RUSSIA STEPS UP PRESSURE ON TBILISI

Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 8 Issue: 5

The U.S. mission is supposed to be under full steam in about a month. Nevertheless, yesterday’s flurry of announcements–informal though officially authorized–comes not a moment too soon. It follows a barrage of Russian threats to intervene militarily in Georgia–whether unilaterally or “jointly” with Georgian troops–using, inter alia, the argument that Osama bin Laden himself might conceivably be hiding and operating in Pankisi, and that such a possibility in any case “cannot be disproved.” With the Russian foreign affairs and defense ministers using such arguments repeatedly, Moscow’s pressure tactics against Georgia may be said to have reached both a new high and a new low.

In Tbilisi, the February 25 suicide of Security Council Secretary Nugzar Sajaia could well be seen as a symptom of demoralization at the top under this extreme pressure. The cumulative significance of these developments, apparently, helped precipitate the announcements in Washington, and may well justify a decision to have some American boots on the ground in Georgia within days. A few analysts had, perhaps prematurely, reported last week a secret deployment of the first U.S. soldiers to Georgia. While the mission’s purpose and planning are of a purely antiterrorist nature, and its political justification is formulated in terms of the grand antiterrorism coalition, the realities of Russia-Georgia relations are such that the American deployment extends a protective hand over Georgia. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher implied as much in summing up Washington’s responses to Moscow about the Pankisi situation: “This situation is best dealt with through cooperation among the United States and Georgia, so that Georgia would have better control over the area.”

The observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), deployed since December 2000 on the Georgian side of the Georgia-Russia border in the Chechen sector, was a first response to Russian threats to intervene against putative terrorists inside Georgia. That OSCE deployment, too, had the character of an interposition move, albeit by unarmed personnel; and it helped defuse the pressure on Georgia for a while by certifying that no Chechen or other putative terrorists were moving across the border. However, the war on terrorism in Afghanistan and the war’s aftermath changed the terms of debate entirely.

Aleksei Arbatov gave an instant analysis of that change as seen from Moscow: “Because Georgia does not want to give Russia an opportunity to eliminate the terrorists [in Pankisi], the United States has got a pretext for taking the operation into its hands,” the Yabloko politician and leading policy analyst stated yesterday. The announced American deployment, he went on, responds also to “Georgia’s desire to have close links with the United States…. In the [South] Caucasus as in Central Asia, Russia faces a choice: either Islamic terrorists gaining strength unchecked, or an American political and military presence beginning to build up. Russia, currently unable on its own to eradicate the terrorist hot spots, has only one choice in the matter.”

Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Igor Ivanov went on television to criticize the U.S. move: “A possible U.S. military deployment to Georgia would further aggravate an already difficult situation. Russia has repeatedly proposed to Tbilisi to join forces and stamp out the terrorist threat. We reaffirm our readiness to render all necessary assistance to the friendly Georgian people in the antiterrorist fight. Washington is well aware of our position.” This Russian position statement corroborates Boucher’s hint at the differences between Moscow and Washington (see above). For his part, the Duma’s International Affairs Committee chairman Dmitry Rogozin threatened to retaliate against Georgia by having the Duma “recognize Abkhazia’s sovereignty.” He confidently anticipated that “Abkhazia will be angry.” By contrast, Rogozin’s counterpart committee chairman in the Federation Council, Mikhail Margelov, saw “nothing wrong if the Americans help Georgian police and special forces to establish law and order in Pankisi.”

On Rogozin’s cue, the Abkhaz would-be prime minister Anri Jergenia declared that Abkhazia would now seek Russian recognition of Abkhazia’s sovereignty under Russian guarantees. In a similar vein, South Ossetia’s recently elected, unrecognized “president” Eduard Kokoev–a citizen and long-time resident of Russia–declared that South Ossetia now reserves the right to request the deployment of Russian forces–above and beyond the Russian “peacekeeping” battalion already there–to South Ossetia. Ironically, Abkhazia had all along complained about “terrorists” raiding Abkhazia from Pankisi, and would be hard put to retract its claims now when the U.S. addresses that very problem. Kokoev, as a new leader, labors under no such restraints. He simply declared yesterday that “there were no international terrorists in Pankisi…this is just a pretext for the deployment of American instructors to Georgia.” These statements have little to do with the problem of terrorism as such, but have much to do with Moscow’s use of Abkhazia and South Ossetia these past ten years to punish Georgia.

In Tbilisi, the pro-Moscow vice chairman of parliament and Socialist Party leader Vahtang Rcheulishvili charged that Shevardnadze, through his pro-Western policy, was forfeiting Russian support on the Abkhazia problem. For their part, Shevardnadze and Georgia in general lost all illusions on that account years ago, and never had illusions about the motivations and implications of a Russian military operation inside Georgia proper.

“The Fortnight in Review” is prepared by senior analysts Jonas Bernstein (Russia), Stephen Foye (Security and Foreign Policy), and Vladimir Socor (Non-Russian republics). Editor, Stephen Foye. If you would like information on subscribing to the Monitor, or have any comments, suggestions or questions, please contact us by e-mail at [email protected], by fax at 301-562-8021, or by postal mail at The Jamestown Foundation, 4526 43rd Street NW, Washington, DC 20016. Unauthorized reproduction or redistribution of “The Fortnight in Review” is strictly prohibited by law. Copyright (c) 1983-2002 The Jamestown Foundation