Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze attempted to stake out an aggressive diplomatic stance after planes coming from Russian airspace bombed Georgia's Pankisi Gorge on November 27. But after backpedaling in the face of Russian denials of responsibility for the bombing, he appears to be in a weaker position than ever.
Shevardnadze met Russian President Vladimir Putin at the CIS Summit in Moscow on November 30, and many observers in Tbilisi expected he would challenge Putin to apologize for the raid. Instead, Putin denied Russia had anything to do with the incident, and Shevardnadze gave a muddled response. The exchange served as yet another demonstration of Russia's power over Georgia, a country engulfed by economic and political turmoil. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives].
The Shevardnadze-Putin meeting could have been a confrontation. For the first time, the Georgian president had the US State Department's open support, and facts warranted a strong accusation. "Unidentified" aircraft violating Georgian airspace have become routine for Georgian politicians and reporters. Military-looking planes normally fly over the restive territories of the Pankisi Gorge, which borders the Chechnya war zone, and the Kodori Gorge, Georgia's enclave in the breakaway province of Abkhazia.
After witnesses saw helicopters over the Pankisi Gorge on November 27, US State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher took the unusual step of scolding Russia in a statement. "We have some confirmation that there were helicopters that entered Georgian air space from Russian territory, " Boucher stated, expressing the Bush Administration's "deep concern." This language, from an avowed ally of Putin's, seemed to give Shevardnadze clearance to protest. Indeed, even as Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov was denying his involvement, Shevardnadze was promising to complain to Putin "with all harshness" at the Moscow meeting. Instead, Putin declared Russia blameless and disputed whether the bombings ever had occurred.
Shevardnadze offered almost no rebuttal. Had he wanted to, Shevardnadze could have pressed certain points. Georgian state television cited marks left by the violating aircraft on Georgia's civil aviation radar screens, clearly indicating the route from and to Russia. Ivanov told the press on November 29 that "Russian aircraft can not technically fly sorties at night."
Russian media noted with amazement that high-ranking officials of the Russian Defense Ministry had boasted only days earlier of successful night airstrikes against Chechen militants just a few miles north of Pankisi. Yet despite all the technical and political support available to back him, President Shevardnadze attempted to protect Putin. At a post-CIS Summit press conference, the Georgian leader said that "some forces" in Russia initiated the bombardment without the Russian President being aware of them.
Chaotic domestic political conditions clearly undermined Shevardnadze's ability to press Putin. The Georgian president's authority remains fragile after he sacked his cabinet in early November following student protests over a state raid of a TV station. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archives].
Putin, supporting creation of the joint commission to investigate the case, needled Shevardnadze by suggesting that Georgian authorities exercise only a limited control over the Pankisi Gorge region. After noting the lack of civilian casualties in the November 27 incident, Putin advanced his own agenda by evoking a lawless Chechnya: "Part of the Georgian territory is occupied by the terrorists," he said, who "poison our [CIS] nations."
Shevardnadze appeared to play along with Putin's effort to dress the incident as an argument for a strong Russia. After emerging from a private meeting with Shevardnadze, Putin toned down his rhetoric and spoke of a "constructive dialogue" with his Georgian counterpart. Shevardnadze began referring to Russian involvement in bombings as a "rumor" and effectively apologized for raising the issue. "We [Georgians] are hot-tempered people," Shevardnadze said, "and when the rumors spread on Russia bombing the [Pankisi] Gorge there was discontent in the media and parliament."
Shevardnadze may have heard evidence from Putin, or he may simply have decided that it would be too risky to anger Russia. Shevardnadze may have sound reasons to choose this approach. For one thing, independent experts note that Russia may have sufficient proof that at least some Chechen guerrillas are still in Georgia. President Shevardnadze himself had admitted possible presence of "some ex-combatants" on Georgian territory early November.
Andranik Migranyan, a relatively hawkish political analyst, told the Russian Internet magazine "Strana.ru" on November 29 that "if Chechen terrorists will continue to be present on [Georgia's] territory, then Russia - like the United States - has the legal right to render strikes on terrorists wherever they may reside." With the Bush administration promising international vengeance on "terrorists and those who harbor them," Shevardnadze cannot risk looking sympathetic to guerillas.
Furthermore, President Putin made it clear that he would link Shevardnadze's complaints to the Georgian president's internal political vulnerability. Putin told reporters that he was following closely recent political turmoil in Georgia and is "content" that Shevardnadze managed to keep it "under control."
So the real mystery is what Shevardnadze will do next. His actions during the CIS summit may invite speculation that he simply backed down in the face of Putin's strength. If so, he is not likely to receive a warm reception back in Georgia.
Jaba Devdariani is a founding director of the United Nations Association of Georgia (www.una.org.ge) and Research Director of the UNAs program for applied research.