Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Shevardnadze - The Trouble-shooter?

Questions raised over motive behind Shevardnadze's bid to come up with solutions for two Georgian trouble-spots.
By Philip O'Neil

One of the consequences of the recent government crisis in Georgia has been an apparent shift in policy over the fate of the several thousand Chechen refugees and hundreds of Chechen fighters holed up in the north-east Pankisi gorge region.


Eduard Shevardnadze said earlier this month he was working with Russia on resolving this issue which has plagued relations between the two countries since the Chechens' arrival in 1999 - something he has previously refused to do.


In all probability, Shevardnadze is trying to improve relations with Russia as a counter to his weakened position at home, rather than actively seeking a concrete solution to the Pankisi problem. The president's power base took a pounding last month when he was forced to dismiss two key allies in his cabinet, after they became the target of corruption allegations.


Since then, he has sought to buttress his position by seeking support from old sparring partners like President Putin and Aslan Abashidze, leader of the de facto autonomous region of Adjaria. The way he has attempted to elicit backing from the former has taken pragmatism to new heights.


Just two days before Shevardnadze was due to attend a summit with his Russian counterpart at the end of November, reports came in that Russian jets had bombed villages in the Pankisi gorge.


Shevardnadze and the Georgian foreign ministry initially condemned the attacks and the press started speculating about how the president was going to react if and when he got to Moscow. They were to be surprised.


"I believe that the Russian government did not know all the facts and these (attacks) are just errors ..." he said at the summit. His climb-down prompted condemnation from much of the Georgian media - especially since Putin seemed to be relishing Shevardnadze's discomfort.


The Pankisi gorge has been a bone of contention between Russia and Georgia for two years now. Tbilisi wants to get rid of the several thousand Chechen refugees who flooded here in 1999, while Moscow has repeatedly asked Georgia to deal with the hundreds of Chechen fighters that use it as a base.


So far, Georgia has turned a blind-eye to goings-on in this lawless area. Until recently, it even denied that insurgents were active there.


Shevardnadze told the Moscow daily Moskovskiye Novosti that he and Putin were now working on a "solution to the Chechen problem".


But nothing was revealed about the actual solution. According to Ramaz Aptsiauri, program director at the Tbilisi-based NGO UNA-Georgia, this is because "it's not possible to work one out".


There are a number of reasons why a swift resolution to the Pankisi problem is not on the cards. Firstly, Chechnya is still in a state of war. "There is no way the international community would sanction the return of one single refugee if he wasn't assured of his safety," said Aptsiauri.


At the same time, Georgia would find it hard to root out insurgents in a region notorious for its lawlessness. Any attempt to do so would also result in Tbilisi becoming enmeshed in the Chechen conflict - something it is keen to avoid.


Cynics are therefore suggesting that there is no solution to the "Chechen problem" in sight and that Shevardnadze's antics in Moscow had been nothing more than a political gesture designed to curry favour with the Russian leadership at a time when his position at home had been weakened.


The appointment last month of Abashidze as a special negotiator for Abkhazia was similarly an attempt to reassert himself in Tbilisi. Yet in this case, the move might actually achieve something - by hastening a resolution of the dispute over the breakaway region.


Abashidze, who has carved out a personal fiefdom bordering on Turkey and the Black Sea, is an ideal choice as intermediary since he meets the approval of Georgia, Abkhazia and Russia who will jointly decide the future status of the enclave.


Abashidze has close ties with political and business figures in Moscow; he is admired by Sokhumi for the way he's peacefully forged a de facto autonomous state; and has the respect of Tbilisi which cannot afford to alienate such a powerful figure.


One Western diplomat in Tbilisi said he believed Abkhazia was ripe for a settlement and that Abashidze was the man to negotiate it.


Philip O'Neill is IWPR Assistant Editor.