The fallout from the September 11 terrorist attacks is spreading to the Caucasus. After years of uneasy peace, Georgia and Abkhazian separatists are mobilizing to resume their bitter conflict. Georgian officials are accusing Russia of fomenting unrest, and President Eduard Shevardnadze is considering pulling Georgia out of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Russian leaders, meanwhile, say the Georgian government has lost control of the country, an ominous indicator that Russian forces may intervene in the brewing conflict.
Tension in Georgia has rapidly escalated since September 11. On October 3, Georgian guerrillas, reportedly aided by Chechen fighters, raided a village in Abkhazia, resulting in at least five deaths. Five days later, unknown assailants shot down a UN Observer helicopter, killing all nine people aboard. On October 9, jets bombed areas of the Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia. Georgian officials say they had radio intercepts that "clearly indicate" Russian responsibility for the raids. Abkhazian leaders blamed Georgia for the attacks, and took steps toward a general mobilization of separatist military forces. Georgian defense officials countered on October 11 by ordering troops to the Kodori Gorge. Tbilisi has portrayed the bombing as a "large-scale anti-Georgian provocation."
According to an Interfax news agency report October 10, up to 700 fresh Georgian and Chechen renegades have moved into the Kodori Gorge region. Abkhazian officials say the joint force includes Georgian Interior Ministry units, adding that its mission appears to be the rescue of up to 200 Georgian-Chechen renegades now reportedly surrounded by Abkhazian military units.
Russia, which denies its jets were involved in the Kodori Gorge bombing, has expressed grave concern about the increasing violence and over the involvement of Chechen fighters. Recent statements by top Russian officials appear aimed at laying the groundwork for possible Russian military operations in Georgia. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced October 10 that Russia had reinforced its forces stationed along the Russian-Georgian border. Earlier, Ivanov said "it is becoming obvious that either Georgian leaders do not control the situation on their own territory, or they manipulate [Chechen] terrorists in order to further their own aims," the ITAR-TASS news agency reported.
Leading Russian politicians, including Union of Rightist Forces chief Boris Nemtsov, have said recent developments in Georgia justify a continued Russian military presence in Georgia. Russian peacekeepers are in Abkhazia, and Moscow also maintains military bases in Georgia, including a facility at Gudauta in Abkhazia. Russia was scheduled to hand the base over to Georgia in July, but so far has not made good on its commitment.
Russia has long accused Georgia of providing Chechen separatists with a safe-haven in the Pankisi Gorge, near the Georgian frontier with Chechnya. Georgian officials have denied that Chechen militants have large-scale resupply and logistics bases on Georgian territory. Since September 11, Moscow has stepped up its pressure on Tbilisi to tighten its control over the Pankisi Gorge. Some Kremlin officials have spoken publicly of a need for Russian military units to occupy the Pankisi Gorge to better ensure Russia's security. [For background information see the Eurasia Insight archives].
The current upheaval in Georgia stands to benefit Russian strategic objectives in the Caucasus in two ways. First, it provides the Russian military with a pretext to move into Georgian territory in pursuit of Chechen militants, should Moscow desire to do so. The Russian government has linked Chechen militants with international terrorist groups, including Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, and, since September 11, has stepped up military efforts to wipe out Chechen fighters.
Secondly, instability in Georgia stands to dash hopes for the construction of the US-backed Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, which would bring energy resources from the Caspian Basin to Turkey via Georgia. A rival pipeline from Kazakhstan to the Russian port of Novorossisk opened October 1. If Baku-Ceyhan cannot be built, Russia would effectively remain the gatekeeper of energy export routes in the Caspian Basin, thereby exerting considerable influence over geopolitical developments in the region.
Shevardnadze's government has sought to distance Georgia from Russia, but its plans have been undermined by the weakness of Georgian state institutions, as well as by persistent economic and social disorder. For example, Georgian military units mutinied this past summer in part because of a drastic funding shortfall. [For additional background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Widespread corruption also hampers the formulation and implementation of government policy.
Sources in Tbilisi said that Georgian government bodies, including the foreign ministry, were in a state of total confusion. Officials in Tbilisi, according to one source, at present have no way of obtaining timely and reliable information about developments in Abkhazia.
Abkhazian separatists, who were tacitly supported by Russia, gained de facto independence during their 1992-93 war against Georgian government forces. The conflict created hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) placing an enormous burden on Georgia's social infrastructure. The United Nations helped broker a truce in 1993, but efforts to reach a political settlement to Abkhazia's status proved futile. A UN Observer Mission has monitored Abkhazia since 1993. A CIS peacekeeping force, dominated by Russian troops, has also been deployed in the region. Nevertheless, conditions in the region have remained volatile since 1993.
On October 11, about 1,000 IDPs participated in a demonstration in Tbilisi, called ostensibly to denounce Russian actions in Georgia. Addressing the crowd, Shevardnadze said he would consider asking for the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers because they have "proved incapable of fulfilling their mission." He went on to raise the possibility that Georgia may opt out of the CIS altogether.
Georgia's ability to break ranks with Russia will doubtless be difficult as long as Russian troops remain in Georgia. State Security Minister Vakhtang Kutateladze said Moscow is seeking to exploit the upheaval in Abkhazia to maintain a military presence in Georgia. "The development of the situation in Abkhazia will in many respects determine the fate of the Gudauta base," Kutateladze told Georgian television.
Justin Burke is the editor of EurasiaNet.