Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 229

If Russian troops enter northern Georgia on the pretext of restoring order there, the Clinton administration and the European Union will be in no position to claim to have been surprised. The Kremlin has now virtually disclosed the fact that it is demanding Georgian consent to such an operation. And the rhetoric from Moscow appears designed to prepare the political justifications for such a move. If past experience is any guide, that type of rhetoric has usually preceded open threats of military intervention or actual intervention. And the past experience further suggests that Moscow’s ultimate decision on whether to progress from threats to action largely depends upon the international response to the preliminary threats.

On December 6 and 7, spokesmen for the Kremlin and for the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Moscow confirmed that President Vladimir Putin had indeed asked Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze to approve a “joint” Russian-Georgian military operation in northern Georgia’s Akhmeta district against “Chechen and international terrorists.” Moscow’s spokesmen criticized Shevardnadze for refusing–most recently at the December 1 summit of the CIS in Minsk–to authorize such a move. Considering the grotesque disproportion of forces between Russia and Georgia, any such operation would in practice be a Russian action, the “joint” veneer of which would only provide it with a semblance of legitimacy.

That demand is hardly new: Shevardnadze had himself disclosed it as part of a set of Russian demands on Georgia in recent weeks. But its disclosure now by Moscow is triply significant: first, because it marks the passage from hidden to public warnings; second, because the decision to go public tests the West’s capacity to respond at the political level; and, third, because the disclosure’s timing shows that Moscow waited until the year-end meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was out of the way, then escalated the pressure on Georgia. At that meeting, Moscow successfully blocked resolutions of concern over some other recent steps that violated Georgia’s sovereignty (see the Monitor, December 5).

Russian forces can reach northern Georgia either from Chechnya or from their existing bases in southern Georgia. The latter approach seems by far the more feasible in winter conditions. It would also prove more destructive. First, it would help Moscow to block indefinitely the OSCE-mandated negotiations with Georgia regarding the closure of those bases. If used for anti-Chechen operations, those bases would be legitimized by Moscow as an indispensable “antiterrorist” capability. Second, the operation would necessitate the opening of an access corridor for Russian troops across the entire territory of Georgia, with ample potential for local and perhaps national resistance against troops that would be perceived as invaders. That in turn could call forth additional Russian deployments. Third, the operation could easily turn northern Georgian areas into a war theater, extending that in Chechnya. Fourth, official Georgian assent could reignite the Chechen-Georgian strife, barely laid to rest after the Moscow-sponsored 1992-93 Chechen intervention in Abkhazia. Manipulation of historic tensions pitting Chechens and Abkhaz against Georgians forms part of Moscow’s divide-and-rule tactics in the region. The Georgian government for its part is careful to avoid being drawn into hostilities which would–as Shevardnadze has put it–fuel vendettas from generation to generation.

Putin’s top aide Sergey Yastrzhembsky and other Russian officials are, on a daily basis, portraying Georgia as incapable of maintaining order on her own territory without Russian military assistance. By December 6 and 7 the campaign reached fever pitch. The Kremlin claims that: “1,500 to 2,000 Chechen and international terrorists” including the commander Ruslan Gelaev are based in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge; with help from other “international terrorists” they are building a radio and television station for broadcasting to Russia, Georgia and other countries, as well as a hydropower plant “to secure the district’s electricity self-sufficiency,” an “intelligence center,” mosques, and something called “Wahhabi prayer houses.” The “bandits” have, furthermore, proclaimed a “New Ichkeria [that is, Chechen] Republic” in the seventeen villages of the Pankisi Gorge, also setting up an “administrative capital” in Duisi, aiming to unite that area with Chechnya; and they are persecuting and evicting the area’s native Georgian and Ossetian residents. Last but not least, “Arab and Turkish” terrorists are flocking to that area of Georgia. All this on the Kremlin’s official authority via the state agency Itar-Tass and Russian state television.

Although designed mainly for international consumption, this campaign also targets segments of Georgia’s public. It seeks to fan nationalist passion with the claim that Chechens are persecuting Georgians and Ossetians (even as Moscow sustains Ossetian secessionism in another part of Georgia). It suggests that Russian action to restore order would meet Georgia’s own interests. It insinuates that Shevardnadze somehow acts against Georgian interests by refusing to authorize such action. And it cites–as one of the few sources of “evidence”–unnamed sources in the Georgian “parliamentary opposition”–an allusion to Zviadists. One source, however, that Moscow has named is Tengiz Kitovani, a criminally tainted warlord of the 1990-94 period of civil strife in Georgia, who turned against Shevardnadze after the latter had reoriented Georgia westward. Kitovani is in Moscow at the moment. By citing the opposition to build a case against Shevardnadze, the Kremlin appears to suggest that if Shevardnadze does not cooperate with Moscow, others will–and for Georgia’s own sake at that.

Georgian officials are rebutting those claims point by point without difficulty. But the rebuttals are overwhelmed by the news out of Moscow while Georgia’s Western partners keep silent.

There is in Pankisi a genuine problem of criminality, common to many parts of the Caucasus–those in Russia’s North Caucasus–and aggravated by the arrival of a small number of Chechens displaced from their republic by the Russian war. In the past week or so, seven or eight persons–including two Spanish businessmen–have been abducted by Pankisi Chechens. Moscow is now demanding that Georgia cooperate–as Yastrzhembsky–in “setting the ground on fire under the Chechens’ feet in Pankisi Gorge.” That would mean extending not just the war itself, but the Russian scorched-earth strategy to Georgia (Itar-Tass, RIA, Russian Television, ORT, Ekho Moskvy, December 5-7; Prime-News, Kavkasia-Press, Iprinda, Tbilisi Radio, Georgian Television, December 5-7; see the Monitor, October 24, November 16, December 1, 4-6; Fortnight in Review, September 22, November 3, December 1).