The U.S. Ambassador to Georgia, Richard Miles, has weighed in on Russian media and official allegations that Georgia is harboring terrorists and thus is a possible target for preemptive strikes.
Miles surprised the Georgian political establishment and reporters with critical remarks about the Georgian government’s performance in Pankisi Gorge. On September 13, Miles unexpectedly stated, “a few international terrorists” are still present near Georgia’s northeastern mountainous Pankisi Gorge, which borders Chechnya.
The Ambassador made his remarks after signing an agreement with Georgian Interior Minister Irakli Okruashvili that will strengthen Georgia’s borders by providing Georgia with PISCES computer software for border checkpoints.
While answering a question about whether there are terrorists in Pankisi Gorge, as claimed by Russian officials, Miles said, “We’ve had some arguments with Georgian authorities about that, and I don’t want to get into that big argument here today, but the short answer is yes, there are still a few international terrorists in the vicinity of the Pankisi Gorge.”
Miles also told reporters, “The situation under the previous [Shevardnadze] government has already been improved [in Pankisi Gorge] from, let’s say, the period of two-and-a-half to three years ago, the number of Chechen fighters had diminished by some 90% and the international terrorists by 60% or 70% or more.”
Initial official reaction to the Ambassador’s statement was shock and disbelief. “There are no terrorists in Georgia, this is absurd,” Givi Targamadze, chair of the Parliamentary Committee for Defense and Security, responded.
Disbelief soon gave way to suspicion among the Georgian leadership after the U.S. Embassy in Georgia posted an official transcript of the meeting on its website. The Ambassador’s statement dealt a diplomatic blow to Georgian officials, which maintain that the gorge has been cleansed of Chechen fighters and foreigners suspected of terrorism links.
Kote Gabashvili, chair of the Parliamentary Committee for Foreign Affairs, said the Ambassador has made a political mistake possibly intended to bring him personal attention. “He will definitely receive a due response from this kind of statement and not only in Georgia,” he added (24 Hours, September 14).
But some Georgian politicians interpreted the statement differently. Davit Gamkrelidze, who leads the Rightist opposition parliamentary faction, said: “Such a bold statement by the U.S. Ambassador indicates that the United States might not react to Russian preemptive strikes on Georgia if they occur.”
Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania quickly summoned Miles for a clarification. After meeting with Zhvania, Miles said the United States was working with Georgian security forces to find remaining rebels in Pankisi (Reuters, September 13).
Later on the same day, the U.S. Department of State issued a retraction saying that Pankisi Gorge “is no longer a haven for terrorists,” but adding that the U.S. will continue to cooperate with Georgia in combating terrorism in the region. The statement also said that U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage had spoken with Prime Minister Zhvania earlier that day (September 13) to discuss counter-terrorism cooperation between the United States and Georgia.
The political furor provoked by the Ambassador’s comments proved to be a good indicator of how much control the government exercises over the Georgian media.
Although the story carried tremendous news value, given its surprising content and possible implications, it did not lead Georgian TV news programs that evening. The leading Georgian media outlets, usually quick to pick on a sensational story, ignored Miles but widely covered the subsequent State Department clarification that the Gorge had been cleared of terrorists. Symptomatically, the top news for every leading Georgian TV station on September 13 was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special cabinet session.
This selective reporting hints at quite a new media environment after the Rose Revolution (see EDM, July 29). Addressing parliament on September 14, Gamkrelidze declared, “Government pressure on the media is apparent. The television stations were strictly forbidden to cover the U.S. Ambassador’s statement on September 13.” The Tbilisi-based RFE/RL political analyst Ia. Antadze similarly noted, “There was nothing surprising about how the leading Georgian media sources reacted to Miles’ statements. It is a fact that the government controls all of the leading television [stations] and newspapers. Turning a blind eye on the Miles statement by the media was just a clear indication of this fact.”
In contrast, the Russian media was surprisingly quick in speculating about the Ambassador’s comments. One article, “How Ambassador Miles has put Saakashvili in a spot,” says that with his remark the Ambassador had hinted that the funds and resources allocated by the U.S. government for anti-terror operations in Pankisi were not used properly (gazetasng.ru, September 14). Other reporters suggested that Miles had implicitly endorsed any Russian preemptive anti-terrorist strikes in Georgia.
The international community may soon demand that the Georgian government produce more convincing evidence, including on-site visits to Pankisi, to disperse the suspicions, which likely contain a grain of truth.
In a surprise move, today (September 16) President Saakashvili indirectly corroborated the Ambassador’s remarks. During a news conference following the CIS summit in Astana, Saakashvili admitted the existence of “uncontrolled territories” in Georgia, which he said represent a threat to Russia).
Resonance, Civil Georgia, 24 Hours, TV-Rustavi-2, TV-Imedi, TV-Mze, rosbalt.ru, September 14; RIA Novosti, News.ru, September 16.