, first deputy chief of staff of the armed forces, said on Russian state television that Chechen rebels threaten to “destabilize” Georgia and that Georgia’s own armed forces are “patently insufficient to restore order.” Fortunately, he said, Russia is ready to help. Georgia needs only to issue “an invitation, a request, an appeal.” If Georgia does not ask for help, Manilov said, Russian forces now in Russia and Russian forces now on bases in southern Georgia will converge on northern Georgia and do the job anyway.
The bluntness and urgency of the threats are new, but the challenge to Georgia’s sovereignty is not. Russia has for many years overtly and covertly supported separatist movements in the northern Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In 1992 Russia trained, equipped and transported a battalion of Chechen fighters who joined Russian and Abkhaz troops in their secessionist war against Georgia. (In one of history’s ironies, Shamil Basaev and Ruslan Gelaev, now two of Russia’s most brutal and tenacious enemies, were part of that Russian-backed force.) The fight against the Chechen battalion led Shevardnadze to back the Russian side in Russia’s 1994-1996 war in Chechnya. But Russia’s defeat in that war produced a realignment, with the Chechens resolving never again to ally themselves with Moscow and the Georgians resolving to avoid involvement in Russia’s war with Chechnya at all costs.
The Russians will not leave the Georgians in peace. In November, Russian “peacekeeping” troops in Abkhazia stood by while Abkhaz forces, using Russian-supplied armor and artillery, held maneuvers barred under the 1994 armistice agreement that the Russian troops are there to enforce. Then, earlier this month, Russia imposed visa requirements on Georgians traveling to Russia but waived those requirements for residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, who may travel on Soviet passports. The visa requirement will inhibit the movements of the hundreds of thousands of Georgians who work at least part of the year in Russia. The different treatment for residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia denigrates the idea that such a thing as Georgian nationality exists. The goal, said the vice chairman of the foreign relations committee of the Russian Duma, is to “aggravate the people’s poverty” and “trigger mass protests” in order to “cool the heads of Georgian policymakers” and stop “Georgia’s effort to evict Russian military bases….”
Russia has four military bases in Georgia. Under resolutions of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russia is to close two bases by 2001 and negotiate on two other bases that Georgia wants closed as well. Russia assented to the OSCE resolutions, which were approved in November 1999, in the waning days of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency.
Russia under Putin has simply ignored these resolutions. An OSCE summit meeting in Vienna last month held a desultory debate on Russian nonperformance but took no action. Russia’s chief negotiator at the OSCE talks could not have drawn a clearer line: “We oppose the use of the OSCE for interference in the internal affairs of countries situated east of Vienna,” he said. “We won’t allow that to happen.” And it didn’t.
A Chechen presence in Georgia is beyond dispute. Perhaps 6,000 Georgian citizens of Chechen ethnic origin live in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge. They have been joined by an estimated 7,000 Chechen refugees from the Russian side of the border. The Russian state media say the Pankisi Gorge hides “1,500 to 2,000 Chechen and international terrorists,” under the command of the same Ruslan Gelaev whom Russia trained to fight the Georgians in 1992. But Russia presents no evidence, beyond claims that the Chechens in the gorge are building a power plant, a radio station and mosques.
Russia’s eagerness to expand the war in Chechnya to the southern Caucasus may be born of frustration. But the desire to bring Georgia back inside the Russian sphere of influence is born of fear. Georgia is the key to a U.S.-backed plan for a pipeline that could carry oil and gas from the Caspian Sea to Western markets without passing through Russia. That would be threat enough. Worse yet, Georgia has joined NATO’s “Partnership for Peace” program and talks of eventual NATO membership. But whatever Georgia’s wishes may be, for Moscow a NATO country on Russia’s southern flank is intolerable.
Too bad about Georgia’s sovereignty. Where Russia’s interests are concerned, Georgia gets two choices: roll over, or be rolled.