Observers connect one of the reasons for the death (or suicide) of Georgian Security Council Secretary Nugzar Sadzhaya with the preparation of the physical elimination of leader of Adzharia Aslan Abashidze, who is now the personal proxy of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze at negotiations dedicated to the resolving of the Georgian-Abkhazi conflict. It was allegedly the revenge of pro-Russian forces for the intention of Sadzhaya not to let Abashidze resolve the inter-ethnic conflict in the territory of Georgia, which had lasted for ten years. The forces that intend to reduce Russia’s influence in Transcaucasia are harping on this far-fetched accusation. There was no official response of Moscow to this “purely Georgian” incident. Moscow does not need to respond, does it? The death, looking like a suicide, is a mystery, and Russian authorities do not react even to quite obvious things.
Russia did not choose a clearer line in relations with Georgia. Its policy in relations with Tbilisi lacks consistency and predictability. It would seem that Russia’s national interests make it necessary to preserve Russian military presence in Georgia as long as possible. Meanwhile, Russia is making concessions in negotiations on the deadlines for withdrawal of the two remaining Russian military bases in Akhalkalai and Batumi, as well as other facilities of the group of Russian forces in Transcaucasia. Moscow is yielding to Tbilisi. According to sources in the Russian Defense Ministry, Russia is ready to reduce the period of withdrawal of its forces from Georgia. It is known that formerly the matter was about a 15-year period, during which Moscow was ready to withdraw its troops from the country. Henceforth this period may be reduced.
Quite recently it was rumored that Chief of the Russian General Staff Anatoly Kvashnin issued a secret instruction on the disbanding of the Tbilisi garrison by September 2002 as well as the disbanding of the command of the group of Russian forces in Transcaucasia. A few days later, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and other officers of the ministry denied this rumor, stating that the headquarters of the group of Russian forces in Transcaucasia would be reduced, but any withdrawal of forces was out of the question. However, according to available information, Moscow decided to relocate its headquarters from Georgia to Armenia.
There are vague intrigues going on in relation to the possible participation of Russian and American forces in normalization of the situation in the Pankisi Gorge. At this point, there is no certainty too. Representatives of the Russian Foreign Ministry rejected the idea of any possible Russian-American cooperation in this hot spot of Georgia. An anonymous top-ranking source in the Russian Foreign Ministry reports that the solving of the problem of the Pankisi Gorge is in the competence of only Russian and Georgian authorities. “Participation of a third party in issues related to mutual relations between two countries is not required,” add sources in the Foreign Ministry.
In turn, Chief of the General Staff Anatoly Kvashnin says that that participation of the US in the antiterrorist operation in the Pankisi Gorge seems to be unlikely. According to Kvashnin, Russia and Georgia should destroy this center of terrorism in cooperation. Deputy Chair of the Duma Vladimir Lukin agrees with Kvashnin. Lukin, the former Ambassador of Russia to the US, assumes that the US will hardly dare to participate directly in the ousting of militants from the Pankisi Gorge.
Officials of the US Department of State prefer not to say anything definite about this issue. Official spokesperson for the Department of State Richard Boucher says that he has not seen reports about possible joint actions of the US and Russia in the Pankisi Gorge. However, Boucher admits that this region has been causing concern for Washington for a long time.
Meanwhile, admitting presence of Chechen militants in the Pankisi Gorge, the Russian Defense Ministry denies that the Russian Armed Forces may participate in their elimination. Thus, in one of his interviews Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced that, “Georgia is a sovereign country, and it needs to decide on its own how it should act in the struggle against the Chechen militants. With regard to cooperation of the two defense ministries in this respect, I would say that it is not discussed. First of all, we need to maintain contacts on the political level, and it seems that it is better to eliminate the militants not with the army but with special forces.”
Thus, the situation in the Pankisi Gorge remains one of the main sources of concern in the Russian-Georgian dialog. Moscow and Tbilisi admit that the optimism having recently appeared about normalization of bilateral relations, associated with the successful course of negotiations on signing of a framework friendship treaty, will acquire real grounds only after stabilization of the situation on the border between the countries. Moscow understands that it is impossible to stabilize the situation quickly. Moreover, since an inter-ethnic conflict may begin in the territory of the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia. It is known that the majority of its population is made up of Moslem Chechen-Kists, many of which say in the open that they are wahhabis. Villages populated with Christian Georgians are located around the gorge.
Chechen villages are overpopulated. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, there is evidence of drug storage there for further shipment to Turkey, Russia and other countries. Militants from Chechnya are moving to the Pankisi Gorge illegally. According to Ivanov, there are about 150 militants in the area. Hence, Moscow is strengthening the Chechen part of the Russian-Georgian border. Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Kosovan, director of the department for construction and deployment of troops, says that the main allocations to the military for construction in Chechnya will be spent on engineering work on border facilities along the border with Georgia.
Departing from Russia, Georgia is striving for contacts with the US and NATO. Spending only about 1% of GDP on defense, Tbilisi is actually building up its armed forces on account of sponsorship of the West. When US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Tbilisi in mid-December of 2001, he promised expanded military technological assistance to Georgia. A contract for transfer of ten Iroquois military cargo helicopters by the Pentagon to the Georgian Air Force free of charge is one example of such assistance. The value of the deal is estimated at $15 million. This sum includes the value of helicopters and costs of training of 34 Georgian pilots and technicians in the US. At the first stage, these helicopters can defend air borders of Georgia. The helicopters can be armed with heavy machine guns, as well as air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles.
Turkey also adjusted the military airfield in Marneuli in Georgia for NATO standards. The airfield can receive any type of airplane, including fighters and heavy bombers. When this facility becomes operational, NATO will be able to arrange its military bases in Transcaucasia.
All these events show that Russia is losing its geopolitical influence in Transcaucasia. Moscow is willing to separate itself from Georgia with borders. However, everyone understands that this is not a solution for the problem. Moreover, since Georgia is actually divided into separate uncontrollable territories and is a potential center of conflicts in the region. If Russia holds back from solving the relevant problems, the US and NATO will take part in their solution. Does Russia need this?