself.” President Eduard Shevardnadze’s adviser on international law, Levan Aleksidze, urged Russia to “stop painting Georgia in the enemy’s image” and described the situation in the North Caucasus as evidence of Moscow’s “policy error” of supporting separatism in the South even as it combats “separatism” in the North. Georgia’s border troops commander, Lieutenant-General Valery Chkheidze, termed the accusations against Georgia “demagogic,” designed for internal political consumption.
These Georgian officials, and an official statement of Georgia’s Foreign Ministry, all underscored Georgia’s interest in upholding the principle of territorial integrity and preservation of existing borders. Azerbaijani President Haidar Aliev–during talks with a Council of Europe delegation in Baku–emphasized Azerbaijan’s interest in upholding the same principles and in thwarting Islamic fundamentalism. Specifically, Aliev mentioned Azerbaijan’s interest in the restoration of stability in neighboring Dagestan (Itar-Tass, Turan, Azad-Inform, Radio Tbilisi, Prime-News, September 14-19; Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 15).
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