Georgian Troops Move on 'Rebel Haven'

Moscow has been working hard to justify its controversial visa regime in Georgia but apparently President Shevardnadze has taken the hint

Georgian Troops Move on 'Rebel Haven'

Moscow has been working hard to justify its controversial visa regime in Georgia but apparently President Shevardnadze has taken the hint

In the wake of a Kremlin decision to impose a new visa regime on Georgia, the government in Tbilisi has dispatched two battalions of troops to restore law and order in the eastern mountains.

For more than a year, Russia has been complaining that Georgia has allowed the Pankisi Gorge to become a safe haven for Chechen warlords and a channel for military supplies - claims the Georgian government has repeatedly denied.

But last week, the interior ministry in Tbilisi announced plans to "clean up" the mountain regions where hostage-taking and hijacking have become occupational hazards. The move comes just days after two Spanish businessmen were abducted from the Georgian capital and taken to Pankisi, where around 10,000 Chechen refugees are encamped.

However, the Georgian authorities continue to reject any offers of military assistance from Russia, claiming that the situation is "under control".

Meanwhile, Russia has launched an energetic PR campaign to justify the introduction of a visa regime.

Through the mouthpiece of Interfax, the Kremlin revealed that, at the recent CIS summit in Minsk, Russian president Vladimir Putin had offered Georgian counterpart Eduard Shevardnadze the opportunity to take part in joint military operations against the "nest" of Chechen rebels in Pankisi.

Putin made it clear that such a declaration of intent could persuade Russia to drop the proposed visa regulations but Shevardnadze reportedly refused his offer and the plan was given the go-ahead.

Later in the week, the Kremlin's spokesman on Chechnya, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, shared a "small secret" with the state-run ORT TV channel. He confided that Putin actually made his offer to the Georgian government a year ago and the proposal had been repeated on several occasions since then.

Yastrzhembsky went on to explain that the main reason behind the introduction of the visa regime was Georgia's lax attitude towards the Chechen presence in Pankisi where rebel warlords enjoyed "far too comfortable conditions".

During a lengthy interview with the prime-time Zdes i Seychas (Here and Now) programme hosted by Alexander Lyubimov, Yastrzhembsky used ORT video footage to demonstrate that the Georgians were virtually incapable of controlling the situation on the border.

Many of the so-called "border guards", he said, were merely local shepherds while the Chechens themselves had already dubbed the Akhmetsky district of Georgia "the new Ichkeria" [the rebel name for Chechnya]. Russian military assistance, concluded Yastrzhembsky, was essential if the problem was to be tackled effectively.

The Kremlin spokesman went on to say that Russia was prepared to review the visa situation if Tbilisi showed itself willing to hear Moscow's position on the Pankisi issue.

To reinforce his point, Yastrzhembsky cited the example of Azerbaijan which has also clashed with the Kremlin over the military campaign in Chechnya. However, threatened with the introduction of visa regulations, Azerbaijan promptly handed over seven men suspected of taking part in last year's terrorist bomb attack in Buinaksk. As a result, the former Soviet republic was spared the indignity of a visa regime.

Finally, Yastrzhembsky quipped that it was a paradox Christian Georgia appeared to be less cooperative than Muslim Azerbaijan.

Meanwhile, the latest move provoked a mixed reaction from the Russian media. The state-run Vremya screened upbeat footage of Georgian travellers arriving at Sheremetyevo Airport and commenting that they had no problem with the new regulations. Vremya also quoted Russian diplomats as saying that, during the transition period, the procedure for filing visa applications would be simplified.

However, the liberal Sevodnya daily newspaper - owned by Most-Media and traditionally critical of the Kremlin - published a full page of horror stories from Tbilisi. It claimed huge queues of Georgians had lined up outside the Russian embassy to apply for visas and all those interviewed were outraged by the new rules.

Interestingly enough, Georgian celebrities quoted by Sevodnya included Bolshoy opera star Zurab Sotkilava and football commentator Kote Makharadze who said he was refusing to travel to Russia in protest against the move.

Sevodnya also approached Yuri Kobaladze, former spokesman for Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) who now serves as managing director for the Renaissance Capital investment company. Kobaladze -- who has a Georgian father and a Russian mother -- expressed the hope that no political misunderstanding would ever lead to a lasting rift between the two countries.

Kobaladze has a point when he says that the onus for solving the problem would fall on "either the present, or maybe the next generation" of politicians because he "could not conceive that such tense relations could continue between Georgia and Russia".

The question is -- can the present generation make a difference? On the one hand, Eduard Shevardnadze seems to be doing his outmost to sour relations with Moscow. On the other, Putin appears to have abandoned his velvet gloves when dealing with an intransigent Tbilisi.

Clearly personal relations play an important role in the political arena. Anyone who read Vladimir Putin's recent biography will remember that he was quick to criticise those who engineered the precipitous withdrawal of Soviet troops from East Germany in the early 1990s.

It was a situation that rapidly spun out of control with angry crowds threatening to storm the homes of Russian military families. And if Putin, who was a lieutenant-colonel in the KGB at the time, is still looking for someone to blame, then Eduard Shevardnadze -- the former Soviet foreign minister -- is likely to be high on his list of candidates.

Mikhail Ivanov is executive editor of Russian Life, a bimonthly magazine published by Russian Information Services, Inc.

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