Officials in Georgia are bracing for a potentially rapid escalation of tension throughout the Caucasus following the Beslan hostage tragedy. Many Georgians, civilians and authorities alike, believe the Kremlin is capable of lashing out at Tbilisi as part of an attempt to relieve the Russian public's rage over the high death toll in Beslan. Officials in Tbilisi are also concerned about the possibility of Georgia becoming embroiled in inter-ethnic strife in Russia's North Caucasus region.
Since the 1991 Soviet collapse, Georgian-Russian relations have been marked by rancor. The latest flare-up of bilateral tension revolved around Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's recent attempts to restore Tbilisi's authority over the breakaway region of South Ossetia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The September 3 shoot-out between hostage-takers and Russian security forces left at least 350 people dead, many of them children in the North Ossetian town of Beslan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Saakashvili's immediate reaction to the tragedy was to adopt a sympathetic and conciliatory stance towards Moscow, seeking to reduce the chances of Russia trying to vent pent-up frustration on Georgia.
Moscow has accused Chechen warlords Aslan Maskhadov and Shamil Basayev of masterminding the Beslan hostage taking. Moscow's efforts to exact revenge against Chechen militants could possibly entangle Georgia, as Russian officials have complained in the past that Georgia provided a safe haven for Chechens. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In a clear effort to reassure Russian that Georgia is committed to containing Islamic radicalism, Saakashvili has proposed the establishment of a joint anti-terrorism center. However, many Georgian experts believe that Tbilisi's efforts to forge greater cooperation with Moscow stand little chance of achieving the desired result.
Russia has not responded to the Saakashvili's offer, and the initial signs suggest that lingering Russian hostility towards Georgia may not soon dissipate. One sign of Moscow's ire was the detention by Russian authorities of two Georgian journalists as they tried to cover Beslan developments. The two journalists were released from on September 8 after spending five days in custody for allegedly entering Russian territory improperly. In addition, Russian authorities reportedly searched the guest house of the Georgian embassy in Moscow as part of a security sweep, Georgian and Russian media outlets reported.
There are considerable grounds for concern in Georgia. Russian defense officials announced September 8 that Moscow reserved the right to carry out "preventative strikes" against potential terrorist bases. That pronouncement would seem to pave the way for a Russian raid on Georgian territory, in particular in the Pankisi Gorge, a region that has accommodated thousands of Chechen refugees and where Islamic radicals have reportedly operated training facilities. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Some Georgian analysts say Tbilisi should try to prepare for a worst-case scenario. Many believe Georgian officials should appeal to Western governments and international organizations, the OSCE in particular, to increase monitoring of the Georgian-Russian border, including the frontier in South Ossetia. Tbilisi should also seek to raise awareness in the West about the escalating security threats in the Caucasus.
Such efforts may not be sufficient to protect Georgia against a possible Russian backlash over the near term, observers in Georgia admit. The limits of Tbilisi's available resources are such that there is little that Georgian officials can do to deter potential Russian unilateral military action. Likewise, Georgian experts aren't expecting the West to take rapid action on the border monitoring issue. An increase in international monitoring would likely not be welcomed by Russia, which has vigorously sought to guard its dominating role over regional peacekeeping initiatives.
Even if Russia takes no aggressive action against Georgia, experts in Tbilisi say their country is at risk of getting dragged into a potential North Caucasus conflict, such as one pitting Ossetians against Ingush. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The Russian newspaper Kommersant Daily quoted former Ingush leader Ruslan Aushev as saying that Ossetians were heavily armed, adding that local militia groups in Beslan contributed to the chaos during the September 3 shoot-out. These militia groups reportedly operated beyond the control of Russian authorities, and possibly even hampered operations by Russian special forces, Aushev indicated. A potential outbreak of inter-ethnic violence in the North Caucasus, especially if it involves Ossetians, could create a scenario in which militia groups use South Ossetia as a safe haven. That, in turn, could force Tbilisi to become involved.
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.