(RIEAS Junior Analyst on Balkan Studies and Organized Crime)
The past few months world’s headlines are occupied with the state of affairs in Georgia and the Caucasus area in general. The ethnic conflicts in South Ossetia, as well as, in Abkhazia have been proved of global importance, since the interests of Russia and the USA collide in the mountainous terrain of Europe’s gateway to Asia; namely Caucasus.
In May 2006 President Putin in his yearly speech in the Chambers of the Russian parliament, declared that in case of a de jure independence of Kosovo, Moscow will pursue similar measures in areas of its interest. That includes amongst other the South Ossetia and Abkhazia areas in Georgia where the Russian leaning minorities seek their autonomy against the will of the national government.
Continuing on September 28th a ring group of six members of the Russian secret services, were arrested in Georgia, accused of spying activities and destabilization tactics against the state. Consequently Russia recalled its ambassador from Tbilisi and the relations between he two states worsened to a great extent. Georgia is nowadays a country where the interests of CIS and the West seem to ram, and the future will reveal just how far each side prepares to go in order to achieve more influence in this strategic area.
Russian –Georgian relations: A turbulent relationship
In the case of South Ossetia, there have been already calls from the leader of this community, to integrate with the Northern Ossetia – Currently a Russian Democracy-, on grounds of similarity in ethno-cultural terms. Since 1992 a de facto Russian protectorate has been established there, and a force of 500 men under the ex post facto aegis of the CIS, acts as a peacekeeping force. In the period between 1992-1994, the civil strife in the state of Georgia obliged the latter to adopt the Russian proposals that drew the country into the Russian sphere of influence.
Those included the inclusion of Georgia in CIS and in the military agreements of the Commonwealth. Moreover, Georgia accepted thousands of Russian troops within its territory that acted under the pretext of peacekeeping and peace –enforcing forces. The then Georgian President –Shevardnadze-, soon was forced to act against the Russian military and tried to establish closer links with the West.
That proved to be the decisive factor for two assassination attempts against him in 1995 and in 1998. Even though, no clear-cut profile of the would-be assassins has been found; it is widely assumed that the attempts were under Russian tolerance to say the least. One of the major initiatives by Eduard Shevardnadze was the help towards constructing the Baku – Ceihan pipeline, as well as, the formation of closer ties between Georgian, Azeri and Turkish officials and businesspeople.
On May 1997 he signed the Georgian – Turkish military agreement and he was one of the protagonists in the convention on “Energy Security”, held in Tbilisi between Turks, Georgians and Azeri. On overall he enacted the creation of an axis between those states that mainly acted as an USA and Western Caucasus front against the Russian one.
Continuing the then Georgian President achieved with the help of the Western assistance to force Russia to dismantle its military installations in his country in late 1999. In the meantime the Russian government accused Tbilisi of promoting the Chechen rebels by allowing them to find save haven in the Pankissi Gorge, a mountainous area close to the war terrain between the Russian Army and the rebels.
Moscow assumes that the terrible hostage crisis in Beslan on August 2004 was committed by Chechens residing in this safe haven. Eduard Shevardnadze, promoted the American assistance in his country by creating the framework of the “Georgia Train & Equip Program” –GTEP-, whereby 200 USA troops acted as trainers for the Georgian Army, on February 2002. The Russian response was due later this year , on April when it send units of its SOF in “Hot pursuit” of Chechen rebels, well into Georgian territory in the Kontori valley.
The Anti-Russian agenda of Saakashvili
Mikheil Saakasvili is the current Head of State in Georgia since November 2003, and he is a politician clearly following the steps of his predecessor. He assumes that by integrating furthermore the American and Western assistance in the country’s security policy; he would be able to withstand the ever present Russian pressure. Georgia is moving towards a “Westernization” of its foreign and Defense policy, whilst Russia signals its intention not to let Georgia become an American ally or else it will be forced to assist in the disintegration of the country.
