Russia Turning Back The Clock On Georgian Policy

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 36

On June 21, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told military journalists that Russia would only withdraw its troops from the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases after receipt of US$300 million in “cost-offsets.” This amount is a throwback to Moscow’s opening gambits in earlier stages of negotiations, after which Moscow had begun significantly bargaining down its demands.

Ivanov upped the ante even further by insisting that Russian troops can only withdraw from Georgia after two new bases will have been built in Russia. This implies that any withdrawal schedule would be linked, not simply to western disbursement of cost-offsets, but to the Russian military’s construction schedule. In a calculated display of annoyance, Ivanov added, “I’ve said more than once that I am getting tired of answering these questions” (Interfax, RIA, June 21).

This is the second recent instance of a top-level Russian official reiterating earlier demands, made in more tense periods of Georgian-Russian relations. For the most part, the tension is now absent in those relations. However, during recent discussions with Georgian leaders in Tbilisi on a full range of bilateral issues, Russia’s Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov unexpectedly resurrected the Chechen issue as a means of extracting concessions from Georgia. Ivanov claimed that Chechen armed groups had not been fully removed from the Pankisi Gorge, and that the Georgian side of the border might again be used as a base of support for “terrorists” in Chechnya. Based on these assertions, Ivanov proposed that Georgia consent to the monitoring of the Pankisi Gorge by Russian intelligence services, authorize joint Russian-Georgian search operations there, and prepare for joint anti-guerrilla operations along the common border.

Georgian officials responded that by 2002, Georgian authorities with US intelligence support had been successful in cleansing the Pankisi Gorge of rebel armed groups. Russian intelligence was able to verify that the situation was under control during repeated visits to the area. Georgian officials felt that Ivanov’s proposals had been taken from the Russian Security Council’s archives for 1999-2002, when Moscow was using the Pankisi problem as a pretext for pressuring Georgia to yield on issues of sovereignty and Russian military bases.

In the immediate aftermath, press reports about Russian-Georgian discussions on joint patrolling of the common border prompted some speculation that Russian border troops might be authorized to act on Georgian territory. In reality, what both sides call joint patrolling has been in effect for about three years. The process calls for Russian and Georgian border troops to patrol their respective sides of the border, continuously exchanging intelligence information and holding regular meetings. Some operations are planned jointly, if required. But each side conducts operations on its own national territory. It is out of question for Georgia to authorize Russian border troops or any type of Russian troops to cross into Georgian territory.

What did not trickle out of Igor Ivanov’s talks was his proposal to discuss Russian-Georgian joint protection of the “CIS external border.” Moscow uses this term to designate Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) member countries’ borders with countries that were not part of the Soviet Union; in Georgia’s case this is the border with Turkey. CIS external borders are congruent with former USSR borders. Russia was never able to achieve international acceptance – nor even official CIS acceptance — of this concept, and gradually relinquished control over those borders. Currently, only the Armenia-Turkey and Tajikistan-Afghanistan borders are Russian-controlled. Raising this issue is a nonstarter for Moscow in Georgia.

Given the fact that the Georgian side of that border is, for the most part, in Ajaria, Georgian officials asked whether Ivanov had developed any second thoughts about having helped Georgia get rid of local despot Aslan Abashidze last month. Ivanov claimed no credit for the move, remarking only that it had damaged his personal and political standing in Moscow.