Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 3 Issue: 27

Over the past week, analysts and journalists occupying various points on the Russian political spectrum have voiced their (often strong) opinions on the current crisis in Russian-Georgian relations as it relates to the charged situation in the Pankisi Gorge. First, there were the views of two Russian “hawks.” Gleb Pavlovsky of the Foundation for Effective Politics in Moscow, an individual sometimes referred to as the “Kremlin’s spinmeister,” warned on the pages of the 16 September issue of Nezavisimaya Gazeta: “Russia cannot end the war in Chechnya so long as there exists a trans-Caucasus transit corridor, the center of which is in the Pankisi. As during the war in Vietnam there existed a ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail,’ so across Georgia there is the ‘Shevardnadze Trail’ by which weapons, money and people reach Chechnya. Georgia cites as the basic problem its inability to control events on its own territory. But this means that it must permit others to resolve this problem–in the given instance, Russia–or it must attempt to deal with the problem independently.” Pavlovsky then proceeded to observe: “Russia has no claims on Georgian sovereignty. And Russia has no claims on the Pankisi Gorge; it is completely unnecessary to her. In general, there is no question of an incursion into the gorge; Russia is only speaking of striking at the bases of the terrorists.”

Sergei Markov of the Institute for Political Research, writing in the same issue of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, was more truculent. “It appears,” he wrote, “that Putin’s declaration [on Russian-Georgian relations] pursues two goals. The first goal is to tie the hands of the U.S. before the military operation in Iraq, warning the Americans that they will have to pay a rather high price for that operation. If that price does not stop Washington and it attacks Iraq, then Russia’s hands will be untied to conduct a mirror-image operation in Georgia, and, in general, one aimed at strengthening our positions in post-Soviet space. The second important goal is that, in appealing to the authority of the world community and for a UN resolution, Vladimir Putin has delivered a very serious blow against the reputation of the Georgian leader. And that it is the main thing upon which Shevardnadze’s power currently rests.”

In the same issue of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a leading Russian “democrat,” Andrei Piontkovsky of the Center for Strategic Research in Moscow, wrote: “Any specialist will say that from the military point of view the Pankisi Gorge plays no more important role than does any district in Chechnya. Yes, Georgia does not control the situation there, but do we control the situation [in Chechnya]? What can we do in that gorge? Bomb it, destroy several thousands of peaceful inhabitants more, perhaps ‘rub out’ ten rebels–from a military point of view this will give us nothing. Now a word on the political consequences. Unfortunately, in Georgia there remain fewer and fewer people who relate with sympathy to Russia. Those who recently hated Shevardnadze are now rallying around him, because the tone in which Moscow is speaking to Tbilisi is perceived by a majority of the Georgian population as insulting. So, in a political sense, a military operation would be absolutely counterproductive.”

Another well-known “democrat,” Evgeniya Al’bats, commented in the no. 68 (September 16) issue of Novaya Gazeta: “They are agitated in the Kremlin, highly agitated–I judge by how loudly they are rattling their sabers. Thank God [they say], a new enemy has been discovered: now it’s Georgia. Of course it is only a so–so choice of enemies: as distinct from the Muslim Chechens, the Georgians are [Orthodox] Christians, and Christians from as far back as the third century. But you wouldn’t call the choice of the Kremlin political technicians completely dense.” “First,” Al’bats continued, “the Georgians (even though they are Christians) are in the eyes of the [Russian] populace nonetheless not our people–they are ‘blacks.’ Second, Eduard Shevardnadze serves as a red flag both for the Arbat and Old Square…. One recalls how in an interview appearing in the book In the First Person, Vladimir Putin told of the sense of insult and abasement he and his colleagues at the Dresden KGB felt when Soviet troops left East Germany [Shevardnadze being Soviet foreign minister at that time].”

“However,” Al’bats went on to conclude, “it was not only that which facilitated the choice of Georgia as an enemy. The main thing was that a [new] enemy was needed. Because we have been unable to cope with the first enemy-the Chechens-who emerged in all their devilish guise in the fall of 1999…. Only an enemy is capable of binding a people and political parties together around their president. As happened in the winter of 2000.”

Lastly, writing in the September 17 issue of Moskovskie Novosti, Sanobar Shermatova, a journalist who appears to be a political centrist, discussed two contrasting visions of a Russian incursion into the Pankisi Gorge said to be entertained by two feuding groups with support in the Kremlin. “The supporters of [the first] version,” she wrote, “suppose that the true goal of Moscow is not at all the liquidation of rebels concealing themselves in Pankisi but rather the destabilization of the situation in Georgia. And that will necessarily happen if Russian conducts a military operation. The results of such a destabilization effort… would be profitable to Moscow for several reasons. They would, possibly, forestall the rapid ‘Americanization’ of that republic as well as its membership in NATO and would delay the beginning of the unprofitable-for-Russia pipeline Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan…. In addition, claim the adherents of this version, …a part of the Russian military leadership sees how a military bridgehead can be expanded [into Georgia], such as the one they now rule over in Chechnya. Pressured by them, the Russian president then made his well-known demarche.”

A second group with support in the Kremlin, Shermatova remarked, believes strongly that “a widening of the Chechen theater of the war onto Georgian territory would be absolutely unprofitable to Vladimir Putin, precisely because, in such a case, the operation in Chechnya would drag on for an indefinite time…. The adherents of this version hold to the opinion that Putin, in the first place, is moved by a desire to complete the military operation in Chechnya. In other words, Putin, before the beginning of the official campaign of the presidential elections (which will be held in the spring of 2004), needs, with full justification, to be able to announce that the antiterrorist operation is over. But the Pankisi Gorge represents a stumbling block to such plans.”