A new bilateral security pact between the United States and Georgia has provoked an outcry in Moscow. Some Russian officials say the accord, which gives US military personnel broad privileges in Georgia, threatens the strategic balance in the Caucasus. Already, the agreement has injected a new element of hostility into Georgian-Russian relations.
The Georgian parliament ratified the bilateral agreement on defense cooperation in late March. Since then Russian government officials have kept up a steady stream of invective against the pact. Under the agreement's provisions, US military personnel are allowed visa-free entry and exit from Georgia, are permitted to carry weapons and are immune from prosecution in Georgian courts. The agreement also grants the US military to deploy hardware without impediments on Georgian territory.
Georgia, perhaps the weakest state in the Caucasus, has emerged in recent years as a center of geopolitical competition between the United States and Russia, which are both interested in establishing a controlling influence in the resource-rich Caspian Basin. Both Washington and Moscow have a military presence in Georgia. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In Tbilisi, President Eduard Shevardnadze's administration does not conceal its desire to diminish Russia's influence over Georgia and integrate the country into the Western security framework. Accordingly, Shevardnadze has been one of the staunchest supporters of the Bush administration's Iraq policy. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The Russian government, meanwhile, has been a fierce critic of US military action in Iraq. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The pact has yet to produce any concrete consequences for Russian security interests. Nevertheless, Russian officials see the US-Georgian pact as a continuation of what for Moscow is a disturbing trend. Since the September 11 terrorist attacks the United States has dramatically increased its strategic presence at Russia's expense in countries that were formerly republics in the Soviet Union. Alexander Shabanov, chairman of the Russian parliament's Committee on Geopolitical Affairs, said the US-Georgian pact confirms Washington's desire to expand its global reach. "This agreement seriously upsets the balance of forces in the [Caucasus] region and poses a treat to international security," Shabanov told a news conference April 15.
The previous day, the Interfax news agency carried the text of a Russian Foreign Ministry report that questioned the motives behind the US-Georgian pact. "What are the reasons for such sudden military activity in the Caucasus region, which is sensitive from the point of view of Russia's security?" the document reads. "If it is counterterrorism, it would be logical to include Russia in the decision-making process. If such actions are taken without Moscow, it causes very understandable questions and concerns."
Earlier the Russian parliament drafted a resolution that characterized the US-Georgian cooperation agreement as detrimental to Moscow's relations with Tbilisi. The State Duma resolution specifically cited the possibility of US military involvement in Georgia's separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Parliament Speaker Nino Burdjanadze described the draft as interference in Georgia's internal affairs. Georgia Foreign Minister Irakly Menagarishvili, according to the RIA news agency, said that Russia's "attempts of political pressure would not change" Georgia's strategic policies.
Russian military officials have echoed the complaints of the country's political leaders. "The position of the Russian Defense Ministry is that privileges for US military and civilian personnel in Georgia do not contribute to friendship and cooperation between Russia and Georgia," Anatoly Kvashnin, chief of the general staff, said in a letter to the Duma, according to Interfax. Officials in Moscow specifically complained about the fact that the US-Georgian agreement extended to American military personnel rights that are not enjoyed by Russian troops in Georgia.
Russian criticism of the cooperation agreement comes just weeks after Moscow protested US surveillance flights in Georgia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The Russian Foreign Ministry said the U-2 missions "provoke additional tension in a region that is sensitive from the viewpoint of Russia's security interests."
Tbilisi has expressed its displeasure with Russia's stance. On April 7, Shevardnadze said in a radio interview that Georgia would not mark the 220th anniversary of Georgievsky Union Treaty with Russia, although he conceded that the treaty helped preserve the Georgian nation. At the same time, the Georgian president sought to strike a conciliatory note, stating that Georgia would not agree to host a permanent US military base on its soil. He also said the agreement was not intended to pose a security threat to Russia.
The US-Georgian pact is just one of many points of tension in Georgian-Russian relations. Prior to the start of the US military campaign in Iraq, relations between Tbilisi and Moscow had appeared to stabilize. At a summit meeting in earlier March, Russian President Vladimir Putin reassured Shevardnadze that Russia respected Georgia's territorial integrity. The two leaders also probed, albeit unsuccessfully, for a breakthrough in efforts to conclude a political settlement of the Abkhazia issue. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archives].
Now tension again appears to be on the rise. Besides the US-Georgian strategic relationship, a major source of confrontation between Tbilisi and Moscow is the ongoing instability of Georgia's Pankisi Gorge. Russia has long accused Georgia of permitting Chechen fighters the use of the Pankisi Gorge as a safe haven. Yet another serious difference between Moscow and Tbilisi is the future of Russian military bases in Georgia. Recent efforts to negotiate a timetable for the withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgia have proved futile. Russia seeks to withdraw over an 11-year span, while Georgia insists that a full withdrawal should take no more than four years. Moreover, now Tbilisi seeks hefty payments, upwards of $700 million per year, in exchange for Russian basing rights.
Despite the various disputes, Moscow seemingly is trying to maintain a dialogue. On April 8, Valery Loschinin, Russia's deputy foreign minister and Putin's special envoy on Abkhazia, met Georgia's deputy foreign minister, Merab Antadze. They reportedly discussed ways to jump start the Abkhazia peace process. According to a Russian Foreign Ministry statement, Loschinin and Antadze pledged to convene working groups later in April.
Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based specialist in CIS political affairs.