By Zaal Anjaparidze
RUSSIA WANTS GEORGIA BACK
South Caucasus and Georgia, in particular, have of late become a headache for Moscow. In January Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told a session of the European Parliament Assembly in Strasbourg that Russia would never reconcile itself to a division of the Caucasus into spheres of influence, and warned that all attempts to supplant Russia as a player from the South Caucasus were doomed to failure. Russia is anxiously following Georgia’s growing political, economic and military cooperation with NATO countries. Moscow became particularly angry at Tbilisi’s participation in the Baku-Ceyhan oil-pipeline project, part of which is to run via Georgia. Well-informed sources say that Boris Yeltsin, while still in office, sent a strictly-worded telephone message to Georgian President Shevardnadze, demanding that Georgia be kept away from all West-sponsored international oil and gas projects in the Caucasus. Tbilisi, however, considers participation in the oil projects an important guarantee for Georgia’s security, economic revival, statehood and international image, and doesn’t want to lose this opportunity, no matter how minimal the financial profit would be in the first stage of the venture.
A poll on Georgia’s foreign policy priorities commissioned by the “Nia Intermedia” sociological service in early February in Tbilisi found that 53.6 percent of those polled considered Georgia to be outspokenly pro-Western while only 26.4 percent said the country’s orientation should be pro-Russian. According to 13.5 percent of respondents, Georgia should be neutral and 8.2 percent were undecided. Meanwhile, Russia’s rivals in the region are active. While visiting Tbilisi in January, Turkish President Suleiman Demirel put forward the idea of a “Caucasian Pact” on peace and stability along the lines of the “Balkan Pact,” to be signed by the South Caucasus states and surrounding countries. Shevardnadze called Demirel’s initiative “historical and important,” while Moscow saw it as a challenge to Russian interests in the region. The developments in the South Caucasus are forcing the government of acting President Vladimir Putin to retake the political initiative in the region. Russia’s military-strategic partnership with Armenia falls well short of this. Between Azerbaijan and Georgia, the latter is generally perceived to be the first and main target of Russian efforts. There are many reasons for this. For example, Georgia, unlike Azerbaijan, still hosts Russian military bases. Secondly, the restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity through the return of breakaway Abkhazia and ex-South Ossetia still largely depends on Russia’s position. In addition, Georgia, unlike Azerbaijan, is almost fully dependent on Russian energy supplies. Besides, Georgia is closer to Russia culturally and confessionally.
Georgia finds itself in a difficult situation. It must take into account Russian strategic interests in the region without hampering good relations with the West established over recent years. This is a conundrum for Georgia’s political leadership. The tough measures taken by the Kremlin against Chechnya and strong possibility that Georgia would be dragged into the war rang an alarm bell for Tbilisi. Georgia was forced to maneuver in its relations with Moscow, because estrangement between Russia and Georgia was reaching a dangerous level.
NEW HOPE OR NEW PERIL?
Vladimir Putin’s promotion to the top of Russia’s political leadership has not, however, resulted in drastic changes in the volatile Russian-Georgian relationship, despite Putin’s public calls for improving relations with the CIS countries. Moreover, Putin’s first days as Russian prime minister resulted in intensification of the allegations that arms and mercenaries got into Chechnya with the connivance of the Georgian authorities. Russian helicopters and jets several times violated Georgian air space and twice bombarded Georgian villages near the Chechen section of the Russo-Georgian border. Putin initiated the introduction of a visa regime between Georgia and Russia in order to prevent the penetration of foreign guerrillas into Chechnya. The Chechen issue is one of the burning questions that will undoubtedly exert great influence on Georgia’s future relations with Russia. Tbilisi is likely to use the Chechen “trump card” in order to push Moscow to withhold its support for separatists in Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia.
