Publication: Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 166

The affair of the truck convoy that was allegedly attempting to smuggle pure alcohol across the Georgian border and that has been stopped by Russian border authorities for some weeks (see the Monitor, July 31, August 25) has acquired new gravity. In addition to becoming a sore point for Georgian officials, tensions over the incident now threaten to spread to other parts of the Caucasus. (Russian agencies, September 1-5)

Hundreds of trucks (while estimates have ranged as high as 2,000, recent reports refer to smaller numbers of vehicles) carrying as much as 10,000 tons of pure alcohol have been held up at the Russian-Georgian border by Russian border troops since late July. These trucks were apparently loaded with American and Turkish alcohol in the Georgian port city of Poti, and were to unload their cargo in the North Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz in the Russian Federation. The convoy has been unable to spirit its cargo across the Russian-Georgian border, however, despite alleged attempts to bribe — and to fire anti-tank weapons at — Russian customs officials.

By underscoring the Georgian government’s inability to prevent its country from being used as a corridor for illicit smuggling, the convoy has been an embarrassment for Georgian officials. In a national address carried by Georgian TV on September 3, Valery Chkheidze of Georgia’s border service criticized the Russian government’s policy of forcing the convoy to remain in Georgia. According to Chkheidze, this policy is "dictated by certain circles in the Russian Federation that want to discredit Georgia as a transit country." (Russian agencies, September 4) Georgian state minister Niko Lekishvili argued that, since most of the trucks had Russian license plates, the convoy was really Russia’s problem, and should therefore be dealt with on the Russian side of the border. However, Andrei Nikolaev, head of the Russian Federal Border Service, responded by telling his troops to undertake "any measures, including the use of arms, to prevent the alcohol from entering Russia". According to some reports, this statement figured in Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze’s decision to cancel plans to attend the celebration of the 850th anniversary of Moscow’s founding. (Russian agencies, September 5)

In addition to further complicating Russian-Georgian relations — which are already strained by questions about the future of Russian "peacekeeping" forces in Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazia region — the smugglers’ convoy could now be spreading tensions to Azerbaijan. Reports on September 3 suggested that the majority of the convoy was leaving Georgia en route to Azerbaijan. From there the trucks were expected to try to cross into the Russian Federation via the Azerbaijani border with Dagestan.

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