Russia, post-Beslan, has gone on the hunt for culprits, and in its sights, many Georgian observers fear, lies Georgia. While talk of preemptive strikes against suspected terrorist bases in third countries rumbles out of the Kremlin, old complaints that terrorists roam the Pankisi Gorge, the narrow strip of land bordering Georgia and Chechnya, are being recirculated. Rebuffing the claims, Georgia, in response, has gone looking for friends. But so far, despite the West's warm relationship with President Mikheil Saakashvili, no firm international ally has been found.
A surprise announcement from Georgia's most influential ally, the United States, was the first sign that Western governments would play their cards carefully in siding with Tbilisi over Moscow. At a September 13 press briefing, Ambassador Richard Miles told reporters that the US believes that "there are still a few international terrorists in the vicinity of the Pankisi Gorge." Although the State Department has since twice disavowed the statement, for Georgian officials an unpleasant aftertaste from this affair lingers on.
With an election year on, Washington appears to be hedging its bets in response to Russia's get-tough rhetoric. While Secretary of State Colin Powell has termed Kremlin reforms that would concentrate political power in Moscow "a step back from democracy," the White House's promotion of an all-out, global war on terror means that it can hardly fail to support other countries' intentions to combat perceived terrorist threats.
That leaves Europe, but, here, too, overt signs of support have been minimal. On a September 16 trip to Tbilisi, European Commission President Romano Prodi stated that the European Union would refrain from taking any direct political actions in the South Caucasus to resolve territorial disputes. Instead, in an interview with RFE/RL, he emphasized that the EU, as a "strong, independent" friend of Russia, can help resolve conflicts in the Caucasus, but not with a unilateral hand. Russia, he maintained, has no interest in destabilizing the region.
Meanwhile, Moscow has begun to turn threats into actions, cracking down on Georgian bus routes to Russia to achieve what the government terms "parity of transport," and pledging to prevent Georgian commercial airlines from using Russian airspace unless $3.6 million in debts are paid. While Russia has denied that these moves constitute an economic blockade, the online news site Civil Georgia reported on September 21 that 40 Georgian citizens had been detained at a Moscow airport for "visa irregularities."
Left to its own devices, Georgia is likely to tone down its war of words with Russia. In remarks to journalists in New York on September 20, President Mikheil Saakashvili stressed that Georgia would not be "confrontational" with Russia, but would also not accommodate Russian positions that contradict Georgian national interests, Civil Georgia reported. Saakshvili is expected to outline Georgia's position on the two breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two longstanding sore points with Russia, when he addresses the United Nations General Assembly on September 21. Also on the table for discussion with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan will be options for restoring Georgia's voting rights in the UN a potentially critical international source of assistance which were suspended on June 30 for nonpayment of $6 million in membership fees.
Already, good-faith gestures toward Moscow are in the works. The same day that Georgian passengers were detained in Moscow, Georgia's Interior Ministry and Security Ministry troops began an "inspection" of the Pankisi Gorge, Civil Georgia reported. While dismissing Moscow's claims that terrorists lurk in the valley as "disinformation," officials announced plans for a 24hour patrol of the gorge, home to hundreds of Chechen refugees.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania has expressed willingness to meet South Ossetian separatist leader Eduard Kokoitu under terms proposed by the Russian Foreign Ministry. After a trip by Kokoitu to Moscow, talks have been tentatively scheduled for late September or early October in the Russian Black Sea resort town of Sochi, The Georgian Messenger, an Englishlanguage daily, reported on September 21. At the same time, despite recent Georgian allegations of violations of their airspace by Russian military aircraft, the two countries plan to hold talks in October on ways to prevent border crossings by illegally armed groups.
"We are ready to become a strategic partner [for] Russia," National Security Council Chairman Gela Bezhuashvili told reporters after a heated exchange between Putin and Saakashvili on September 16 at a meeting of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Astana, Kazakhstan. It's a line that's been heard out of Tbilisi before. And for all the attempts at good-will building, the question remains: how long will it last?
Jaba Devdariani is a Human Rights Officer with the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina and a longtime journalist in Georgia. This commentary does not reflect the views of the OSCE.