For embattled Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, his recent summit meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin may represent a step forward, followed by two steps backwards. Shevardnadze secured some breathing space by making several concessions to Russia, including agreeing to joint border patrols. Yet the Georgian leader's maneuverings are already being assailed by prominent domestic political opponents, and could create more problems for the Georgian leader than they solve.
Shevardnadze touted the meeting with Putin, held in the Moldovan capital Chisinau in advance of a CIS summit, as a "breakthrough" in Georgian-Russian relations. The two countries have feuded over several issues, especially Georgia's inability to prevent Chechen militants from using Georgian territory as a safe haven from which they launch raids into neighboring Chechnya. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives].
In addition to allowing joint border patrols, Shevardnadze pledged that Georgia would work with Russia to jointly establish a diplomatic framework to address border issues. And prior to the Chisinau summit, Shevardnadze agreed to extradite alleged Chechen fighters in Georgian custody to Russia. Five Chechens were handed over to Russian authorities on October 4.
An immediate benefit of Shevardnadze's concessions was a Putin announcement that the Russian president's September 11 ultimatum in which he threatened that Moscow might resort to unilateral military action on Georgian soil [for background see the Eurasia Insight archive] would be rescinded, provided that Georgia upheld its Chisinau commitments.
But over the medium term Shevardnadze's Chisinau compromise may unsettle the domestic political atmosphere. In recent months, amid the drastic deterioration of Georgian-Russian relations, Shevardnadze has tread a fine line between Moscow and his domestic political opponents in his effort to retain a hold on power in Tbilisi. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Following Putin's September 11 ultimatum, Georgia's domestic opposition leaders rallied around Shevardnadze. That goodwill now seems to have dissipated in the wake of the Shevardnadze-Putin meeting. Opposition leaders are condemning the Chisinau concessions, saying they mark a drastic diplomatic retreat that endangers Georgian sovereignty. "After Chisinau, Shevardnadze completely lost whatever support he had in the opposition," said Akaki Asatiani, the leader of the Traditionalist Party.
Mikhail Saakashvili, head of the National Movement, employed soccer terminology in evaluating the Chisinau meeting, saying Shevardnadze had scored an "own goal." The Georgian president's deal to permit joint border patrols "effectively means that Russians will have a full right to cross the border and undertake military operations on our territory," Saakashvili said. "This is truly defeatist approach." Former parliament chairman Zurab Zhvania, another leading Shevardnadze critic, echoed Saakashvili's stance.
Meanwhile, Asatiani and others criticized the president's decision to extradite Chechens in Georgian custody. In general, opposition leaders expressed skepticism that the summit would promote stability, with some pointing to a reported violation of Georgian airspace by a suspected Russian helicopter on October 7. "It is really amazing to hear the president [Shevardnadze] calling this summit historical," Asatiani said.
Shevardnadze's actions have not only alienated many prominent Georgian politicians, but they have also enraged the Chechen leadership. The self-styled Chechen foreign ministry issued a statement that warned Shevardnadze's administration not to extradite Chechens to Russia. "By taking such actions, the Georgian leadership is not only openly flouting international norms, but also is making a tragic mistake that could have irreparable consequences," the Chechens said in the October 7 statement.
The same day, the European Court of Human Rights urged Georgia to suspend the extradition of Chechens, saying such action could violate human rights norms. Legal representatives of some of detainees argue that the Chechens face possible torture if they are handed over to Russian authorities. Georgian officials indicated that they would honor the court's request, at least until October 14. The Russian Foreign Ministry condemned the European court decision, calling it "politically motivated."
Some political observers suggest Shevardnadze could use the court decision to backtrack on his extradition pledge. Such a move might allay opposition criticism, but it surely would provoke outrage in Moscow.
Shevardnadze and other officials in Tbilisi insist that they will honor the Chisinau commitments. At the same time, they have already started to qualify what they agreed to. For example, Georgia's National Security Council Secretary Tedo Japaridze stressed that Georgia's willingness to permit joint border patrols did not mean that it would sanction the conduct of joint military operations against suspected Chechen fighters. Russian defense officials have long sought to mount joint operations, and it remains to be seen whether Moscow will be satisfied with Georgia's interpretation of the Chisinau agreement.
Few political leaders in Tbilisi expect Russian pressure on Georgia to cease any time soon. Asatiani suggested it was merely a matter of time before Georgian-Russian relations deteriorate further. Even if "Russia becomes convinced of the uselessness of open aggression, the Kremlin will move to a more latent [form of pressure]," Asatiani said.
Giorgi Kandelaki is a senior at the Department of Political Science at Tbilisi State University. He is a member of the Youth Atlantic Council of Georgia.