At the same time, Tbilisi’s position is to a certain extent vulnerable. On the one hand, the Georgian government can’t turn its back to Chechnya because this would risk problems from rogue Chechen commanders. On the other hand, Tbilisi, which faces separatism inside the country, cannot declare open support for the secessionist agenda of the Maskhadov government. According to a poll commissioned in January by the Tbilisi-based “Nia Intermedia” sociological service, 65 percent of those surveyed wanted Georgia to maintain neutrality in the Chechen war. Nevertheless, Tbilisi likely decided to placate Russia and give Putin a chance to put bilateral relations in order. While President Shevardnadze was initially undecided over whether to participate in a January CIS summit, he nevertheless went to Moscow to discuss with Putin “to what extent the current level of Russian-Georgian relations meets the interests of both countries.” Shevardnadze, however, reacted skeptically to the assurances to respect Georgia’s territorial integrity that Putin gave during a face-to-face meeting. “We heard such kinds of statements from previous Russian leaders, though without any tangible results,” he said. Shevardnadze familiarized Putin with the “Caucasian Pact” proposed by Demirel, but at the same time signed together with Putin and the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan a declaration on peace in the Caucasus, which, sources say, was rather a favor to Russia.
The Georgian government made other concessions to Moscow. The Georgian delegation to the Council of Europe did not support the council’s proposal to withdraw the Russian delegation’s membership in connection with excesses in Chechnya. Georgia reportedly expects Russia to return the favor at the next session of the council, when the Abkhaz issue is going to be discussed. Tbilisi removed the sensitive Abkhaz question from the agenda of a January CIS summit, thereby saving Putin and his government from the substantial inconvenience that the vexing Abkhaz question could have caused. Tbilisi explicitly downplayed criticism of the Russian (formally CIS) peacekeeping troops in Abkhazia for their passivity and pro-Abkhaz bias, and obediently agreed to extend the mandate of the Russian “Blue Helmets” up to July 31, 2000. Shevardnadze did not urge the withdrawal of Russian military bases in Georgia during his talks with Putin. Tbilisi has also toughened its attitude toward Chechnya somewhat. It intercepted a large shipment of medicines sent to the Chechen representation in Tbilisi, which reportedly was to be forwarded to wounded militants in the breakaway republic. It also significantly strengthened controls over the Chechen portion of the Georgian-Russian border.
In early February, Tbilisi hosted a high-ranking delegation of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). The parties discussed joint antiterrorist measures against the background of the Chechen events. The visit was considered a preparation for the meeting between FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev and Georgian Minister of State Security Vakhtang Kutateladze. Russia returned favor by release of Georgian military equipment seized in Russia last year. These included Georgian arms exhibits from the military presentation Expomil-99 held last year in Bucharest, and military uniforms sent to the Georgian Defense Ministry by the U.S. government. The Russian authorities are going to drop criminal charges brought in connection with those shipments, which, Russian officials allege, were bound for Chechnya. Russian pro-governmental media have temporarily stopped the anti-Georgian campaign connected to the Chechen events.
The outburst of mutual reverence, however, cannot hide the fundamental contradictions between Moscow and Tbilisi. If the Georgian political leadership has decided to bet on Putin in a complex gamble with the Kremlin, the real question is what Tbilisi really expects from him, and to what extent Putin would be ready accommodate Georgia without damaging Russian strategic interests. For example, Russia is still reluctant to ratify the frame agreement with Georgia on friendship and cooperation signed in 1994 and ratified by the Georgian parliament in 1997. Putin and his team have come to power on a wave of Russian nationalism and a revival of the Russian great power idea. They are unlikely to deviate from this line in the near future, especially if Putin’s background and the composition of the forces that have propelled him to the political Olympus are taken into consideration. Putin remains a dark horse for most of the Russian establishment, and all the more for Tbilisi. Putin declared on television: “Those who don’t regret for dissolution of the USSR are heartless, and those who dream of its restoration in its previous form lack brains.” This adds some new brush strokes to his political portrait and food for thought.
