Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 64

On March 28, marking the first anniversary of his appointment as Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Ivanov issued multiple threats against Georgia at a specially convened news conference. His remarks, which also coincided with Ivanov’s return from a visit to the United States, sought not only to intimidate but also to mislead Tbilisi into questioning the solidity of American support for Georgia’s independence and security.

Ivanov claimed that Washington might give up the plan to send 200 Green Berets on an equip-and-train mission to Georgia. This “renunciation” he professed to attribute partly to Moscow’s diplomatic skill–“we have presented our concerns on international security issues more articulately”–and partly to it having dawned on Washington that the Georgians might draw America into the Abkhazia conflict.

Ivanov went on to warn that current tensions in Abkhazia and the possible arrival of the U.S. troops–if that plan goes ahead–would “affect the negotiations over the timeframe for the withdrawal of Russian military bases from Georgia.” Moscow currently demands legalization of the Akhalkalaki and Batumi bases for fourteen years–meaning, in practice, indefinitely–while Tbilisi would grant three years for those bases’ removal. Ivanov’s warning suggests that Moscow could use the Green Berets’ arrival as a pretext for keeping Russian bases in Georgia permanently. It also suggests to the Georgians that “tensions in Abkhazia” might similarly be used as a pretext to that same end.

Apparently hinting at Russian covert operations in Abkhazia and elsewhere, Ivanov stated that “certain preventive measures are being taken, not only by Russia’s armed forces, but by all the ‘power agencies.'” In this context, Ivanov asserted that “the border is practically lacking between the North Caucasus and the South Caucasus”–a thesis that can and did serve as a license for Russian cross-border operations and bases (Interfax, RIA, Russian Public Television, ORT TV, March 26-31).

Two days prior to Ivanov’s warnings, Georgian Defense Minister Davit Tevzadze had told a news conference that Georgian intelligence had learned of Russian military preparations to stage incidents in either Abkhazia, South Ossetia or the Pankisi Gorge, with a view to delaying the arrival of U.S. special troops in Georgia. Citing with concern two recent incidents, in which undisciplined Russian “peacekeepers” engaged in “hooligan behavior” toward ethnic Georgians along the Georgian-Abkhaz demarcation line, Tevzadze wanted to make clear in advance that Georgia would not be responsible for any possible escalation. Tevzadze reaffirmed that the U.S.-Georgian train-and-equip program is in no way connected with the Abkhazia or South Ossetia issues, and that the program would proceed at Georgian sites distant from Pankisi.

On March 29, Georgia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry handed over and made public a protest note to the Russian ambassador in connection with Sergei Ivanov’s statements. The note underscored Ivanov’s disregard of Russia’s obligations to negotiate with Georgia in good faith over the removal of the Akhalkalaki and Batumi bases, in accordance with decisions adopted by the 1999 summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. At a specially convened briefing, Foreign Affairs Minister Irakli Menagharishvili expressed concern over apparent “repudiation of international obligations,” and wondered aloud whether the Russian defense minister was speaking out of line. By the same token, the note rejected the accusation that Georgia was preparing military operations in Abkhazia. “Georgia is in any case within its right to request clarifications” over such statements that “contravene the good-neighbor policy, repeatedly proclaimed by Russia’s top political leadership.”

With this, Tbilisi zeroed in on President Vladimir Putin’s political responsibility for his minister’s–and personal confidant’s–utterances. Menagharishvili in his statement reserved the right to appeal directly to international organizations “if the Russian-Georgian dialogue should lead nowhere.”

Meanwhile, Moscow is in breach of its obligation to vacate the Gudauta military base. The OSCE’s 1999 decisions, as well as the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE), required Russia remove the combat hardware and troops from Gudauta under international observation by July 2001. Instead, Moscow retains the base to this day in defiance not only of Georgia, but also of the OSCE, the observer teams of which have been denied the CFE-mandated access to Gudauta. The OSCE, hamstrung by Moscow’s veto power, keeps silent over Gudauta. It thus, in seeming to condone the situation, unwittingly encourages Moscow to tear up another part of the organization’s 1999 decisions–namely, on Moldova. There, Russia is required to withdraw all its troops from Transdniester by December 2002, but seems intent on what is at best only partial compliance.

Moscow has a full range of cards to play within Georgia, besides the Abkhaz one. South Ossetia is another. On March 24-25 the would-be Abkhaz prime minister and South Ossetian president–Anri Jergenia and Eduard Kokoev, respectively–held talks with Transdniester’s leader Igor Smirnov in Tiraspol. This conclave of three citizens of Russia discussed coordinated measures to preserve the secession of their respective enclaves, all protected by Russian “peacekeeping” forces (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 27).

In Batumi, the Ajar autonomy’s leader Aslan Abashidze issued a statement protesting the planned deployment of American military instructors to Georgia. He professed to fear that U.S.-trained Georgian battalions would eventually be used for interventions against Ajaria or Abkhazia (Izvestia, March 26; Itar-Tass, March 29). Almost certainly coordinated with the Russian military command in Batumi, the Abashidze statement embarrasses President Eduard Shevardnadze, who–under considerable duress–had recently appointed Abashidze as Georgian presidential envoy for negotiations on Abkhazia.

In Akhalkalaki, a local Armenian nationalist group has recently launched a campaign for autonomy, with support from the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaksutiun in Yerevan. The group’s goals include the retention of the Russian military base in Akhalkalaki (Noyan-Tapan, March 29; Prime-News, Kavkasia-Press, Georgian Television, March 26-31; see the Monitor, February 6, 18, 27-28, March 5, 8).