The United States plans to send military advisors to Georgia this year as part of its global dragnet against terrorism. But Russian incursions are making the region even harder to navigate. Russian ground forces entered the Kodori Gorge, a Georgian stronghold in the breakaway Abkhazia region, on the morning of April 12. Sources in the Georgian Border Guards say that Georgian troops drove a Russian armored vehicle to the Kodora valley in response. What happened next is a matter of some dispute, but all sides agree that the last helicopter carrying Russian soldiers departed the gorge on April 14.
Russia appears interested in testing how far it can extend its influence into Georgia without raising international and American objections. Government sources in Georgia say the United Nations is trying to downplay the extent of Russia's recent border violation. Press reports suggested that fewer than 100 Russians entered the gorge: these sources claim that as many as 500 Russian infantry troops, including ground troops and at least six helicopters, crossed the Russia-Georgia border.
After a carefully orchestrated withdrawal of 300 Georgian troops that ended on April 10, some wonder whether Russia timed its operation to send a warning. Several Georgian journalists fear that Georgian soldiers who receive counter-terrorism training from American and allied troops will develop a false sense of security about how to deal with well-armed separatists and their Russian supporters. Some suspect that US troops' real mission is to train the Georgians for the eventual retaking of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by force - a course which would directly challenge Russia's influence in the Caucasus. [For more information, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Officially, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and all associated players have promised to reach political settlements with the breakaway regions. Dominique Indjoudjian, Senior Political Advisor to the United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia, told EurasiaNet on April 5 that "although our mission in Georgia is technically defined as a military one, we are in fact unarmed observers. We have been very effective in the difficult task that has been assigned." He did not answer the question of whether Georgia would attack breakaway regions under the antiterrorism rubric. Terrorist threats are hard to document - UN special envoy Dieter Boden could not find any trace of al Qaeda in the Pankisi gorge as of April 5 - but they are also hard to dismiss. Indjoudjian, supporting Boden's conclusion, reminded EurasiaNet that the UN's search cannot prove "that they [the terrorists] do not exist but only that we have not found any documented evidence of their existence in Abkhazia."
Like the dispersal of terrorists, the range of nationalities in the South Caucasus can be confusing. Confidential sources within the Georgian military claim that upwards of 10-12 Turkish nationals are recruited and sent to Chechnya to assist the rebels each month. A EurasiaNet contributor personally witnessed three foreign nationals departing Tbilisi Airport with Georgian passports in 2001; the passengers - who spoke neither Russian nor Georgian - claimed in English that they were from an Azeri-speaking enclave within Georgia. Later, at the airport in Istanbul, they had a drink with the contributor and said that were in fact from Saudi Arabia and had spent several months in the border region. The quoted pay rate for foreign nationals in the Chechen conflict, they claimed, was "350 dollars per day."
On the other side, reports indicate that the Georgian government has worked to support Chechen rebels. A high-ranking Russian member of an international monitoring organization who frequents a Turkish bar in Tbilisi has been heard discussing border incidents and blind gaps on the Russian-Georgian border with members of Georgian Security Agencies and members of the Georgian Border Guards. Moreover, OSCE staff members are said to process physical evidence [paraphernalia] of Turkish military origin. Some observers believe that this, taken together with other evidence and documentation, indicates that a well-established weapons transit system has been organized through Georgia, which is likely to be closely linked with the Georgian Security Agencies.
Intrigue seems to flow toward Russia as well. Akaki Gogichaishvili, producer and anchor of the popular Georgian Rustavi 2 investigative TV program "60 Minutes," told EurasiaNet on April 6 that he had seen hidden-camera footage of "a Georgian general trading arms with Chechens in the Pankisi Gorge." It is well established that several high-ranking Georgian officers are former members of Soviet intelligence as KGB and GRU (Military Intelligence). Gogichaishvili tells EurasiaNet that the General caught on film names his source for arms as a Russian military detachment in Tskhinvali [South Ossetia].
He also says that Zaza Mazmishvili, Head of the Georgian Military Counterintelligence, backs his activities. "We have credible sources saying that this General - Tristan Tsitelashvili - has long been working for the Ministry of National Security as an agent in arms dealings," insists the producer. "He has also been involved in kidnapping people. In fact, in the material shot with the hidden camera, he discusses details of how he will kidnap a Georgian businessman. He has not been even interrogated on the issue. We tried many ways, but no governmental structure is taking any action. It looks like we have touched the very top of an iceberg, but so far we can't go any deeper." (The program has made a campaign of this charge: on April 14, it interviewed a Chechen, Ayub Paikayev, who claimed that Tsitelashvili threatened his life because he had heard the general talk about his role.)
The region is so lawless that even Tengiz Gagloev, President of the Association of Ossetians in Georgia, says his cause's "immediate problems must take second place to the larger issues facing the region." The current instability, spiked with concern over the imminent arrival of American forces, is giving separatist leaders a common cause. Many separatists see the Russians as the friend who can best protect them from a militant central government. Defense Minister Davit Tevzadze warned on national TV on March 26 that "the one reason that Americans may not arrive is that the Russians will make some kind of provocation in the disputed regions of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and even in Pankisi."
The one player who might defuse interwoven tensions between Russia, Georgia and the United States, meanwhile, looks like Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze. Jaba Ioseliani, former leader of the Mkhedrioni militia, expects Shevardnadze himself to select Abashidze as "a go-between in trying to negotiate with the Russians and the separatists." Because Abashidze did not join the brutal fighting in Georgia's 1992 civil war, says Ioseliani, he may have more leverage with Moscow than other figures. But many Georgian Abkhazians, including Tamaz Nadareishvili of Abkhazia's government-in-exile, would consider the hand of Abashidze a blot on any negotiated independence. And even if he can forge progress, the arrival of American advisors could loose a new wave of troubles.
Jeffrey Silverman is a senior writer for the Georgian Times, an English-language newspaper in Tbilisi.