Of course, many things in the relations between Georgia and post-Yeltsin Russia, and Putin’s attitude in particular, will become clearer after the presidential elections in both countries, which are scheduled in March-April. Nevertheless, some recent developments in bilateral relations provide some basis for forecasting how Russia’s new leadership is going to treat Georgia.
VISA REGIME AND ENERGY CARRIERS AS POLITICAL LEVERS
In his annual summary presented to the parliament on February 9, President Shevardnadze reaffirmed that two of the four Russian military bases in Georgia are to leave by July 2000, in accordance with the Georgian-Russian agreement signed at the OSCE summit in Istanbul last year within the framework of CFE treaty, Shevardnadze said that the Russian military bases must eventually leave Georgia and that this should not cause any misunderstandings in Georgian-Russian relations. Shevardnadze also said that “today we can say courageously that the resolution of the Abkhaz conflict no longer depends on the will of one state.” Shevardnadze was evidently alluding to Russia, which still acts as the main mediator in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict settlement. On February 10, the Russian government officially submitted the Georgian Foreign Ministry a draft of the visa regime to be established between the two countries. This issue, which is sensitive for Georgia, was one of the central topics discussed by Shevardnadze and Putin during their talks in Moscow. Shevardnadze did not receive any definite answer from Putin, and assumed that Putin had likely ordered a visa regime in the heat of the moment. Subsequent developments, however, showed that this was not the case. On February 17, a telephone conversation between Putin and Shevardnadze took place at Putin’s initiative. The two men discussed a wide range of bilateral issues, including the question of coordinating the work of the special services. Shevardnadze said he reminded Putin about the “consequences of introducing a visa regime between Georgia and Russia.” Tbilisi has serious grounds for concern. If a visa regime comes into effect, hundreds of thousands of Georgian citizens now in Russia in search of work will find themselves in violation of the law and will have to return to unstable Georgia. (At the moment, the movement of citizens of CIS countries within the CIS is visa-free). Such a move by Russia would have the effect of economic sanctions on Georgia, which could cause upheavals on the domestic financial markets and in the economy in general. This could lead to social-economic unrest and increased anti-governmental sentiment. A poll commissioned February 2 in Tbilisi by the “Nia Intermedia” sociological service found that 52 percent of those surveyed were against a visa regime between Georgia and Russia, 31 percent supported it and 17 percent were undecided.
The Kremlin initiated the visa regime after Georgia refused to allow Russian troops based in Georgia to use Georgian territory to enter Chechnya’s mountainous regions. Tbilisi also turned down Moscow’s demand to station Russian units along the Chechen section of the Georgian-Russian border from the Georgian side. Many observers, however, believe that the alleged penetration of mercenaries into Chechnya via Georgia was a purely formal reason for introducing a visa regime. This issue became irrelevant once the Russian military command landed paratroopers in Chechnya’s Argun gorge, thereby blocking all the main passes from Georgia to Chechnya. Thus the visa regime against Georgia might have been a part of a far-reaching Kremlin plan to try and keep its military presence in Georgia at any cost. Because the Georgian parliament finally refused to ratify the 1995 Russian-Georgian agreement prescribing a 25-year presence of Russian military bases in Georgia, these bases have found themselves in a legal vacuum. By threatening a visa regime, Russia likely wants to delay as long as possible the withdrawal of the important bases in Vaziani (near Tbilisi) and Gudauta (in breakaway Abkhazia) and is trying to force Tbilisi into concessions on this issue.
One of the possible concessions might be allowing Russia to retain control over the airfields and other military infrastructure at these bases after the removal of military equipment prescribed by the CFE Treaty. So far, the Kremlin has failed to respond to the Georgian government’s repeated assertive demands to create working groups and start negotiations on the withdrawal of the bases. This is an oblique indication that Moscow is linking the visa regime with the question of the military bases. Aleksei Vashchenko, an expert on the Russian State Duma’s geopolitics committee, said the closing of the military base in Gudauta was impossible. “We’ll merely change its status and make it a station for Russian peacekeeping forces in Abkhazia,” he added.
