Some officials and analysts in Moscow are sensing an opportunity to bring Georgia to heel through threats of an “antiterrorist operation,” one that would masquerade as an emulation of American operations against real havens of international terrorism. Those officials and analysts are beginning to make a case for “parallelism” in order to justify, for Western consumption, a possible Russian move against alleged “Chechen terrorism” in Georgia. They also appear to calculate that the West’s overwhelming concentration on responding to the September 11 terrorist assault might create a penumbra for Russian coercive actions against Georgia.
On September 18, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry handed a note phrased as a quasi-ultimatum to Tbilisi. Without adducing any evidence that Chechen guerrillas are based in Georgia, the note demanded “decisive measures against the bandit formations that are training on Georgia’s territory and planning new acts of terrorism [against Russia] from there. This includes the Pankisi gorge, which has become a base of support for international terrorism in the rear of the [Russian-Chechen] front.”
The note goes on to demand the closure of the Tbilisi office and “information center” of Chechen separatists, and the immediate handover of a group of thirteen “rebels, wanted for terrorist acts committed in Russia.” Warning that “it is high time for Georgia to join, not in words but in deeds, the common front of civilized states against international terrorism,” the note affirms “Russia’s readiness to give Georgia the necessary assistance in undertaking antiterrorist measures.” This last phrase is a barely veiled demand on Tbilisi to authorize a Russian military operation inside Georgia, as already proposed more than once by President Vladimir Putin.
For added political effect, the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry’s chief spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko read out the text of the note at a televised briefing. The document does not stipulate a specific deadline for Georgian compliance. Apart from that, the language is the classical one of ultimatums. And an ultimatum complete with a deadline may well ensue if Moscow chooses to conclude, rightly or wrongly, that the West has no time for Georgia in the current global situation.
This note capped a round of “leaks” by Russia’s military and security agencies via Moscow media, charging that Georgia is both unwilling and unable to eliminate the alleged presence of Chechen rebels in the Pankisi gorge and elsewhere. Georgia’s President Eduard Shevardnadze, its Foreign Affairs Ministry and its ambassador to Moscow, Zurab Abashidze, have responded with public statements phrased in a restrained tone that seek to set the record straight. They pointed out that the 6,000 to 7,000 Chechen refugees in the Pankisi gorge are, in their overwhelming majority, women, children and the elderly; that a very small number among the males are conceivably former combatants, but are not engaged in any guerrilla-related activity and are in any case carefully watched; that Tbilisi has repeatedly asked Moscow in vain to assume responsibility for the refugees’ upkeep, or the repatriation of those willing; and, finally, that ordinary crime, rife in the Pankisi gorge, is traceable primarily to local, native Kist Chechens, citizens of Georgia uninvolved in the war on Russia’s territory.
For its part, the command of Georgia’s border troops has again underscored its close cooperation with Russian border troops in sealing the Chechen sector of the Georgian-Russian border. In Moscow, the border troops’ command has time and again contradicted the army and intelligence services’ allegations about Chechen cross-border movements. Each of these three Russian institutions has its own agenda. The army seeks to justify its own embarrassing setbacks by claiming that the insurgents are being supplied and reinforced from Georgian territory. The intelligence agencies are trying to build a political case for Russian intervention in Georgia. The Russian border troop command feels that it is being made a scapegoat for the alleged movements of Chechen and “international terrorists” across the Georgian-Russian border. In fact, the close cooperation among Russian and Georgian border troops in the Chechen sector is the only bright spot in Russian-Georgian relations. As a result, the sector is reasonably well guarded.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has a multinational observer mission–including Russian observers–stationed at several points on that same border sector. The mission certifies that the situation is quiet, thanks primarily to the Georgian and Russian border troops’ efforts, and only secondarily to the forbidding terrain and climate.
The group of thirteen alleged “terrorists,” whose extradition is now being demanded by Moscow, had been arrested in June by Georgian border troops in a sector far removed from the Chechen sector. The group consists of non-Chechen citizens of Russia, most of them apparently Kabardins, who surrendered on being spotted. The Georgian authorities publicized the incident as an indication that trespassers can slip through Russian controls, but not through Georgian controls. Tbilisi promptly notified Moscow of the detainees’ identities, but Moscow did not seem interested. Now, the Russian authorities want the group extradited, but have not furnished any incriminating evidence and not filed the required legal papers. Tbilisi says that it would comply with the extradition request if legally presented and substantiated.
Last month, Moscow created a war scare through a spate of allegations that Chechen detachments commanded by Ruslan Gelaev had assembled in the Kodori gorge in order to invade Abkhazia jointly with Georgian armed groups. Sourced to some Russian intelligence sources, the allegations created panic in both Tbilisi and Sukhumi because neither wanted an outbreak of hostilities. It took more than a week for the allegations to be proven false. The Kodori gorge in any case is located in an opposite corner of Georgia from Pankisi, with impassable mountains in between. Meanwhile, other Russian intelligence sources “saw” Gelaev and his men in Pankisi, while yet other intelligence agencies “reported” Gelaev fighting in Chechnya itself. Now, Moscow again “sees” Gelaev in Pankisi (Prime-News, Kavkasia-Press, Interfax, Russian Television, September 14-20).
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