Russia turns up the heat on Georgia

Asia Times Online, Global Intelligence Update, 29 October 1999


Russian border guards, withdrawing from offices in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, left behind a little present—an anti-personnel mine. The Russian gesture is a small example of a much broader concerted campaign by Russia to reassert its influence over Georgia and the rest of the Caucasus region. Russia must reassert control over the southern Caucasus in order to ensure its continued control over the northern Caucasus and continued influence over Central Asian resources. The current Georgian government is an obstacle to Russia's goals—an obstacle Moscow is now committed to removing.


The headquarters of the Republic of Georgia's State Border Guard Department was evacuated on October 27 when what media described as an “anti-personnel cluster land mine” was discovered in an office previously occupied by Russian troops. The incident marred ceremonies commemorating the withdrawal of Russian border guards from the building, part of an overall withdrawal of Russian border guards from Georgia. Georgian border guards commander Lt Gen Valery Chkheidze charged that Russian officers refusing to accept that Russia had lost another “colony” masterminded the incident.

But while Chkheidze framed the incident as a petty reprisal, the mine incident and other Russian moves against Georgia are better interpreted as a campaign to recover its lost colony. Russia's departing gift was just a small example of the increasing pressure Moscow is exerting on Tbilisi.

In Dagestan and Chechnya, Russia has finally set out to reverse its national retreat. But Russia cannot regain lasting control of the northern Caucasus without the cooperation of the southern Caucasus, and Georgia and Azerbaijan have been anything but cooperative. Moscow has accused both countries of assisting the Chechen rebels by providing a conduit for the movement of people and supplies.

Georgia and Azerbaijan have also made clear their desire for membership in Western European political, economic and military organizations, including Nato. In an October 25 interview with the Financial Times, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze stated his intention to “knock loudly on Nato's door” within five years. Georgia and Azerbaijan are already members—along with Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Moldova—of the decidedly pro-Western GUUAM group, which has grown from an economic alliance to include security cooperation.

Part of that cooperation is already evident in the joint force established to defend the new Baku-Supsa pipeline from Azerbaijan to the Black Sea coast of Georgia. The pipeline and plans for others like it add to Russia's motivation to reassert its influence. The explicit purpose of the Baku-Supsa pipeline and the planned Baku-Ceyhan pipeline through Georgia to Turkey is to create a route for oil from Central Asian countries outside the control of Moscow—posing both an economic and strategic threat to Russia.

Therefore, in conjunction with its campaign in Chechnya, Russia has begun to increase pressure on Georgia. This pressure currently takes three main forms: threatening military intervention on Georgia's border with Chechnya; backing Georgia's three separatist regions, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Ajaria; and finally, supporting the major Georgian opposition party.

First, Russia has explicitly warned Georgia to cease its support for the separatist Chechen government and its armed forces. Russia insisted that, if Georgia does not seal off the 80km border it shares with Chechnya, Russia will. In an October 26 interview with Moskovsky Komsomolets, Lt Gen Gennady Troshev, leader of Russian troops in Chechnya, said Russia would “slam shut” the border in an upcoming operation.

Moscow charges that not only has Georgia provided safe haven and free transit for Chechens in the past, but that hundreds of Chechen guerrillas have mingled with the refugees fleeing into Georgia and are now massing in Georgian territory. Former Georgian Defense Minister Tengiz Kitovani confirmed the Russian accusations, claiming on October 27 that more than 450 armed Chechens were massing in the village of Birkiani, in the Akhmeta district, near the border with Dagestan.

Georgia's Border Guards Department vehemently denied the charges. President Shevardnadze also denied that Georgia allows armed Chechens to transit its territory, but refused to close the border to refugees. If there is any truth to the Birkiani story, Georgia could see a repeat of the Omalo incident, where Russian aircraft “accidentally” bombed a Georgian village en route to targets in Dagestan.

On a second front, Russia is exploiting its influence in the separatist regions of Georgia. In late September, Russia abrogated a bilateral agreement and opened its border with the breakaway region of Abkhazia, providing economic and military opportunities for the region. [ ] Though it temporarily resealed the border in October, Russia reopened it on October 26. Abkhazian leader Vladislav Ardzinba stated his intention to ally with Russia against Georgia and its Nato aspirations. Abkhazia has also reportedly begun taking over facilities and equipment left behind by withdrawing Russian border guards—items that technically should have become the property of the Georgian border guard service.

South Ossetia has also demonstrated an affinity for Russia. President Lyudvig Chibirov told Georgia's Prime-News on October 25 that the region's government fully supported the Russian campaign against “terrorists” in Chechnya. Chibirov said Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is “on the right track”. Chibirov called Putin a “businesslike person” who would likely contribute to the economic recovery of South Ossetia.

Russian border guards also reportedly left behind artillery in the separatist region of Ajaria that has since been taken over by that region's government. Ajaria has been Georgia's greatest bane recently, withholding taxes from the federal government and refusing to allow representatives of the ruling party into the region. Ajarian police also reportedly confiscated and destroyed ruling party campaign materials for the October 31 parliamentary election.

The third part of Russia's campaign in Georgia is concentrated on the upcoming election. Shevardnadze alleged that Russia is financing the opposition Union of Georgia's Democratic Revival, which is headed by Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze. Abashidze is widely seen as pro-Russian, and has supported the Abkhazian government against the Georgian government. Shevardnadze describes the opposition campaign as an attempt to stage a parliamentary coup—not by force of arms, but by bribery, blackmail and threats. The goal, argued Shevardnadze, is to take control of Parliament and subsequently undermine and overthrow the president.

Shevardnadze's accusations are likely more than mere campaign rhetoric: Moscow previously stated its intent to support pro-Russian officials and candidates in the Ukrainian election. In fact, the Russian military commander in the Ajarian capital of Batumi, Maj Gen Vyacheslav Borisov, publicly declared that the opposition Democratic Revival groups would not only win the election, but would proceed to sign a treaty allowing Russia to maintain bases in Georgia for 25-30 years. Georgian officials condemned Borisov's statement as gross interference by Russia in internal affairs and declared the general persona non grata in the country.

Russia has Tbilisi in a difficult position. Georgia's separatist regions are allying with Russia, the major opposition party is Russian-backed and Russia has threatened a combat operation to seal off Georgia's border with Chechnya. The assassination and hostage crisis in Armenia this week only intensifies this pressure. Russia's main ally in the southern Caucasus, Armenia, is now politically destabilized, and has already appealed to Russia for help. The Russian Federal Security Service's elite Alpha commando unit was deployed to Yerevan on October 28, and the pro-Russian Armenian military has issued a public warning to the government that it will not stand idly by while the country's security is threatened. [ ]

In response to events in Chechnya and Armenia, Georgia's State Border Guard Department announced October 28 that it had doubled the number of troops and mobilized all officers along the Armenian border. And although Georgia has tightened control over its border with Azerbaijan, the effort comes as too little, too late. Closing off the Armenian border will not keep Russian influence out of Georgia.

Russia has launched a full campaign to reassert control over the southern Caucasus, and Nato is nowhere near riding to the rescue. Armenia and Georgia are only a foretaste of Russia's strategy for recovery of its lost empire. The campaign does not require Russian armies to roll against its now independent former satellites. Rather, Russia stands ready to bolster its allies in the region and to exploit crises as they arise—or as they are created. The strategy is in place in Georgia and Armenia. Azerbaijan can only be next.