The September 1 terrorist attack in Russia’s North Ossetian town of Beslan has not led the Kremlin to reassess its stance on neighboring Georgia. Moreover, many Russian policymakers and analysts have begun to search for traces of Georgian involvement in the Beslan tragedy.
Russian attempts to find a connection have ranged from media allegations to sealing the North Ossetian section of Georgian-Russian border to the arrest of a television crew from the Georgian Rustavi-2 station, which was covering the Beslan siege. One of the more hawkish Russian politicians, Sergei Baburin, vice-chairman of Russia’s State Duma, told Novye izvestiya on August 6 that he would not be surprised to learn that the hostage-takers in Beslan had received training in Georgia’s Pankisi George, an area once used as a refuge by Chechen rebels.
Reports about possible links between Beslan and breakaway South Ossetia have appeared in the Georgian media as well. Tbilisi-based Mze (Sun) television reported earlier that the license plates on the van used by the hostage-takers indicated that the vehicle was registered in South Ossetia. There has been no official confirmation of this report so far. Georgian Parliamentary Chairwoman Nino Burjanadze told reporters on September 6 that Georgian special services are investigating the case.
On August 7, a team of Russian special forces barged into the Moscow-based Tbilisi hotel, owned by the Georgian Embassy. After searching the hotel and checking ID cards, they transported several guests to a local police station. Media reports link the Moscow incident with the events in Beslan (TV Imedi, regnum.ru, kommersant.ru, August 7).
Russian authorities did their best to prevent unbiased coverage of the Beslan events by diverting critically minded journalists, including Anna Politkovskaya of Novaya gazeta and Andrei Babitsky of Radio Liberty, from reaching North Ossetia (see EDM September 1). North Ossetian police arrested Rustavi-2 reporter Nana Lezhava and cameraman Levan Tetvadze in Beslan on September 4. The police confiscated videocassettes containing recorded interviews with Beslan residents. According to North Ossetian police officials, Lezhava and Tetvadze did not have Russian visas or special press passes issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry. However, Rustavi-2 television claims that Lezhava and Tetvadze did not need a Russian visa to visit North Ossetia, as they had credentials issued by the administration of Kazbegi, a town in northern Georgia on the Russian border. According to an agreement between the two countries, residents of the border zone can move freely in the region without visas.
Despite Georgia’s diplomatic efforts, including a letter from President Mikheil Saakashvili to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, the two journalists have not been released. Moreover, their September 6 preliminary hearing, which for some reason was held in the local FSB building, ordered the two held in pre-trial detention. North Ossetian law enforcement agencies have not allowed either lawyers or officials from the Georgian embassy in Moscow to visit Lezhava and Tetvadze in their cells.
Russian investigators argue that the journalists might have known about the terrorist plot in advance, since they arrived in Beslan before the incident began. However, Rustavi-2 claims that the journalists arrived in Beslan nine hours after the initial rebel attack on the school. A group of Georgian journalists held a protest rally outside the Russian embassy in Tbilisi on September 6, demanding the immediate release of the Georgian journalists. Rustavi-2 claims that their journalists were arrested because they were “making an objective coverage of the Beslan events.” (24 Hours, Rustavi-2, TV-Imedi, Civil Georgia, August 7). Erosi Kitsmarishvili, director general of Rustavi-2, linked Lezhava’s arrest with her unbiased and objective reports from Beslan, which “were extremely important for understanding what’s going there indeed.” (www.rosbalt.ru).
Today, September 8, the Russian Ambassador to Georgia, Alexander Chkhikvishvili, held a meeting with Gela Bezhuashvili, Georgian National Security Council Secretary, during which he announced that the Georgian journalists would be freed later today. The U.S. Ambassador to Georgia, Richard Miles, attended the meeting as well (TV Rustavi-2, September 8).
Most Georgian analysts tend to believe that the Beslan incident might affect Georgia quite negatively. Political analyst Givi Bolotashvili and special services pundit Giorgi Kharatishvili argue that the ultimate goal of the recent spate of terrorist acts in Russia is to weaken Russia to the point of disintegration. “The West wishes the accomplishment of this plan no less than the Chechen field commanders,” Bolotashvili says. According to Kharatishvili, the resumption of hostilities in Georgia’s breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions will play into the hands of the United States, because they will inevitably involve Russia’s tumultuous North Caucasus, where the Ossetians and Ingush are at odds with each other, and force Russia to fight on several fronts simultaneously. The United States will not allow Russia to suppress Georgia, but Georgia will pay for this with the lives of its citizens, he says (Week’s Palette, September 6). The pro-Kremlin Russian analyst Gleb Pavlovsky noted that by unfreezing the conflict in South Ossetia, Saakashvili made North Ossetia a likely target of terrorism. According to him, the eastward enlargement of the European Union seeks to unfreeze the chronic conflicts in the Caucasus and “taps on Saakashvili’s shoulder from a distance” for doing so (russ.ru, August 7).
After Beslan, all local commentators believe that Georgia should remain particularly vigilant and withstand any provocative actions that might come from Russia. Saakashvili has already moved to heighten control on Georgia’s border with Russia.