Chechen Crisis Heightens Russia-Georgia Tensions

Mutual suspicions between Russia and Georgia have been increased during the Chechnya crisis, erupting into a key issue of forthcoming parliamentary elections.

Chechen Crisis Heightens Russia-Georgia Tensions

Mutual suspicions between Russia and Georgia have been increased during the Chechnya crisis, erupting into a key issue of forthcoming parliamentary elections.

Friday, 22 October, 1999
The conflict in the north Caucasus is heightening tensions between Russia and Georgia, and the issue has become central to Georgia's parliamentary elections at the end of the month.

Moscow has accused Georgia, or at least some people within the country, of supplying arms to the Chechen rebels. It suspects that Chechen fighters will be tacitly allowed to cross into Georgia to seek refuge there this winter.

Many Georgians see the Chechnya conflict as confirmation of their worst fears about Moscow's intervention in the region. In the earlier stages of the fighting, the Russian airforce accidentally bombed the Georgian mountain village of Omalo. It issued an official apology. But that would have done little to assuage concerns in a country that has long feared Russian interference.

Georgians see a considerable irony in Russia's fighting a war against the separatist aspirations of the Chechens - in light of the Russian support they see for Abkhazia, the breakaway province of Georgia. Since the sharp and violent 1992-93 conflict, Abkhazia has been ruled as a separate territory, cut off from Georgia and indeed much of the world. Its main remaining link is with Moscow.

Tbilisi has long suspected Russia of tolerating if not even tacitly encouraging separatists in Abkhazia as a means of destabilising Georgia. Russian troops, however, also serve as the neutral interpositionary force, monitoring the ceasefire line between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia.

Georgian concern over Russia's role was heightened earlier this month, when the Russian Duma sent a delegation of five deputies to witness the presidential elections held by the Abkhaz regime on October 3. Georgia considers elections in the province for a presidential position as illegal, and the vote as an open challenge to Tbilisi.

Such episodes fuel Georgian fears that Russia's real aim is to use its influence over Abkhazia to preserve and extend its influence over the rest of Georgia. Indeed, worryingly to many Georgians, Russia still maintains military bases in Georgia itself.

Many Georgians blame many of the bombs, hostage-takings and other "terrorism" which has taken place in the country in recent years on the continuing Russian military presence. It is widely believed that Moscow also maintains undercover operatives in Georgia. This "spy network" draws on the agents established by Moscow under the Soviet Union, who it is believed are still serving their old patrons.

Igor Giorgadze, a former state security minister under the previous government, is an extreme example of the course taken by pro-Russian figures in Georgia. Georgian authorities accuse him of organising the assassination attempt against President Eduard Shevardnadze in August 1995, and of marshalling a failed coup bid in June 1999.

Tblisi law-enforcement bodies have tried in vain to get their Russian counterparts to stop supporting Giorgadze and to hand him over to the Georgian authorities. Georgian authorities believe he either resides in Russia or visits regularly, and new violent actions are feared.

Moscow's most effective means of influencing Georgia would, of course, be a pro-Russia government in Tbilisi. Georgia holds parliamentary elections October 31. Concern over Russian involvement in Georgian politics led Michael Saakashvili, chairman of the parliamentary group of the Citizens' Union, Shevardnadze's party, to describe the coming vote as a "referendum on Georgian statehood."

Anti-Shevardnadze forces have founded an electoral bloc, the Revival of Georgia, lead by Aslan Abashidze, leader of the autonomous republic of Adjaria. Abashidze is also the bloc's nominee for as future presidential candidate. Abashidze has been linked both to the Russian military in Georgia and to the Abkhaz leadership.

This month, the Georgian Ministry of State Security released a recording of telephone conversations of former security minister Giorgadze. They included a call to his father, the leader of the Georgian Communist Party, Panteleimon Giorgadze.

In this conversation, Giorgadze the elder complained about how Moscow expected him to scale down his political campaigning in order to allow Aslan Abashidze to take the lead. Apart from embarrassing Giorgadze, it also underlined the importance Moscow places in securing an Abashidze-led government.

The conflict between pro-Western and pro-Russian forces in Georgia will only intensify in the course of elections. Followers of Abashidze call on him to save the country from the "cosmopolitan" and "traitorous" "slaves of Euro-Americanism" - that is, Shevardnadze and his party.

Alternatively the pro-Russians themselves are seen as wishing to enslave the country, harking back to the security of Moscow. They have lead efforts to strengthen political and economic ties with the West, this year overseeing the country's admission into the Council of Europe and opening negotiations over the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia.

Ia Antadze is deputy editor of Kavkasioni weekly.

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