Already approximately 90% of the population of the disputed areas-such as Ossetia- has acquired Russian passports.
Furthermore in total 2,600 Russian troops still camp in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and considered to be ready for action when needed (1).
Moscow has already stated through President Putin, last September in an interview for the FT, that “No one can force a rule for Kosovo and other for similar situations. For which reason is situation in Kosovo different than in South Ossetia or Abkhazia? In nothing! (2).
In the same spirit Putin stated last January in the UN Security Council, that “If someone thinks that Kosovo should become independent, why then there has to be a denial for the same right for Ossetians and Abkhazians? (3). Those statements coming from Kremlin reveal clearly that Russia is eager to promote the disintegration of Georgia in the near future, by taking into account the developments in Kosovo and the stance of the Georgian President on his commitment in establishing closer ties with the West. According to the Russian preoccupation for the “Near Abroad” territories; Georgia is too important to be left uninfluenced and in the worse scenario for Moscow’s calculations, would be of an active USA presence in the region.
On the other hand it is not clear enough how much political capital Washington is willing to invest in Georgia in the long term and if it regards firmly Georgia as an integral part of its strategy in the region, or as a temporary partner. Should the latter case proves to be exact, then Russian pressure will increase in Tbilisi and it is more than certain that Georgia would be a lost case for the American projects.
From their point of view now, the Russian leadership is systematically upgrading its brinkmanship with Georgia in order to extract as much as Western support is achievable. On September the 3rd Ossetian rebels tried to shoot down the helicopter transferring the Georgian Minister of Defense, and periodic clashes between guerillas and the tactical Georgian Army erupt frequently in the Georgian – Ossetian borderline.
The latest revelation and consequent arrest of Russian officials on the grounds of espionage activities against the Georgian state came as the reprisals of Tbilisi towards Moscow, to no effect though. Russia responded abruptly and threatened to isolate Georgia and put immense pressure on its domestic affairs. Tbilisi expects that by invoking Russian reprisals it could receive more Western security guarantees, perhaps even a membership status in NATO.
Future perspective and outcome
The current state of affairs in Georgia reveals a small part of the “Great Game” that encompasses some of the most important in geopolitical terms, areas of the planet. The Russian side clearly believes that Western influence must be halted in the rugged Caucasian mountains and not set a permanent base of operations there. Since Russia is by far the most powerful state in the region, and one with extensive knowledge and experience; it is certain that it will seek to enforce its plans with great craftsmanship and endurance.
Georgia now, is between an extensive Russian pressure which is all-pervading and imminent, and one that clearly can assist in dividing the state in bits and bytes according to the complicated ethnic – cultural fragmentation of some regions. Thus it has two choices: Either to conform to the Russian peripheral order or to endeavor a Western alliance so as to counterbalance its mighty neighbor.
The last option reveals the role of the West and in particular the United States.
Should the latter decides decisively to support Georgia and help resist the Russian force; events will surely follow a “Tit for tat” sequence for years to come, and a delicate balance of powers will pervade the whole of Caucasus. In the event that the West decides to disengage from the Georgian affair, it will create the necessary framework by which Russia will enforce its imperative in the region for the coming decades.
The bets are high for all players and up to now the only actor not to reveal its true intentions is the West. That means that either the Western camp is planning carefully and schedules its moves on “A High Diplomacy” level, or plainly it lacks strategy and options. Near future will tell which possibility is the proper one and how the “Great Game” will end in this part of the world.
(1)Liz Fuller, “Georgia: Issue of Russian Peacekeepers Heats Up”, RFE/RL, 19/07/2006.
(2)Stefan Wagstyl, “Putin on Russia’s Oil Dependence, Foreign Affairs and Religion”, Financial Times, 12/09/2006.
(3)Victor Yasmann, “Russia: Independence votes popular in the Kremlin, RFE/RL, 15/09/2006.