A heavy political pretext can be read in the economic relations between Russian and Georgia, especially in the energy sphere. In mid-January, Anatoly Chubais, head of RAO UES, the Russian state electricity monopoly, arrived in Georgia just at the time its energy crisis was peaking and Georgia’s energy debt to UES had climbed to US$42 million. The visit apparently demonstrated to Tbilisi Russia’s intention to impose its own rules of the game and get its hands on Georgia’s strategic energy producers. Chubais did not demanded Georgia to pay off the debt immediately, but requested and received from the Georgian authorities a promise to “take into account maximally” Russia’s interests during the ongoing privatization of Georgia’s energy system. According to knowledgeable sources, Chubais received a list of leading energy entities slated for privatization, which the Russian side can receive in lieu of debt payments.
Another Russian company, Itera–an affiliate of Gazprom, Russia’s natural gas monopoly–is using the same gambit. The Georgian energy system owes Itera some US$60 million, which has been accumulated over the last years. Georgia’s debt has encouraged Itera to make claims on leading Georgian energy producers. For example, Itera is trying through its Georgian partner firm to purchase the Tbilisi natural gas supply system. If Itera wins the tender, it will become the owner of Georgia’s biggest gas distribution company. Itera unsuccessfully tried to get hold of Tbilisi electric power generation units in lieu of debt repayments. However, the US company AES won the tender. While Georgia is gradually trying to enter the Western sphere of economic and energy interests and is actively courting Western investors, Russia’s energy giants are grabbing the most profitable segments of the Georgian energy system. According to some experts, UES and Itera have the levers necessary to gain controlling stakes in Georgia’s energy generation and distribution systems. Russia is evidently trying to take political advantage of Georgia’s current economic and energy crises. Russia usually employees “energy leverage” when Georgia increases its contacts with the West, displays disobedience to the Kremlin or is suffering from an acute energy crisis. Alternative sources of natural gas would be available to Georgia only in three years, in the best-case scenario.
In addition, Russia and the CIS remain the most important marketing outlets for Georgia’s scarce exports and labor force. Russia remains Georgia’s largest economic partner. According to official Georgian statistics, in 1995 Georgia’s trade turnover with Russia totaled some US$15 million. In 1997, turnover increased to US$183 million, and in 1998 it reached US$265 million. The introduction of a visa regime will significantly block Georgia’s access to Russian markets. Thus, the choice that Georgia faces is not simple. It remains to be seen how Georgia will deal with the situation.
Georgia’s current policy toward Russia is excessively entwined with the personal factor of Eduard Shevardnadze and the political interests of Georgia’s ruling party. Demonstrating an inability to cope with increasing domestic problems, the Georgian government is building its policy toward Russia on the basis of momentary advantages, which results in ambiguity and incoherence in its relations with Russia. Such a policy has already created many problems for Georgia.
In the wake of Boris Yeltsin’s resignation, the Georgian leadership is apparently hoping to make Moscow open a new page in bilateral relations by writing off anti-Georgian moves made by the Yeltsin government. At the same time, Georgia is playing a dangerous game of balancing between Russian and Western interests in the region. It raises the specter of aggressive actions against Georgia in the future, especially given Putin’s increasing dependence on the hardline Russian military.
Despite the recent shuffles in Russia’s political leadership, Moscow is still pursuing a policy of threats and bribery towards Georgia in order to keep it under the Russian sphere of influence. Had the Russian Duma’s ratified of the framework agreement on Russian-Georgian friendship, rather than rejecting it, it would have been a good indicator that Russia plans to build relations with Georgia on the basis of equality.
Zaal Anjaparidze, a former editor of the English-language-weekly “Resonance,” is a freelance writer for Georgian and international publications.