On May 15, the wraps came off an event which the Georgian government–and perhaps the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as well–was hoping to keep from the public eye for as long as possible. Russian border troops have seized a Georgian village in the Chechen sector of the Georgian-Russian border. Having been airdropped in March on the Russian side of the border, the soldiers lost no time occupying the village of Pichvni inside Georgian territory and setting up a fortified Russian post there. Georgian border troops and local Georgian residents withdrew from the village in order–as Tbilisi officials finally explained on May 16–to “avoid a conflict.”
Pichvni is located near Shatili, the main Georgian border post and the quarters of the OSCE’s monitoring group which is mandated to watch the Georgian-Russian border and report on any destabilizing developments. The OSCE has not, so far as anyone knows, reacted to Russia’s move.
Moscow took advantage of the fact that the delimitation and demarcation of the border is still incomplete. A Russian-Georgian commission has been meeting at infrequent intervals to put the finishing touches on the delimitation on maps, which is to be followed by demarcation on the ground. Moscow unilaterally decided to appropriate that village without awaiting the outcome of the negotiations.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin has resumed the propaganda campaign designed to suggest that Chechen rebels and “international terrorists” are using Georgian territory. Colonel-General Valery Manilov, first deputy chief of the General Staff of Russia’s armed forces, charged last week that no fewer than 1,500 “mercenary gunmen” are based in Georgia’s Pankisi gorge, poised to cross into Chechnya with loads of arms and ammunition. This week, the main staff of Russia’s border troops reissued in its own name an almost identical story. Both of those staffs in Moscow termed the gunmen “mostly Arab.” But, out in the field, the commander of Russian border troops in the Chechen sector of the Russian-Georgian border termed those elusive gunmen “Afghan Talibs.” That commander, Colonel Viktor Chuprakov, further claimed to know that the gunmen are armed with American-made Stinger missiles and “state-of-the-art” communications systems. And on May 17, Russia’s Deputy Internal Affairs Minister Ivan Golubev declared from a field headquarters in Chechnya that a 200-strong detachment of Afghan Taliban fighters has assembled on the Georgian side of the border, ready to come to the aid of “Chechen gangs.”
The Russian side has not produced any evidence to back up these latest accusations. They seemed designed, at least in part, to unnerve and intimidate Georgia into political concessions on other aspects of bilateral relations. And they may also serve to prepare the atmosphere for some unilateral Russian actions in the border area. Russia’s defense minister, Marshal Igor Sergeev, made that point on May 16. Anticipating that the situation on the border will deteriorate with the onset of warm weather, Sergeev warned that Russian forces plan to “undertake preventive measures” against those “gangs,” before they cross into Chechnya.
Georgia’s reaction is a carefully measured one. Avoiding any polemics, Tbilisi issues matter-of-fact denials as well as terming the accusations “absurd” and “totally unreal.” Hoping to avoid politicizing the matter, the civilian leadership in Tbilisi is withholding comment, leaving it up to the command of Georgian border troops and the National Security Ministry to respond in that restrained manner. Both of those agencies also continually reassure Moscow of their intent to continue cooperation with their Russian counterparts in the interest of stabilizing the situation on the border.
Through all this, Georgia’s diplomacy and the parliamentary leadership seem to bend over backwards to avoid offending Moscow. At the recent sessions of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and of the ministerial committee of that organization, the Georgian parliamentary and governmental delegations refrained from joining the majorities which condemned Russia’s war in Chechnya. The two Georgian delegations, moreover, came out against proposals to impose political sanctions on Russia and in favor of allowing Russia “time to settle its internal problems in the North Caucasus,” as Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Shota Dogonadze summed up Georgia’s position. As the warming weather favors guerrilla operations inside Chechnya itself, Moscow may increasingly feel tempted to point an accusatory finger at Georgia and perhaps to seek pretexts for cross-border actions into Georgian territory. (Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 11; ORT, May 16; Itar-Tass, May 16-17; Prime-News, Kavkasia-Press, Black Sea Press (Tbilisi), May 11-12, 16-17).
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